Going solo

Six ways to foster independent play in small children

By Poppy Abs

A common topic of conversation amongst parents of young children is how to get children to play independently for more than ninety seconds: you need to have a shower, sweep the floor, send an important email or simply rest for ten minutes and they never want you out of their sight.

Children are hardwired to remind us very often that they are nearby; this is an evolutionary tactic that stops us leaving them behind to become hyena food. Attempting to force independent play often triggers a child’s threat system because they are scared of being left alone, this creates a meltdown in the short-term and increased fear of ‘abandonment’ in the long-term.

Also, all children are different and have individual tolerance levels for being left to play on their own, so while your three-year-old niece might be absorbed for half an hour at a time when playing with her train track, your four-year-old’s constant need to be alongside you is still normal.

If, like most parents, you crave ten minutes to wash up in peace while fantasising about life on a deserted island, these tips can help foster independence in children:


1. Give them quality playtime with you

One of the common reasons for children refusing to play alone is that they are demonstrating their need for connection with us. If we satisfy this need, they will be able to manage a few minutes without us. Play is a great way to do this is, so get down on the floor and follow their lead. Let them tell you what to do, even if it’s ridiculous or nonsensical and resist the urge to be in charge or suggest games you prefer. This time is about them.

True child-led play can be quite challenging if you are new to it, so aim for 10 minutes a day and increase as you can manage it.


2, Do not interrupt

When you realise they are playing independently let them be! Jumping in and asking questions is as distracting and annoying for them as it is for us.


3. Allow them to choose

Adults and children have different attention spans. It’s why you often hear a slightly exasperated “Shall we have a go on something else now?” at the playground after 32 solid minutes on the roundabout.

Children’s brains are very good at seeking out experiences that help them develop whichever skills need enhancing at that moment, whether that involves banging a spoon on different surfaces to learn about sound echoes, or gaining vestibular input by hanging upside down. When children are engaged in these learning experiences they will be more focussed and independent so don’t be tempted to rush them along to another activity.


4. Create a Yes Space

This is a space, inside or outside, where you never have to say to no to your child. They are safe within the space and everything in it is safe for them to access unsupervised. Here you can relax and allow them to play without having to interrupt to impose limits. If you add some comfy floor cushions you may even be able to rest here!


5. Keep your promises

Explain to your child that you need to leave the room to tidy up but you will be back in five minutes and then keep that promise. Each time we return on time we build trust in our children that helps keep the threat response at bay next time we leave the room.


6. Start small and recognise when not to push it

Two minutes out of the room may be long enough to start with. You can increase the duration over time. Be aware of your child’s needs though, if they are ill or going through a developmental leap they may be more dependent for a stretch of time. It is important that you are there for them during this. When their stress-levels drop, so will their need for close contact.


You may find it takes a few weeks of consistency with these strategies before you see much improvement, but long-term independence will only be achieved when your child feels ready for it, so hang in there.


Learn more about Poppy via her website www.familyhappiness.co.uk (to book private consultations and group workshops across East Anglia and London) and Instagram @familyhappinessconsultant