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Supporting a Child’s Independent Play Skills- Guest Blog Post

As Speech and Language Therapists working in Early Intervention, parents and caregivers often ask how they can support their child to engage in independent play at home. Today I’m sharing a guest blog post by Kerry from @the_play_planner and she’s sharing 7 tips for supporting and improving a child’s independent play skills.

Independent play time can feel like an impossible task

For many parents and caregivers, independent play time can feel like the golden nugget – the thing that would make all the difference to their day.  After all, washing, cooking, cleaning, working… and yes, Instagram scrolling with a hot cup of tea, are all necessary daily activities, and playing one-on-one with their child all day (despite how much they might enjoy it) just isn’t practical.
But engaging children in independent play can sometimes feel like an impossible task.  Wherever you go, you have a little shadow. Whenever you cook, you have a small person attached to your leg. And when you try and sit down – forget it! That tea will go undrunk and cold yet again. And that’s the same for the parents and caregivers you support too.

So, what can you do to help parents and caregivers to support their children to engage in independent play? In this post you’ll learn 7 tips for supporting and improving a child’s independent play skills, that you can use with the families you support.

1. Age appropriate expectations

Firstly, make sure parents/caregivers are setting their little one realistic targets.  Ultimately, younger children will generally have less stamina for independent play and will need their parents/caregivers more – so make sure they are not expecting too much to begin with!
Did you know that 1-2 minutes is the average attention span of a 8-15 month old?  Of course, this is an average and will vary a little from child to child, activity to activity and day to day, but understanding what is ‘typical’ will ensure they’re not expecting too much.

2. Encourage independent play by meeting the child’s needs first

Parents/caregivers may feel like their child has a string of never-ending needs; no sooner have they finished breakfast are they asking for a biscuit from the snack cupboard!  In my experience, this happens much more frequently when children are bored or in need of attention from us.  Being present and engaged when we are playing with a child, and setting intentional time aside for doing this, can help build their stamina for independent play. 
It also helps to ensure that the child’s needs are met before attempting some independent play time. For example, they’ve finished breakfast; the child is neither hungry nor tired, so this is a perfect opportunity for some independent play time.  But instead of just leaving them to it from the get-go, encourage parents/caregivers to set out an intentional 5-10 minutes of real engagement with what their child is doing.  Being present and available for those minutes until their child settles into whatever they are doing can really help them to continue playing independently after they have left them.

3. Suppport a child’s independent play skills through toy rotation

If you’re not familiar with toy rotation, then check out this blog post by The SLT Scrapbook for more information. But simply put, toy rotation means there are fewer toys and materials available for a child at any given time. Although that may seem illogical, fewer toys equals fewer distractions, which means that a child is more likely to engage in something more deeply and for longer, which support’s the child’s independent play skills. So it can be helpful to encourage parents and caregivers to introduce toy rotation at home.

Horizontal image with pale pink border. Black text on a white background says "Fewer toys means fewer distractions which helps to foster deeper play". On the right is a picture of a white girl with long blonde hair, wearing a pale blue dress. She is engaging in independent play with a small number of animal toys.

4. A child-centred play space can support a child’s independent play skills

Is the space the child is playing in a “yes space”, or do they need their parent/caregiver’s help to facilitate their play, i.e., reaching for things, lifting or moving things?
A child-centred space for little ones to play is essential for independent play because if they are reliant on the adult to move things or to be safe playing there, it won’t work.  Encourage parents/caregivers to take a look at the space they are asking their child to play in, and assess how accessible and safe it is when they are not 100% present in that space. 

Things for parents/caregivers to consider about their child’s play space…

  • What dangers present themselves here – plugs, wires, heights, etc?
  • What other spaces can the child easily access from here and are they safe in doing so?
  • When they are engaged in something else, can they still see what the child is doing?
  • Can their child access the toys, materials, and books they are likely to want to use?
  • Is the space designed with them in mind?  Do they know where things are and where to put them back?

5. Open-ended toys can support children to engage more in independent play

Some toys can hinder independent play. As a rule, toys that do a lot of work for the child, those with flashing lights and lots of buttons, will likely lose a child’s interest faster than open-ended toys (Read more about battery-operated toys here). Bricks, dolls, magnetic tiles, and animal figures are some examples of open-ended materials/toys that will support independent play more successfullyThe types of toys families have access to will vary significantly, so you may need to support parents/caregivers to identify things they have at home that can be played with in an open-ended way. If these kinds of toys are unfamiliar to the child/family, it may be helpful to coach parents/caregivers in play, and to model what play could look like with these items. It can also help to choose things that the child has a particular interest in, for example, dinosaur figures or vehicles, and make them available in the play space, perhaps alongside a sensory base such as rice or shredded paper.

Horizontal image with a pale pink border. Black text on a white background reads "Open-ended toys help to support independent play". On the right are some blocks on a child's table.

6. Support a child’s independent play skills by following their interests

Observing a child at play is the best tool in your box for supporting independent play.  It helps you to provide things for them that they are truly interested in, either a theme or a particular skill they are showing a preference for. We’ve all witnessed those moments when a toddler is suspiciously quiet, only to see that they’re fully immersed in a doll’s tea party! Encourage parents/caregivers to observe their child’s play at home and to identify the toys and activities they seem to enjoy most.

Tips for observing a child’s play…

  • Don’t interfere with the play: observe from a little distance and don’t interject unless the child asks for something directly.
  • Be still and watch closely!
  • Make brief notes, commenting on what you can see so you don’t forget what you saw.
  • Take some time later in the day to reflect on what you saw and use the information to plan future play opportunities.

7. Limiting distractions can support children to engage in independent play

Let’s tell it how it is… the television is a massive rectangular distraction that sits in the corner of most of our living rooms. It is also the centre of much debate amongst the online childhood development community.  Obviously, each family is different, but in reality, most parents/caregivers allow their children to watch some TV. So during that time it’s going to be the main source of focus for the duration it is on, which is understandable. But when we are supporting children to play independently, we want to try and limit these distractions and encourage them to engage in the play, rather than the screen. So encourage parents/caregivers to set short targets for independent play without the screen. It may be helpful for them to play in a room where no screens are available. This might seem really tricky at first and their instinct (as has been mine before) may be to reach for the remote so that their child is distracted from wanting their attention, but encourage them to bear with it! If they switch off the screens and are consistent with this, they should soon see an improvement in their child’s engagement during play.

The journey to independent play will be different for every family

So, wherever families are in their journey to more independent playtime, remember that each child and each day will be different. Sometimes parents/caregivers may feel as though it’s impossible to get even a minute to do anything else, and other days they’ll feel as though their child doesn’t need them to play at all! 

Hopefully, in applying these top tips and a little patience, their child’s ability to play more independently will improve and ultimately, all too soon they will be needed less and less as their child grows and develops.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. If you want more ideas and inspiration for supporting young children’s play skills, check out my Instagram page @the_play_planner.

About Kerry.
Kerry is a mum, teacher, and play consultant from the United Kingdom. She shares parent-friendly tips and ideas that help parents/caregivers feel confident supporting their child’s development at home. She is passionate about helping parents/caregivers to facilitate simple play activities that their child will love.
You can find Kerry on Instagram @the_play_planner. Get your free, parent-friendly guide to play schemas from Kerry here.