Molly Howard, Primary School Teacher

Molly's beautiful play room

Does your toddler always want you to play with them?  Here are Molly’s 10 top tips to help children learn to play independently …

  1. Only have a few toys/activities set up. Try not to overstimulate your child. The fewer activities the better the outcomes will be. It will help them to stay focused on one activity for a longer period of time. The rule in my house is if my toddler wants another toy/activity then he must tidy and put away the ones he has out.
  2. When setting up activities or getting toys out for the children to play, I always let my toddler have a choice in the decision. I do suggest open-ended toys as I think they help to spark a child’s imagination and further develop their creativity! Wooden toys and loose parts are very popular in our house as well as water play.
  3. Pay your child attention! It’s important not to have the expectation that your child only ever plays alone. I always start the day by creating an activity to play with the children.
  4. Model ways to play. I always model new ways to play or use toys/crafts before I set my toddler off to play independently. For example, I might show my son how to make a tower with the blocks or Mr Potato head with the playdough. Giving him a bit of inspiration but letting him create whatever he wants so that the play is open ended. This also helps to ensure that children spend more time engaged in an activity. Did you know that longer engagement with an activity naturally creates a new stimulation which builds neural connections to enhance learning and brain development?
  5. Try to avoid interrupting a child’s play. I know sometimes it’s unavoidable but if you are having a day at home then try not to. Even if you think “oh no they haven’t got an apron on”, don’t worry as clothes can be washed and children can be bathed. Otherwise you might interrupt deep engagement and enjoyment and this might create an unhappy child. Some parents may think they are being a bad parent if they don’t ask questions when their child is playing. Honestly, watching and observing is key! You will learn so much about your child’s development through observation! Stay near by but no need to sit right next to them. I always found that sitting back but still in ears shot of the children in my Reception class actually enabled the children to work better. The children didn’t feel like they were being watched so they could be themselves. Their confidence grew and the role play dialogue was always so much better when they thought they were only surrounded by their peers.
  6. Show your child attention in another way. Comment on how nicely they are playing or how cool their creations are. Praise is key to building a child’s confidence and self-esteem! When they are finished they might want to show off their amazing creations, this is the best time to ask questions and allow the your child to describe what they have made. I always use the sentence….”tell me about your creation/picture…..” instead of “is that a….” and guessing as that can actually be detrimental to their confidence and self-esteem. Let the child be in charge and lead the conversation. You could display their crafts/creations in the house but at their eye level. This helps them to recognise you are proud of their work and that it’s being valued.
  7. Do not worry about the mess! Anyone that has worked in Early Years will relate with me here. Who cares if the house looks like a tip, if the children are playing nicely then no need to moan about the toys being all over the place! I try to have a few tidy up times in the day. Usually when we go for lunch, dinner, and bedtime. This also ensures that my children’s play isn’t interrupted by something that isn’t important.
  8. Don’t set your expectations too high! Children learn and further develop skills with lots of practise! If your child isn’t used to playing alone, then start off by promoting independence for a few minutes a day. My toddler is still at this stage so I always say whilst I’m making breakfast, lunch and dinner he is to play alone but after eating I will play with him. This has really helped him play independently and create his own play.
  9. Tidy up time! Another great way to promote independence and a skill needed for adult life! Encourage your children to tidy up after themselves!! Yes you can help them but encourage them to join in. Otherwise you might have a husband like me, he still doesn’t know where he has put things and I am constantly tidying up after him!
  10. Sometimes having two children means arguments and bickering over the same toy. My top tip here is try to intervene by distracting and redirecting them if you sense something is about to go wrong. Have toys in each room of the house, this ensures that you can keep a watchful eye and that the children are always in your sight. As your children get older this can obviously progress to within ears shot. This ensures that you are able to intervene if you can sense something is about to go wrong. I know that having two under 3s means that if they are playing together then sometimes it’s necessary for me to intervene. Usually to stop my eldest wrestling his baby brother! Sometimes my eldest can be a little boisterous as in reality he is just a baby himself and still learning. Sometimes my eldest likes to play alone and doesn’t like his little brother interrupting his play, so I will give my youngest something different to play with. Or I will redirect my eldest to play with something else.


Molly Howard

Qualified Primary School Teacher and Mum of 2 boys!

Click link to find lots of exciting play ideas on Molly’s Instagram page!!

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