If you are struggling to finish basic tasks, take a moment to breathe, or even shower alone because your toddler just cannot seem to entertain themselves independently for any length of time, you my friend are not alone. While some young toddlers and young children are naturally inclined to play, tinker, and read independently for long stretches, some kids need a bit more support to learn how to play independently.

Maybe your toddler has dropped naps and needs quiet time, or maybe you need a few minutes of quiet time to sip a cup of coffee while it’s still hot. Whatever your reason, we know that kids who can play independently are more resilient problem solvers as they grow and it is an essential skill to teach and nurture.

After years of education and working with toddlers in preschool classrooms and raising my own four very unique toddlers, I’ve come up with these tips to support your toddler to increase their ability to play independently. The goal is to find joy and confidence in a short burst of time alone that will stretch into longer windows of time. The results will be a happier and more confident kid.

1- Create a safe and supportive space

Less is actually more here. Toddlers easily become overwhelmed and distracted by an abundance of toys and options for play. A toy room or bedroom that is toddler safe and has just a few independent play-friendly activities is ideal. This may be your push to declutter and scale back on the toy room chaos— if that doesn’t feel manageable right now, that is a-okay too. Take a look around and carve out a small play space that is low-stimulation, maybe a small nook, corner of an existing space, etc. there is no right or wrong, but you need a space. Remove electronics with the exception of soft and calming music.

In warmer weather this space may even be outside. A sandpit with a clear boundary or a small patio are great spaces.

2- Provide a mix of structured and open-ended activities.

While a curated assignment or project for play is great for distraction and skill-building, there is also a tremendous amount of skill building in being able to play without direction and a prescribed activity. But having a non-stop parade of curated activities that to keep your toddler busy all day isn’t actually teaching them how to self-entertain and play independently.

To start you could have one structured activity and two open-ended materials (open-ended meaning there isn’t a right and wrong way to use them… blocks, toy animals, magnetic tiles are all open ended materials– more below). You can tweak to add or remove ideas as you uncover what is working and what isn’t. But keep in mind toddlers don’t actually get “bored” of toys and games as much as they get overwhelmed and distracted.

Structured Play Ideas:

We love this sticker-matching idea from the Busy Toddler for a super quick, low-prep activity for toddlers.

Open-Ended Play Ideas:

  • Indoor Ideas
    • a box of blocks and a small bin of animals
    • a small stack of paper and a pack of chunky crayons (unless you have a muralist)
    • 2-3 board books, at least one familiar
  • Outside Ideas:
    • trucks and sand toys in a sandbox
    • sidewalk chalk in a boundary marked space (make a large box with chalk to start as one option to create a “boundary”

3- Set Reasonable and Clear Boundaries and Expectations (for both of you)

Your child won’t jump right into playing for 45 minutes while you catch up on work if they currently require your full eye contact and body contact. Communicate what each of you will be working on during your “work time” (or call it whatever you want) and a set amount of time it will last. Ensure you provide check-ins at the established time intervals, gradually increasing over time and building up to longer stretches of independent play. Create some space between the two. Alternatively if your child is fixating on the time being done and checking in every 45 seconds for a time update use a sand dial or similar to track time.

What you can expect: it will take a few attempts to get your child comfortable playing without your attention OR this new and novel approach will happen right away, both are normal!

What is likely unrealistic: that it will happen on the first try, but it might!

4- Spend some time connecting and sharing what you worked on

This will look different for every family unit, but having a regular time where children and adults can share about their day, things that challenged them, and things that brought them a lot of joy or pride. This is such an incredibly powerful tool for regulation and cultivating a sprit of gratitude. This could look like going around a dinner table to share a “peak” (something that was great about the day) and a “valley” (something that didn’t go as planned, was sad, or frustrating). Just knowing there will be an opportunity ahead to talk and share what they worked on is pretty powerful for young children and even most older toddlers. It’s pretty powerful for adults! It all works best when your kid is getting their connection needs met.

What if it’s not working?

While all kids grow and develop on their own curve, if you have tried all of these things (and more) and it still just isn’t working for you, it may be time to call in more support and guidance. Your healthcare provider is a great place to begin sharing any concerns about your child’s development and they can establish a plan that will likely include a referral to a specialist. Occupational therapists, Play therapists, and many other pediatric-focused professionals can provide an assessment of your child and help you build a plan to build these skills if they just aren’t coming as easily as would be developmentally expected and within your parent toolkit right now.

I hope you will report back on how this goes for your family and any other great nuggets you discover or uncover along your journey and share them with us!

Go enjoy a hot cup of coffee!