Why Independent Play Is Vital For Child Development

Independent play or playing alone is actually incredibly important for your child’s development.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, parents feel this overwhelming pressure to constantly interact and engage with their children during play.

I am here to tell you that it is okay and even recommended by experts to let your child play alone. This type of play has some incredible benefits and I hope this article provides you some peace of mind to let your child play and explore freely.

What is Independent Play?

Independent play is commonly referred to as free play or unstructured play.

It is essentially when a child initiates and directs the play without guidance or intervention from adults. The child is in total control of where, what, and how they want to play without any expectations.

Of course, children should be supervised for safety, but providing them a safe space to play on their own is important for promoting independence.

Here are examples of independent play:

  • Construction play: building blocks, train tracks, magna-tiles
  • Outdoor play: riding bikes, climbing trees, playgrounds
  • Pretend play: play cooking, dress-up, role-playing

Here is a great list of 17 screen free activities to encourage independent play!

6 Important Benefits of Independent Play

More and more research is starting to come out on the importance of unstructured playtime. Since today’s society is filled with organized activities, it is now more important than ever to encourage free play.

Benefits of independent play

Here are 6 amazing benefits of independent play that will help your child thrive both developmentally and academically.

1. Better Self-Regulation Abilities

A major research study involving over 2,200 Australian children was recently published in ScienceDirect. It studied and analyzed the effects of free play on self-regulation skills in young children. The researchers found that children who engaged in quiet unstructured playtime during their toddler and preschool years had significantly better self-regulation abilities 2 years later compared to those children who did not engage in independent play.

The ability to understand and control one’s behaviors and feelings is a very important life skill. Children who are able to regulate their emotions tend to perform better academically, socially, and in stressful situations.

2. Improves Mental Health

In 2021 the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the Biden Administration declared adolescent mental health a “national emergency”.

In 2023, The Journal of Pediatrics published an article regarding their findings on the drastic increase in depression and anxiety rates in children. According to the article, the decline in mental health has been directly attributed to the decline in independent play over the past 5 decades.

There is no denying that play brings about joy and happiness in children. We must allow our children the opportunity to roam, explore, and play freely.

3. Promotes Creativity + Imagination

When children play by themselves, they have to use their creativity and imagination to figure out what they want to do and play with.

While your child may appear “bored” after a few minutes, it is important not to jump in right away. Boredom is actually a great pathway to develop creative and flexible thinking. You might begin to see your child create a new storyline or play with a toy differently.

If your child needs a little nudge, make a comment like “I can’t wait to see what you’re going to play with next, I bet you’ll be able to come up with something really fun”.

child playing alone

4. Improves Problem-Solving Skills

This type of play is a great way to enhance your child’s problem-solving skills.

When children are faced with a problem and nobody steps in to help, they are essentially forced to find a creative solution.

When children successfully resolve a problem on their own, they become more confident in themselves and their skills. This will help your child feel more comfortable managing problems that may arise in the future.

5. Encourages Independence

The more children play independently, the less they will depend on adults. Being able to care for their own needs is actually a very important school-readiness skill that children should be learning before entering kindergarten.

Solo play also helps children develop social independence. Whether they are at daycare, school, or an activity, learning how to be socially independent can help them feel more comfortable and confident in any situation.

6. Learning Their Interests

When you leave your child to play on their own you might be surprised with what they come up with!

During this time your child will figure out what their interests are and what they are good at. Some children will gravitate toward dolls, others cars, and some will only want to play with their kitchen set!

Whatever it is, we must provide the space and resources to encourage more free play.

Independent Play Time By Age In The Early Years

The amount of time that a child can play on their own varies based on age, prior experience with free play, and their overall temperament.

While the times may vary for each individual child, here are the general guidelines for independent play time by age:

6 months3-5 minutes
12 months10-15 minutes
18 months 15-20 minutes
2 years 20-30 minutes
3-5 years 30-90 minutes

How to Encourage Independent Play

By now you might be thinking, this sounds great BUT my child won’t leave me alone! Try implementing some of these strategies to encourage your child to play independently.

how to encourage independent play

1. Reduce the amount of toys in your child’s play space

According to a research article from ScienceDirect, the number of toys your child has directly influences the duration of solo play. The children in the study who had 4 toys, as opposed to 16 toys, played with a single toy for longer periods of time which resulted in more focused and creative play.

2. Choose the right toys

It is important to choose toys that are developmentally appropriate for your child. A preschooler will probably not want to play with toys designed for a 1-year-old!

Open-ended toys like building blocks or magna-tiles are also a great option during unstructured play. These toys are timeless, versatile, and can be used without guidance from adults!

3. Avoid interrupting!

While it may be tempting to say “Good job!” if you see your child building something on their own, it is best to avoid talking and interacting with them during their solo play. Some experts go as far as to say don’t even make eye contact, but of course, this depends on what you are comfortable with!

If after some time they look to you for interaction praise them by saying “I see how hard you are working, I can’t wait to see what you will come up with next!”. This will encourage them to be creative and find new ways to play alone.

4. Make play part of your routine

Kids thrive on consistency! And while it may seem a little obvious, unstructured play time should be a part of your everyday routine. The more you incorporate this type of play into your schedule the more comfortable your child will be doing it.

My favorite time to encourage unstructured play is when I am cooking dinner. Many times my kids will bring their toys into the kitchen, or they will play with the pots and pans in the cupboards!

5. Create a “yes” safe space

With houses these days full of outlets, wires, and expensive electronics, it is very easy to say “no” to your child all day long. This can be frustrating for you and your little ones.

Creating a “yes” safe space, where children are free to do and play with whatever they want is a great way to foster independence, while giving you some peace of mind.

6. Show your child how to play independently

Some children may have difficulty engaging in free play, especially if they do not have a lot of experience with it.

For these children, it may be beneficial to sit next to them and play without directly engaging with them. Over time, shorten the amount of time you play next to them. The more practice they have, the more comfortable they will be playing alone.

What You Need To Remember About Independent Play…

Children learn best when they are playing! Don’t let your mom guilt take away from your child’s independent playtime. It is a necessary and normal part of child development that provides so many amazing benefits to you and your little one!

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