How To Teach Your Toddler To Play Independently
Check out the 11 things I did to encourage my toddler to play independently, without pushing him away. These tips helped me through a super rough patch with my son, where he wasn’t interested in anything but being held, or watching me play with his toys for him.
Yes, you read that correctly. My son recently went through a super clingy phase, where he didn’t want to do much of anything aside from watching me play with his toys. The toys that I bought, yes, for his entertainment, but let’s he honest – it was mostly in an effort to get him to play by himself so I could have mini-breaks here and there.
Wishful thinking, apparently.
Turns out what my son needed was NOT new toys.
What he needed was time to grow through this rough patch, as well as a slightly different approach to encouraging independent play.
I continued coddling him as much as he needed, secretly gritting my teeth, waiting for the day where he’d decide he’s comfortable playing with blocks next to me again, instead of on me.
And to be clear – I didn’t create a monster. I’m a loving mom, but I’ve never put myself in a position where I was my son’s sole source of entertainment. Because I simply don’t want that.
He used to play by himself just fine. But since he surely can tell I’m pregnant with his little sister, he’s been a wee bit clingier. And by that I mean, he wasn’t allowing me to get off of the couch without throwing fits for several weeks.
Thankfully, with a few minor changes and a little bit of time, my son has come around, and now will happily play while I get things done around the house (most of the time).
Why Won’t My Toddler Play By Themselves?
Toddlerhood is a tough stage. It’s a blast! But it’s tough.
It’s because we’re hit with developmental leaps and milestones, back to back. They’re growing at a crazy fast rate, and it feels like there’s always something going on.
They go from clingy, emotional phases, to throwing tantrums and refusing sleep. They reject new foods to the point where we’re forced to get unreasonably creative in the kitchen. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
Encouraging our toddlers to play independently takes time and patience. It’s something we have to foster, especially if your have a particularly clingy kid.
There’s nothing wrong with your toddler wanting you to be involved in everything they do! In fact, it’s really sweet when you think about it. Let’s be real though, after months of being needed almost 24 hours a day, it gets pretty old.
They still need our guidance and supervision, of course. But it would be nice to unload the dishwasher without any fits, right? Besides, playing independently is healthy! It’s a sign of a well-rounded, secure toddler. (Not that there’s anything wrong with toddlers who stay attached to their parents until they’re a little older. At some point they’ll hit that milestone).
How To Encourage Your Toddler To Play Independently
1. Keep Your Expectations Low at First
Whether your toddler is going through a clingy phase, or it’s been a part of their personality since day 1, you have to start small. This is the type of situation where you don’t want to rip it off like a band-aid.
Our toddlers want to be around us all the time for a reason. We certainly don’t want to push them away or make them feel unloved. We just… you know, want to sit down without having someone crawl all over us or ask us to come play every 3 minutes.
So, keep your expectations low at first. You can’t expect your toddler to go play in their room on their own right off the bat, just because you asked or encouraged it.
Shoot, I don’t know about you, but I don’t even want my son to do that most of the time. When he’s quiet in another room, it’s never a good thing. I just want him to color next to me, instead of insisting that I color for him.
2. Cut Down on Toys
It sounds strange, but the less toys you have out, the more likely your toddler is to actually play with them!
I’ve made this mistake before. I thought I was providing my son with endless activities and fun things to do, but really all I was doing was overwhelming him to the point that he didn’t want to touch anything.
Whether you donate some, or simply pack them away, consider cutting down on the amount of toys you have readily available to your toddler. Sometimes one box of legos is better than 5.
3. Keep an Organized, Clutter-Free Space
Continuing on from the last point, keeping your home organized and free of clutter seems to help. It doesn’t have to be spotless, but a play area with hundreds of toys all over the floor and furniture is no bueno.
This goes for your clutter, too! Less is more! When I leave magazines and papers on the coffee table, my son is less likely to play with his toys there. Too much clutter is distracting and overwhelming.
4. “Show Me”
Sometimes asking your toddler to “show” you something works wonders! Other times it totally backfires. But hey, it’s worth a shot, right?
When they’re babbling or talking nonstop about something, ask them to show you what they’re talking about. Better yet, ask them something out of the blue. This works on my son about 85% of the time, which really isn’t bad odds.
If I feel an infamous toddler tantrum coming on, I’ll quickly ask him where his favorite hat is, or if he’ll make me a sandwich in his play kitchen, because I’m sooo hungry.
It’s surprising how often it works!
5. Stay Close
Stay close, and slowly work your way up to being a comfortable distance away.
This will vary from family to family. As I mentioned above, I don’t even want my son to play in another room. The furthest I want him to be is a ‘peek-around-the-wall’ away. You know, think – watching tv in the living room while I cook dinner, or playing with toys on the other side of the living room while I relax. Nothing crazy!
But to a clingy, Mama-obsessed toddler, this is too much to ask sometimes.
So start by holding them in your lap and playing together. Then, move them next to you, then across from you, and so on. It might take several weeks, honestly. But you can work your way up to a comfortable spot!
6. Consider The Noise Levels In The Room
Something that’s often overlooked that can have a big impact on your child’s temperament is the noise levels of the room you’re in! Sometimes it’s just too dang quiet. Other times it’s too loud.
A simple adjustment of the tv volume can make all the difference. You might not realize it, and heck, they might not realize it either, but they may be overwhelmed by the level of noise going on. Sometimes turning on some soft nursery rhymes in the background can be soothing and will help them focus on an activity. Other times they might prefer silence.
7. Show Your Toddler How To Play
Depending on your toddler’s age and development, they might not even understand how to play alone.
If your toddler isn’t into pretend play just yet, I promise things will probably get a lot easier for you once they do. Most of your baby’s play time before they start pretending is simply exploration. Once they think they’ve explored everything a specific toy or activity has to offer, they’re bored.
But once they start doing pretend play, a whole new world opens up! It’s a huge developmental milestone, so it’s important to foster an interest in pretend play anyway! Things like playing dress up, pretending wooden food is real and “eating” it… things of that nature are all super important, so lead the way!
8. Daily Toy Rotation
Setting up a daily toy rotation can keep your toddler interested in their toys for much longer, not just long-term, but day-to-day. You don’t have to do anything fancy. Simply buy some plastic storage bins and separate the bulk of your toddler’s smaller toys into several bins.
You can label them with the days of the week, or just switch them out when you remember. This keeps things fresh and engaging for your little one! It’s a great way to mix things up so they don’t get so bored at home.
9. Be Encouraging
Positive reinforcement is key when teaching our toddlers to play by themselves. I mean, it’s not like we can discipline them or reprimand them for demanding our attention. So, the best we can do is praise them and encourage them when we see them playing independently.
Encourage your toddler and cheer them on when you see them building towers with their blocks all by themselves, and really play it up! They love feeling like you’re proud of them for accomplishing something new!
10. Take A Closer Look at The Toys
Take a look around your house. What kinds of toys do you have available for your toddler to freely play with? Do they promote open-ended play? Do they encourage your toddler to explore or create?
Simple, wooden Montessori toys are all the rage these days, because they allow a ton of creative freedom. To be honest, they’re not always my son’s favorite, but he does prefer simple toys over complicated, flashy, loud ones.
There’s a chance you have a ton of toys that might be overwhelming to your toddler, believe it or not. Try hiding a few of the flashy, interactive ones, and leave out simple toys that allow them to use their imagination and promote creativity. I’ve found that this can make a huge difference in your toddler’s mood!
11. Give It Time
Ultimately, you may just need to give your toddler time to open up and feel comfortable enough to play independently, even at home. Every child is different, and I can’t guarantee that any of these tips will work for your family. I’ve picked these ideas up from my days as a preschool teacher and from being a mother myself, but you have to keep in mind that I don’t know your child or what their needs are.
I do wish you the best! And remember, it will end! Your toddler will play independently at some point, and it will be glorious! Let that thought get you through the tough times, and remember, one day you’ll miss when they were clinging on to you, driving you nuts.
How have you fostered independent play time for your toddler? Have they been extra clingy lately? Let me know in the comments!
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