When it comes to figuring out how to encourage independent play, you’d be surprised at the simple changes you can make to help support your little one. My e-course, How to Encourage Independent Play, walks you through all of the important aspects. But there are three quick tricks you can do today that will help your child engage in independent play.
Three Tips to Encourage Independent Play
Only set out 6-10 toys at a time
This took me a while to fully understand. Shouldn’t more toys give them more opportunities to play? Unfortunately, kids get overwhelmed easily, and having 6-10 (no more than 10!) toys out for your children, helps them have options without getting completely overwhelmed. It also keeps them from bouncing from one toy to the next. Basically, 6-10 toys help keep your children calm and engaged in what they’re doing.
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In my Play-Based Toddler Homeschool Curriculum, I go over what type of toys you should set out each week and how to introduce them to your child. And in my How to Build a Home that Encourages Independent Play for All Ages e-course, I talk about how to organize and rotate all of your toys so this process remains simple to maintain. I also share my favorite affordable toys for your playroom.
10 toys versus too many toys
On the left, you can see 10 of our son’s favorite toys spread out through his playroom. On the right, you can see 16 of his favorite toys in the playroom. Are both great setups? Yes! But the one on the left, with only 10 toys, is much more engaging for him and he will play much longer even though there are fewer toys. It’s simple, but it works. I challenge you to try it.
Side note: When I say “toys,” I really mean “activities.” Each activity is counted as one item.
Set the toys out in an inviting manner to encourage independent play
What in the world does this mean? How can a toy be inviting? Well, in order to engage a child in independent play, they need to want to play with their toys. So instead of filling in a puzzle with all of the pieces, I place the puzzle pieces next to the puzzle, just begging for the puzzle to be completed. Farm animals don’t sit inside our play barn. Nope! Farm animals are placed on a plastic tray next to the barn. Our son loves to grab the farm animals and place them inside the barn. Setting up his toys like this invites him to interact with them. This is the basis of encouraging independent play.
These 6-10 toys should also be set out where they are easily accessible for your child to reach them, not put away in a tub or box, waiting for your child to find them.
An engaging setup versus a typical setup
As you can see below, the barn on the left is empty and my son’s job is to move all of the animals wherever he wants! They are not isolated to the barn, but he often spends a good amount of time placing them in there. The barn on the right already has animals inside it and does not invite our son to engage with it.
Toys are all visible and easily accessible
Would it be nice to place a few baskets on our toy shelf and most of our toys in the large green chest? Yes, 10000%. BUT, the playroom isn’t about me. It’s about our son and in order for him to want to play with his toys, he needs to be able to see them first thing. He doesn’t need to dig around to find something he’d like to play with for a little bit. An unexpected perk of having open shelves and fewer toys is that it’s super easy to clean up! Typically takes less than 10 minutes. And switching out the toys every week is a breeze.
Keep all items from a set, together
I used to break toys apart, like our favorite stacking cups, thinking our son would be more likely to engage with them if a few pieces were in the shower and the rest were in our playroom. Nope. All pieces need to be stored together. This helps teach your child organization and allows them to fully explore the toy. Each part of that toy has a specific purpose, so it’s important to keep them all together.
A set kept together versus spread around
As you can see below, the toys on the left are grouped by type. All the animals are together and all the vehicles are together. This helps engage our son in that topic. On the right, the animals have been split up onto three different shelves and that is cluttered and confusing for him, even though it looks nice to us.
What makes me qualified to talk about independent play?
I know it’s hard to know who to trust on the internet! I promise to only share information and resources that have been researched, studied, and practiced. I studied Elementary Education in college and became an Elementary school teacher after college. I taught in Colorado, Spain, and South Carolina, before settling in North Carolina and creating curriculum for elementary teachers. As a mother, I love to research the best practice for supporting children developmentally and put them into motion. Everything I create and share has a purpose because I don’t want to waste my time or your time! These three tricks are ones I picked up from my Mother-in-law, who recently retired from over 25 years as a Montessori pre-school teacher.