Do your children like to play by themselves?
Do you feel like it’s your job to entertain your kids all the time? You can only play Go Fish so many times, kwim? When I miss getting a break from my kids too many days in a row, I get really grouchy. Sad, but true.
Therefore, I have always encouraged my kids to play by themselves for part of the day. Happily, my 4th son seems to be the best able to occupy himself.
Now that 3 of my kids are in school (yep – no more homeschooling for us – a story for another day), my 3 year old son has many hours in the day to fill. I do spend a lot of time playing with him and doing preschool-type things but that still leaves plenty of time we don’t have planned out.
Here are my tips to help your child learn to play by themselves.
1. Give your child attention first.
I usually try to spend some one-on-one time with my son before I ask him to play independently. I “fill up his tank” so to speak and then he’s content to occupy himself.
2. Get your child started.
Sometimes my son will pick something to play with (his firetrucks are especially popular) but sometimes he needs an little inspiration. I might help him build a fort or start a block city for him.
Spending a few minutes helping your kid get involved with an activity will help him stick with it longer.
3. Don’t interrupt.
Once he’s busy playing by himself, I try to leave him alone as much as possible. Learn why downtime is so important for kids. I don’t comment on what he’s doing or ask him to do something.
If he’s playing nicely, I don’t want to interrupt his train of thought. I know how much I hate getting interrupted and I try to respect that for my kids.
4. Don’t jump to accommodate every request.
If my child has plenty of things to play with, I’m probably not going to stop what I’m doing to retrieve another toy he wants. This helps him focus on what he’s got instead of thinking of 50 other things he thinks he wants to play with.
5. Admire and appreciate his creations, but stay out of the way.
Although I don’t interrupt, I do respond once or twice to requests to “watch this, Mom” or “look at this awesome tower, Mom!” I admire what’s going on, comment on how nicely he’s playing, and maybe ask a question (“did your firefighter make any rescues today?”).
Then he’s back to his work and I’m back to mine. If he keeps wanting attention from me, I’ll let him know I’m not available and his request will have to wait.
6. Suggest open-ended toys and activities.
I try to keep most of our toys open-ended and creative. We’ve actually been on an on-going journey toward fewer toys. We love things like blocks, Matchbox cars, and Fisher Price people. We’ve got an entire fleet of firetrucks.
But what we don’t have are toys make a lot of noise or are pseudo-educational. At least for my kids, those toys seem like fun at first but get boring after a little while. We don’t have a ton of toys, but my kids never lack for something to do.
7. Try to keep out of the way, but stay available nearby.
My son seems most content if I’m within earshot instead of in another part of the house. Rachel of a Mother Far From Home says,
The location is not important as long as there’s something for the child to do and some type of boundary in place. It’s not really independent play if they roam around the house and you have to follow them to be sure they aren’t getting into trouble.
8. Don’t sweat a mess.
If he’s playing nicely, I’m not going to complain about toys all over the family room. When playtime is over, we’ll probably spend a few minutes picking up together, but while he’s playing, he’s free to play as he wishes (within reason).
9. Remember your child will improve with practice.
If your child isn’t used to playing alone, they probably won’t be able to do so for more than a few minutes. Try setting a timer and tell them when it rings you’ll do something together.
10. Know when to intervene before things fall apart.
Especially when 2 of my kids are playing together, it is necessary to intervene at times. If they can’t seem to get along, I will redirect them or suggest something in another room. Often, that change of scenery is enough to reset their play.
But on other days, it’s not meant to be. In that case, we just surrender and
send them off to work in the mines do some chores or read a book.
Screentime doesn’t count as playing by yourself.
You’ll notice screentime (TV, computer, iPad) is not mentioned in the list above. That’s because, while I do think screentime is fine and can be very useful if you have to get something done and keep the kids quiet, it’s not a substitute for being able to play alone.
Watching TV or playing a computer game is mainly a passive activity that doesn’t require much in the way of creativity (yes, I know how creative Minecraft is, but still…) Kids, especially younger ones, need to be actively moving their bodies, using their hands, and engaged in play with real, physical toys.
Being able to play alone is such a hugely important skill for kids. It helps them learn:
- to focus
- to be creative and independent
- to understand Mom or Dad isn’t at their beck and call all day long
- to be content with the toys they have
Do your kids like to play by themselves? How do you encourage them to do so?