How Do I Get My Child To Play Independently?

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Despite the fact my four year old daughter is very outgoing and independent, there is one thing she refuses to do alone – play.

For a child with a great imagination and a plethora of toys, she is seemingly incapable of entertaining herself.

Even when she does venture to play dolls or do a puzzle by herself, it has to be in the same room as me and she has to show me her progress or ask me for help constantly.

As a sole parent who works from home, this is very frustrating.  Both of her older brothers have always been able to entertain themselves from a young age. However, they have each other and my daughter has always had them (or me). So when the boys don’t feel like entertaining her and I am busy, things get difficult.

As a time poor parent who isn’t a huge fan of playing with their kids, I find it reassuring to learn that independent play is a very important part of a child’s development. Among other things, it helps with:

  • Self-confidence
  • Emotional regulation
  • Problem solving
  • Imagination

Desperate to find ways to encourage my daughter’s independent play, my research has led me to realise I have been making some fundamental errors.

Here is where I have been going wrong:

What I have been doing:Telling her to “go play”

What I should have been doing: Setting up open-ended activities where she can self-direct play. I always scoff at mums on Instagram who create these “play scenes” for their toddlers. But in actuality, these mums are kick-starting their child’s imagination and encouraging independent play. Even though my daughter has endless toys at her disposal, by simply telling her to “go play” I have overwhelmed her with choice.

What I have been doing:Trying to squeeze in periods of work while hoping she will occupy myself. 

What I should have been doing:Having a routine where she knows that at a certain point in our day its time for me to work and her to play independently.

What I have been doing:Telling her if she plays by herself for a while I’ll do something with her after that.

What I should have been doing:Setting a timer to encourage her to play for a set period of time THEN reward her efforts by playing with her after that.

What I have been doing:Letting her have screen time on the iPad or a movie so I can get work done.

What I should have been doing:Encouraging independent play!

Obviously, this last one is a no brainer and not my proudest parenting practice.

While it is acceptable to expect older kids who complain “I’m bored” to find something to do themselves, at the age of four my daughter needs a little help.

So I have decided that I will become one of those mums who sets up play scenes for my daughter to encourage her imagination and foster healthy independent play.

Other age appropriate things I know she will love that I can set up in advance include:

  • Sensory play – rice, water beads, mud pies
  • Make believe – cooking, vets, shops, dress ups
  • Drawing & colouring
  • Puzzles
  • Threading
  • And of course, dolls.

Learning to play independently is like any other skill – it will take time. But by being proactive and a little more organised, hopefully I will be able to help my daughter learn this valuable skill and get free up my own time in the process!

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About Author

Renee Meier

Renée is a freelance writer, perpetual student and aspiring novelist. In her spare time she's the sole parent to 3 rambunctious little people. She survives predominantly on coffee and squishy hugs.

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