6 Ways to Encourage Independent Play for Your Toddler

As each mom enters the phase of toddler motherhood, we all begin to go a little bonkers at some point.

Toddlers are wonderful and energizing and yet somehow, at the same time, terrifying and exhausting.

If you’re a busy mom, or you work from home, independent play can be a lifesaver.

But how do you encourage independent play for your toddler?

When we decided that it was time for me to start working from home, I spent a lot of time trying out different ways to create the perfect environment to foster independent play for my toddler.

I knew I needed to get work done and that there had to be a way to do so without stopping every 5 seconds to play or keep my son from eating whatever it was he found.

After a while, we finally got into a groove and, along the way, I picked up some great tips on how to make independent play a reality.

Teach Your Toddler to Independently Play

1. Be the Right Amount of “Present”

Just because you want your little one to learn to play independently, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be around.

In fact, one of the best thing I did to finally settle into this new lifestyle, was to find a way for my son to play independently and safely (so I could look away to focus on work) in an environment where he could still choose to come see me if he needed me.

In our case, we set up a sort of barricaded play zone in the living room where my son can’t get into anything he shouldn’t.

I sit on the couch, within this play zone, and work while my son plays on his own for the most part.

Periodically, he will come over to show me something or ask for a kiss (which I obviously can’t refuse) but it’s just a quick second and he’s off to play again.

I think the reason this method works so well for us is because he knows I’m there and he can come see me whenever he wants. When we initially tried separating him into a play area by himself, he just cried for me, even though I was just outside of his reach and he could still see me.

2. Don’t Forget About One-On-One Time

Another thing to consider is how much one-on-one time you give your child outside of independent play time.

Since I need to be able to focus on work for the majority of the day, I try to take advantage of caretaking activities as an opportunity to focus solely on my son.

When I am changing him, I take a few extra minutes to sing a silly song or play with him a bit.

When it’s nap time, I devote enough time to snuggle him just a little longer. Throughout the day, he is still getting heavy doses of “mommy time” so when it comes time for mommy to work, he’s more than happy to run off and do his own thing.

Of course, in the evenings and on the weekends, I make an effort to spend some quality time playing with my son as well. I know it’s important for our bond, and I make it a priority, but during the week, Mommy’s gotta work!

3. Seek Out Independent Activities

Try to find activities that you could introduce to your toddler that don’t require interaction from others to be fun.

Legos or any sort of building toys seem to be a particularly good option. Creativity and independent play tend to go hand in hand. Try letting your little one color (just make sure they don’t eat the crayons) or create something new.

4. Let Them Decide

Sometimes my son surprises me with the activities he tends to enjoy the most.

I’ll get all excited about introducing some awesome new toy to him and he’ll find his old hat and run around putting it on and taking it off all day.

Follow your little one’s lead. If they seem drawn to something, try to find a way to incorporate it in independent play.

I’m totally guilty of planning everything out for my son the way I think it should be done, but I have to remind myself sometimes to take a step back. I’m not a toddler – how would I know how it should be done?

Independent play time is his time so he should have a say!

5. Mix it Up

For example, my son loves playing with his little soccer ball, but he really loves playing with it when daddy’s around.

On the other hand, when it comes to legos, my husband and I might as well not exist. He’s in his own world.

I’ve tried to observe which toys and activities seem to encourage independent play and rotate them a bit. If I give my son the same options every day, eventually he will get bored and start demanding more attention.

6. Stick to a Routine

While mixing up the activities is a great way to keep your little one entertained, mixing up the routine may not be.

Kids thrive on schedules and knowing when it’s independent play time can make the process so much easier!

At this point, my son clearly knows that after breakfast, it’s independent play time. We go sit down on the couch together and within a couple of minutes he’s off doing his own thing and is in no way bothered by the fact that I am working.

It took a little while to get into this routine, but now that we have, it makes every day so much easier. He knows what to expect, which reduces the likelihood of the dreaded toddler meltdown.

A Note of Encouragement

Don’t get discouraged when you have an off day every now and then.

Being a toddler is tough!

They have new teeth busting through their gums, can’t properly communicate their frustrations, and don’t understand why staying up all night has lead to such a cranky mood.

There will always be days when your little one just needs mommy. When this happens, I try my best to just accept them for what they are.

I’ll try to get what absolutely needs to be done that day accomplished during nap times and make the rest of the day a free day to spend some extra time with my son. What better excuse to take a day off from work, at least lighten the load?

After all, before we know it, these toddler days will be long gone and we’ll be begging for those snuggles!

If you’re struggling to find the balance between maintaining your home, and getting your work done, check out my homemaking tips when you work at home.

Does your little on practice independent play? Tell us all about your best tips and tricks in the comments below!

Jessica is a happily married stay at home mom of a little boy with a big personality. After having her son, she realized how important it is for moms to take care of themselves physically and mentally. Sane Momma is her contribution to help mommas everywhere find some sanity and focus on self-care.

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Hi Elna! I’m so glad you liked the tips! I know independent play has been a life saver for me and a lot of moms struggle with it. Right now my son is really into playing with interactive books and legos (he’s 19 months old). It’s so great that your MIL could help. We work at home Mommas need all the help we can get!Reply to Jessica
Jessica! Great advice for work at home moms. Even though I had twins and theoretically they could play with each other, they didn’t! My girl always wanted to play tea party and my son always wanted to play dinosaurs. So I had to find activities they both wanted to play. I’m fortunate, too, to have a MIL that would pop by at the right time and relieve me!Reply to Elna