Helping Your Child Learn to Play Indepently

Little kids learn through play, not by being taught.   I bet most of you are already quite aware of the beneficial effect on a child’s brain development from being allowed to play with a variety of age-appropriate toys and other household objects. 


You, like many parents, may delight in your initial role of “helping” your baby play and “making the toys come alive” for your toddler.  You participate every time you are asked and your baby or toddler may start to cry or call you back whenever you move away.

Now it’s time to offer a new type of learning. As your child grows and is able to reach for things and eventually becomes mobile, your role as playmate should fade into what might be called a facilitator of your child’s play.


When parents gently fade their role as entertainer or playmate, a child slowly becomes able to play directly with the play objects, enjoying the presence of an adult nearby, but not demanding direct involvement at all times.


Of course some babies and toddlers will be resistant as the parent moves away.  If this is the case, a parent can initially make their absences brief and for a purpose, saying, “I’ll be right back, I have to pour my coffee.”  It’s important that you allow your child to protest (and even follow you, crying) without letting it upset you or causing you to return immediately. 


Soon, the times you spend engaged elsewhere will occupy more and longer stretches (70% of your day?) and your time actually on the floor playing will be scattered through the day in segments of about 15 minutes at a time  (30% of your time?). 


During your increasingly extended times away from the role as entertainer, it is important to maintain a rather boring demeanor (to your child, anyway) – actively giving about 95% of your attention to what you are engaged in.  You can add in humming a tune, turn on the radio or play a CD to fill the air and give further clues to your child.  If you answer every little squeak or plea for attention, your child may continue to press you to start some entertainment.


Once your child comes to accept that your play times together will still occur through the day at your initiation (avoid giving in to begging or whining) your child will become “resigned” to figuring out ways to play without your presence or coaching or constant involvement. 

(This may take a while as your child continues to test to see if he can change your mind.)

Question: Will your nanny or home caregiver be willing to handle her day the same way? The answer is that you’ll need to explain that It’s best if she gives herself breaks during her day so your baby or child continues up the road toward happy, independent play.