How to Encourage Independent Play: 25 Simple Ideas for Toddlers & Preschoolers

girl playing independently with blocks

Does having your kids play on their own feel like some far-fetched fantasy? One of those things you read about, dream about, and talk about with your  mom friends (or hear how well it’s going for them, which makes you want to chew your arm off?). And yet it never quite seems to materialize in your home? If you’re pulling your hair out wondering how to encourage independent play for your toddler or preschooler, you’re definitely not alone!

It can be incredibly frustrating when our kids are constantly demanding we be their playmates. Or react to EVERY SINGLE THING THEY DO.

Solitary play–when our kids play on their own, without direction, supervision or constant feedback from us–is something we can and should expect of our kids. It’s something they’re naturally wired for. But at the same time, it can take a bit of learning curve, both for us and our kids.

If you’ve been trying to encourage solitary play for a while without success, check out our post on Why independent play fails. It’s a ‘troubleshooting’ guide you can work through to figure out where things may be going off-track (or not getting going at all).

But even if you’ve got all the right boxes ticked, sometimes it’s just a case of needing to give our kids a helping hand to kickstart their solitary play mode into gear. This is especially true if their default setting has ‘screen mode’ for a while (thanks again, pandemic!).

Independent play has so many vital benefits for our kids’ development (and let’s not forget the major upside for tired parents!). Which is why it’s really worth getting past the initial hurdles.

The following independent play kick-starters are inspired, tried and tested by my own kids. They require minimal setup and supplies, and can be adapted to different settings, whether you’re home or away. Give them a try and find out which ones are a hit with your kids! (And drop us a comment to let us know how things went?)

Toddler Independent Play – 10 Sensory Play Ideas

play dough is truly one of the easiest ways to encourage independent play for kids!

If you’ve been struggling for ideas on how to encourage independent play with your toddler, don’t overthink it! Toddlers are simple creatures (okay, that’s a lie). But one thing we do know about them is they love getting their hands into everything and making a mess!  So here’s your go-to for toddlers: sensory play.

Give them something they can explore with their hands, bodies–and yes, unavoidably their mouths–and give them the freedom to make a mess. (You get to control exactly where the mess happens, at least). To get you started, here are 10 simple sensory play ideas for toddlers:

1. Bath foam, bubbles or bath paint

Kid-friendly shaving cream, bath foam spray, squeeze-out bath paints, washable finger paints and bubble-makers in the bath are all winners to keep your toddler busy for 15 minutes or more. You can choose to do this at bath time too, of course, but it’s great any time of day since you can leave them on their own without there being a bath-full of water to worry about. Dress your kiddo in some old clothes or an old swimsuit if it’s not warm enough to do some naked play!

2. Slime in the bath

After my first experience with kids slime (which involved scrubbing my daughter’s clothes with vinegar, a toothbrush and a sponge for 45 minutes), I vowed NEVER AGAIN. Then I realised there is a clothes-free solution that will preserve the slime-fun as well as my sanity. Simply let them play with it in the bath! Your toddler gets the full sensory experience, and it’s easy enough to clean off the bath when they’re done. Try this homemade slime recipe if you dare! 

3. Plastic animal bath mates

Put your toddler in the bath with a large gathering of plastic animals they enjoy–a themed set like these sea creatures, dinosaurs, or insects is always great. Make it at a warm time of day, in just a few inches of water (you can always put on their swim suit). Or cover the bottom with foam instead of water so he can play ‘hide and seek’ with his plastic friends. Use a non-slip mat if you’re concerned about slipping hazards.

4. Pasta Play

Fill a large container with dried noodles (you can easily dye them exciting colours for extra fun! Or try it with cooked pasta if you’re prepared for a bit of extra mess) . Add a spoon, a scooper, or some tongs, and a couple of extra cups or bowls, and watch those fine motor skills go to work! 

5. Cereal Surprise

All kids love playing with their cereal, so why not give them full permission and see how long you can ride that solo play train? Go with the no-milk version, obviously. Toss a generous helping of dry breakfast cereal like Cheerios, Frosted Flakes or Froot Loops in a large bowl or container (raw rice is also a low-cost alternative), and give your toddler some unusual implements to ‘work’ with. You could also hide a little toy animal or two in the bottom of the bowl for an extra surprise. Oh, and try to pick a time when they’re not actually hungry 😉 

6. Cornmeal Sandpit

If you haven’t got a real sandpit, try a mini indoor or outdoor version with some corn meal on a large tray or kids activity table. Add a few forks, spoons, or toy animals and let those little hands get busy.

7. Playdough

Playdough never goes out of style, and for good reason. Here are the top 3 playdough brands I recommend (they have great texture and don’t dry out too easily). Add a few plastic plates, knives, forks and other poking implements you can find around the house (no need to buy a fancy playdough set), and you’re golden for half an hour or more. For a real treat, these playdough ice-cream makers really turn on those little imaginations (just be prepared for the follow-up requests for the real thing!). 

8. Themed Sensory Bin

If you’ve got a little more time and motivation on your hands, try creating a themed sensory bin for your toddler to explore. It only requires a few simple materials, and it’s a fantastic way to stimulate your toddler’s learning, vocabulary and imagination. Check out this teacher’s handy guide for how to make the best sensory bins

9. Poker Chip Slots

Dig out your old poker game set, or order this cheap one online. Measure the poker chips and cut a large enough slit in the lid of an empty ice cream container or any large tin. Show your toddler how to feed the chips through the slot, and they’ll soon be keen to take over. For slightly older toddlers, you can prepare a few different containers, and encourage them to sort the different coloured chips into each one. 

10. The Wonder of Water 

When all else fails, go back to the basics. In my experience, toddlers NEVER get bored of playing with water! Naturally, this is best done outdoors. Fill up a bucket (one that’s too small to get their head into) or a large shallow container, add a few different sized bowls, bottles or scoopers, and they’ll be A-for-away.

 

How to Encourage Independent Play Outdoors – 5 Quick Ideas

little boy playing with hose

Image by Phil Goodwin on Unsplash

There’s something pure and deeply satisfying about seeing our kids play outdoors. (Or maybe it’s just the deep sense of relief that they’re not staring at a screen for once!?)

I’ve found that even if my kids aren’t initially keen on the idea of moving things outdoors (after all, there’s another episode of Bluey coming up), it doesn’t take long for the power of nature–and their inner nature–to kick in.

But there are some days when that inner outdoor-lover seems a little sluggish. Or they’re dragging me out by my pinkies for another marathon of Red Light Green Light (which I can never play again without being haunted by images from Squid Game). So, when I’m desperate for half an hour of psychological peace to make a few calls or do my monthly meal plan, it’s handy to have one of these outdoor independent play kick-starters on hand.

1. Sprinkler Fun

This is a classic that never really gets old.  Get your child in their swim suit on a warm day and simply turn on the sprinkler. Then sit back and watch the fun (or get 20 minutes of work done!)

2. Mud Pit

This works great on a day after some rain, or as a natural follow-on from the sprinkler fun. But it can work anytime if you have a sandpit, an empty flower bed, or a random patch of dirt to work with. Dress your kids is an outfit you hate (you know, those bright orange dungarees with the frills), then let them loose with buckets of water and tell them they have permission to create the world’s muddiest mud pit. You could also tell them it’s a Muddy Puddle Jumping Contest, so it’s time to find their inner piggies.

3. Garden Restaurant

Give your kiddo a plastic plate or bowl and tell them they’ve just gotten a job at the ‘garden restaurant.’  Tell them they have an important mission to collect ingredients to make a salad for the insects or the birds. (And of course they can soon progress to mains and desserts). You get to be the garden restaurant critic and send them back to create more elaborate ‘platings’ until you’re fully satisfied (and finished with your DIY manicure).

4. Ant Bar

If you have ant nests or holes in the garden, let your little one crumble a cracker or a cookie nearby. Tell them they have the important job of  watching how long it takes the ants to eat it. (Be sure to provide an extra cookie for the spectator 😉

5. Insect Inspector

Yes, we’re going on a theme here. It’s a fact, most kids are fascinated by insects. Encourage their inner entomologist with a few pro tools like a magnifying glass, a butterfly net, or a cute insect catcher kit like this one.  Tell them to see how many different kinds of bugs they can find (and catch!). If you’re worried about them picking up something not-so-friendly, have some reading fun together first with this book about insects that Crawl, Bite & Sting!

Creative & Pretend Play for Toddlers and Preschoolers – 5 Indoor Ideas

scene with lego figures

Image by Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

Of course there are plenty of times where indoor play is the only option, and you’re just not in the mood to deal with anything wet or sticky! Pretend play is one of the most natural forms of solitary play for young kids, so it’s a great avenue to tap into from early on.  In terms of age, toddlers start imaginative play from around 14-18 months old. Even earlier than that, you’ll see your baby starting to mimic your actions with toys or household objects, which is the foundation for role-playing and other forms of ‘pretend’.

The point is, it’s never too early to start encouraging their imagination.  Just bear in mind that for kids, creative exploration is very rooted in the physical world. That’s why it’s important to provide them with plenty of physical objects to stimulate their imagination. Here are a few ideas to get those physical and creative juices flowing!

1. Pillow Fort

If you’ve never built a pillow fort, are you really a parent? 😉 Seriously, it might make your lounge unrecognizable for a while, but it’s worth it to keep those little monsters out of your hair! So move the coffee table, strip off the couch cushions and send your kid off to gather all the spare pillows and cushions in the house. They might need a little help at first with moving heavier cushions, and making sure there’s a safe ‘landing zone’. But once the basic structure’s in place, you can leave your kids to unleash their inner castle designers, gymnasts and get all the wiggles out. Put on some dance music to keep things pumping, add a balloon or two, or throw in a few stuffies for pillow fort hide-and-seek.

2. Christmas All Year

It’s never too early for Christmas! So bring out the Christmas decorations , and  if you’re really ready to commit, put up your fake Christmas tree and let your kiddo have at it. If you’re not quite ready for the full Christmas tree replay, let them figure out which part of the house needs some Christmas cheer!

3. Dress-up Box

Prepare a dress-up box with some of mom and dad’s (or older siblings’) clothes. Add in shoes, slippers, scarves, hats, coats, gloves, glasses and other accessories for plenty of options, and make sure there’s a mirror nearby!

4. Bling it Up

A jewelry box full of old or unused accessories is a very enticing treasure trove for little hands to explore. (Of course, you could combine this with the dress-up box as well).

5. Puppet Show or Doll Theatre (Preschoolers Only)

Ask your preschooler to make up a story that they can act out with play figures (barbies, dolls, Lego people, toy animals, stuffies) or puppets, if you happen to have those on hand (sorry, couldn’t resist). Tell  them you’ll be back in 20 minutes to watch the performance.

More Independent Activities for Children Age 3 and up:

  • Provide a stash of dry macaroni pasta or real beads and some suitable thread, and let them make a necklace (this one keeps my daughter busy for a full half hour!)
  • Hand your preschooler some safety scissors and a few pieces of scrap paper (or old magazines). In 20 minutes or more you’ll have a good confetti supply for your preschooler’s next pretend doll wedding!
  • Give your child a long rope to play with outside — they’ll love experimenting with making knots and net-like structures if you have a fence, low-branched tree or any other basic framework they can use.
  • Collect some empty plastic bottles, bowls, and a couple of plastic spoons for the bath. Let your child experiment with various bath-friendly ingredients to concoct pretend recipes or a ‘magic potion’. A definite winner with my 4-year-old!

Got some more home-brewed ideas to encourage independent play?  We’d love to hear about them 🙂

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