Fostering Independent Play in an Effort to Not Lose My Mind


Fostering Independent Play in an Effort to Not Lose My Mind | Duluth Moms Blog

My kids are decent at playing alone when I’m out of sight. If I’m switching out the laundry, folding clothes, or putting them away… okay, that’s basically it; those are the only activities I can do where the kids will give me space. I’m about 3 minutes away from dragging a chair into the laundry room for a bit of peace! I bet it wouldn’t take long though before they figure out my secret spot.

Every other minute of the day they’re within about two feet of me which just makes it tricky to accomplish things like writing, having a FaceTime conversation with my mom, replying to e-mails, scheduling appointments, meal planning, online grocery shopping, thinking, five minutes of social media browsing, or any of the other million tasks that moms need to do daily. All that closeness and the constant “mom, mom, mom!” makes me feel claustrophobic. When I don’t have enough alone time or personal space, I get irritable with the kids which sends us all into a downhill spiral of frustration.

It literally just happened again: I was in the laundry room for 10 minutes hanging up clothes and putting on a new load, then I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to write this article. I typed one sentence before Frank piped up, “Mom, what are we going to do next?” He sidled on over, stood on the lower rung of the dining chair I’m sitting on, and leaned his head in front of my computer screen. I laugh because it’s funny that he just proved my point and I’m annoyed that this is my reality.

I’d bet money on the fact that I’m not alone in this. Trust me, I feel blessed by all this lovely togetherness, but I also really want to accomplish the things I need and want to get done, so here’s the plan for how to get these littles to play by themselves for more than 3 minutes at a time.

Why play is important

Besides the obvious reason of keeping parents around the world sane, kids need independent playtime to develop critical thinking skills and allow for creativity and imagination. It helps kids improve concentration, persistence, teaches follow through, and allows them to work through their feelings. I’m specifically talking here about play with toys–not screens–which have their place as well. Also, when I say “independent play time” I think of both solitary play and play with siblings.

Set up for success

Initiate independent play when everyone is fed, because we’re all likely to become frustrated and bored more quickly when we’re hungry. Also, consider getting a little exercise beforehand. All kids are different, but my little guy will have more success if he’s moved his body a bit first.

Think about your words when you propose the idea. Something like, “You have great ideas when it comes to playing, I bet you can find something really fun to do” will start things off on the right foot more so than, “You’re going to need to get out of my hair for awhile, go find something to do.” Going along with that, when they have played nicely, even if it’s just for 5 minutes, make sure to give them that positive reinforcement by telling them so. 

Give a little and then pull away

Try sitting down with them and giving them 5 solid minutes of imaginative play. I find this particularly hard, I would literally rather stick pins in my eyeballs than play pretend with the doll house, but sometimes this works really well so bear with me. After your 5 minutes of honest to goodness, give-it-all-you’ve-got genuine play, say, “Oh! I have to send an e-mail quick” or whatever task you’re hoping to accomplish and skedaddle away hoping they continue the play you’ve helped them initiate. 

If they’re playing nicely alone, leave them alone. Don’t stick your nose in their business and ask how things are going and if they’re having fun and heap all kinds of praise on them. Seeing you will distract them and independent playtime will then be over. When the kids are engrossed in play, I literally tiptoe around and try to blend into the walls to avoid interrupting at all costs!

Stay calm about the noise and mess

I have a hard time with loud play and play where they’re making a huge mess of my tidy house, but I just have to get over myself and let them play how they want (as long as they’re being safe and kind).  We just have to figure out how to get things done even while it sounds like the house is falling down. 

Set realistic play expectations

Don’t expect that they’ll keep busy alone for hours. Take advantage of those small amounts of time to really accomplish what you need to do (and not get sucked down a rabbit hole of social media… guilty!). Sometimes I only get 10 minutes at a time to write, but if I really focus, I can accomplish more than I expect in that amount of time. From reading a few different articles, I’ve gleaned that the average 2 year-old should be able to play independently for about 10-15 minutes and it should increase incrementally from there. However, regardless of their age, if they’re new to independent play, it’s going to take time and practice to increase their tolerance.

Fostering Independent Play in an Effort to Not Lose My Mind | Duluth Moms Blog

A few final tips

I’m not really into setting up scenarios to play; I want the kids to be able to just look at the toys we have and come up with something on their own. However, I’ll sometimes guide them in one direction or another by offering an activity I know that they love but doesn’t require too much supervision. This obviously varies with different ages, but for my five year olds it’s usually play-doh, water play, building them a fort (just make sure it’s sturdy so you’re not having to constantly readjust falling down walls), creating a make-shift shop, stamps and washable ink, painting, etc. 

When buying gifts for birthdays or holidays, opt for open-ended toys that foster creativity and can be played with many different ways. Going along with this, I find that less is more, generally the less they have to play with the better they are at playing with what they have. This is actually something we have succeeded in doing in our house, and I truly think it has helped us have more of those unicorn moments where they’re playing independently and I am free to focus on something else for a short while.