Ministry of Education, Guyana

How to Encourage Your Preschooler to Play Independently

A mom of a four-year-old shared her concerns about her son’s resistance to doing anything on his own. She’s read a lot about the importance of unstructured play and she’s trying to make sure he has plenty of time to engage in play without interruptions, but he will only play if she plays with him.

Even if they wander to their local park, he wants her to join him on the swings, in the sandbox, and on the climbing structure. “I feel guilty when I say no so that I can take a phone call or do something for work because he sits down and waits for me, but I don’t understand why he can’t seem to play with his toys alone.”

Research shows that unstructured play is important to the social, emotional and intellectual development of young children. Through play, children learn to connect and empathize with others, work through fears and other stressors, develop number sense and early literacy skills, and build coping skills. In a nutshell, play is the hard work of early childhood.

The parent who can’t seem to encourage her child to engage in play alone for short periods of time, however, isn’t alone. All families are different, and there can be any number of factors that affect how children interact. Some reasons that kids resist independent play can include:

  • They’re not used to it
  • Play is their only time to connect with parents or caregivers
  • They’re overwhelmed by too many choices
  • They feel scared or anxious
  • They don’t typically have much downtime
  • They don’t know how to get started
  • They feel lonely
  • An overload of screen time

Like most skills, kids need time and practice to learn to play independently. If your child isn’t used to spending downtime engaged in solitary play, it’s best to introduce the concept slowly. When young children do learn how to play alone, they learn to trust their instincts, stretch their thinking, and regulate their emotions. They also learn how to cope with boredom.

Be a playful observer.
More often than not, kids run to their parents with up-to-the-minute updates about their play because they want to engage. They’re not necessarily looking for a playmate, but they do want to share their ideas. They want to include you in their lives.

Play is a window to your child’s innermost thoughts and dreams, but you don’t have to climb through the window to enjoy what they have to offer. Sit near your child and watch. Make observations and ask questions, such as: "I see you're building a house. I wonder who will live in the house." or "It looks like they need help. Who can help them?" When parents do this, it sends kids a powerful message: I’m interested in your ideas.

Trust your kids.
When parents trust their kids to play their own way, rather than accidentally imposing structure and their own rules, kids begin to push themselves and step outside their comfort zones. They take healthy risks, create new play scenarios and make up their own rules. When you do accept an invitation to play with your child, say something like, “What’s my role?” or “Will you please help me understand the rules?” This puts your child in the driver’s seat, while you observe and play as guided.

Risky play is actually quite healthy for young children. This how they test their own boundaries and figure out their limits. Silly play is a great stress reliever and a ton of fun. Imaginative play encourages creativity and curiosity. And outdoor play boasts physical and emotional benefits.

Slow down.
Even very young children are scheduled these days. It’s difficult to get into the habit of playing independently when you rarely have downtime. Resist the urge to join every activity and make time to simply be home, instead. Tell your kids that you’re taking a break from doing activities to spend more time doing the things you enjoy that don’t normally get to do. Talk about what those fun things might be.

Provide cues.
Sometimes kids don’t know how to get started, so they follow their parents around and claim boredom. Get into the habit of asking questions:

  • What sounds like a fun thing to play inside?
  • Is there anything fun to do in the yard?
  • What’s your favorite toy right now?
  • How do you want to spend your free time?

In doing this, you get your child thinking about what he enjoys playing at home and you create a cheat sheet to get started.

Keep your expectations realistic.
If your child is accustomed to being busy or craves constant interaction, learning to play alone will take time. Begin with short periods of downtime. Try 15-20 minutes to get started. Provide the cues, observe for a few minutes, then move away and state that you need to spend 10 minutes completing a task nearby. Gradually increase both the downtime and the amount of time you spend observing from afar.

As always, modeling independent time helps kids learn that people need time to themselves to recharge their batteries. Don’t be afraid to plop down on the couch with a book or crank up your favorite music and dance around the room. When you show your kids that you like to play alone at times, they learn that being independent feels good.


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