How to promote independent play with toddlers

The mom dream…sipping your hot cup of coffee and looking over while your toddler is happily playing by themselves. 

The reality…rapidly cooling cup of coffee sits on counter as you pry your toddler down from climbing the bookshelf before they reach some breakable object they wish to throw across the room.  

How to promote independent play with toddlers

Toddlers are exhausting because it seems like they need something from you every second of every day.  And yes some days they will.  But what if you could have some peaceful moments living the mom dream with a quietly playing toddler? 

It is achievable and I have been lucky enough to see it with my own eyes. Let me share a couple of my tips that I use to encourage my toddler to learn to play by herself. 

This post contains affiliate links to products that I use and love.  Please see disclosure for more details. 

Easy access to toys

One of the most frequent requests from my toddler is to help her get something that she can’t reach or can’t dig out of the bottom of her toy box. Having some of your child’s favorite toys easily accessible will help them be more independent!

I like to have some puzzles, mess free coloring books and maybe one noisy toy in easy reach.  Though it usually never fails that there is a music toy, a plane that talks and sings and a piano out they will ALL be playing at the same time.  But hey, if she’s entertained, right?


Hand over hand instruction

It is so easy for us to just do a task for your child.  We can do it faster and easier than taking the time to teach them how to do it themselves.  It’s like the saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” or something like that.  Give your toddler a toy they play for 5 min, teach your toddler an activity and they might play for an hour! 

Whenever my toddler asks for help with something and I think its something she should be able to do I try to help her complete the task by herself instead of doing it for her.  Like with a puzzle , she would ask for help to get the shapes in the right place when it won’t fit.  I use my hand to make her hand get it to fit.  Now she feels what it’s like to do it and then I have her try the next one.

Same with drawing shapes and letters or getting books from her bookshelf or toys from her toy box.  The more she is able to do herself the less she will require your help.  The hand over hand instruction helps them to learn what it feels like to do something since it can be hard for them to just follow directions. 

I have found that once my toddler learns to do a new task for herself she wants to practice it BY HERSELF over and over again.  So teach her something and she can be busy for hours!

Ask them to show you

Say you are busy feeding baby or doing dishes or making dinner and your kiddo just seems to need you every second.  They typically just want to be involved in what you are doing.  So I try to ask my toddler to show me how they can do it too.  “Show me how you can feed your baby doll!”  “Show me how you can wash the dishes in your kitchen!”  “Can you make me some food from your kitchen?”

She generally loves that she can do something just like me and loves to show me what she can do.  You can also ask them to show you how they can do their puzzle, or stack their blocks, or push their cars.  Toddlers just love to show you what they can do.  This way you can still tell them that they are doing a great job and you can still finish your task.

Give them ideas

My two year old is just getting into having picnics with a toy picnic basket set she has.  She loves when Mama or Dada can sit down and have a picnic with her.  But sometimes we are busy.  Suggest that they invite their favorite stuffed friends to the picnic instead.  My toddler has a favorite stuffed fox that repeats what she says and a bunny that are now invited to picnics too!

When Mama and Dada can’t play I can suggest that she take fox or bunny for a ride in her toy stroller or pull them on her pull toy.  Then she gets busy pulling or pushing them around the house.  Sometimes she just buckles her fox in and out of her stroller for a while!

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Great independent play toys

Open Ended Toys

You want to look for open ended toys to spark your child’s imagination and keep them busy for hours, not just 5 min.  By open ended I mean something that does not have a specific end point.  For example a puzzle is a great toy but at some point it is finished and the play ends.  In contrast a dollhouse or a play kitchen does not have an end point.  The child can continue to play for hours with the same toys and never “be finished”.

That’s not to say that some toddlers would play for a puzzle for hours. I know my toddler can get into a loop and just want to keep repeating the same thing over and over!  Typically when she first masters the task.  

There are lots of great toys that lend themselves to independent play.  My toddler loves her train set (she is a big Thomas and Friends fan).  The parts that make noise when you push the train over them are her favorite!  She just turned 2 so I do have to help set up the tracks but then she will play by herself for quite a while!

She also loves these magnetic tiles to build with.  They stick together well so it helps her to be able to build shapes and stacks that she may not be able to build with blocks.

Coloring and Books

Another favorite independent activity that can keep her busy for long periods of time is coloring.  Now she is 2 and I still value my clean walls and furniture so I don’t quite trust her to independently play with markers yet.  But she does have crayons and color wonder markers which are an amazing invention! (And we have only had crayon on the walls once so far!) Water wow coloring pads are also a wonderful thing to keep her busy. 

My little one also just loves books.  Some of her favorites are more interactive books like touch and feel or lift the flap.  And she loves books where she can look for something on every page like the mouse in this book series or the little duck in this book collection.

Have Fun

I really do love to have fun and play with my toddler too!  It is just really nice to have some time to get some other mom stuff done too, right?  Toddlers also benefit from learning how to explore, be creative and entertain themselves too!  I just had a new baby 3 months ago so I have learned how to make the most of toddler independence in this time.  If you have a new baby head over to my post on How to survive life with a baby and toddler for some more ideas!

1 Comment

  1. Jalina

    September 8, 2018 at 12:10 am

    Love these tips! We’ve been encouraging independent play with our toddler from Day 1, and it has totally paid off. Sometimes I feel bad he is SO independent, but then I realize I’m raising him to one day be an independent ADULT, and I’m proud of how well he’s moving toward that.

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