5 Ways To Encourage Independent Play


Independence is something we want to encourage in our children. We want them to grow and venture out into the world to make the most of their lives. And in the short term we would simply like 15 minutes (or even 5!) to finish our household tasks without interruption.

I recently read a post by someone who said that children don’t need to play with adults. Now Hand in Hand parenting is an approach that really values the connection between parent and child. It’s not just about cooking, and cleaning up after them, and reading bedtime stories at night. It’s also about getting down on the floor with them, having a glimpse into their world, and an understanding that the power of our attention can be deeply healing.

An adult can’t replace a child’s need to have friends, and playmates. But an adult can connect in a way that meets a child’s need to process, and recover from any stress and upset in their lives.

Using the Hand in Hand parenting listening tools, naturally fosters independence in our children. With a big dose of connection they can internalise us as a safe base to go off and explore the world, whether it’s across the room, or away on a play date or sleepover.

Here are 5 tips for using Hand in Hand parenting to encourage our children’s independence.

  1. Get Some Listening Time For Yourself – How do you feel about your child’s ability to play independently? Do you feel frustrated by their clingyness and constant demands to ‘play with me!’? The emotional part of our children’s brain contains mirror neurons that reflect and pick up on the moods of the people around them. If we’re getting frustrated at their clingyness or constant need for attention, they’ll sense something is wrong and might respond by becoming even more clingy! When we get listened to we can clear out our minds, of all the feelings that get in the way of thinking clearly about what to do. Then we’ll be in good emotional shape for the next steps.
  2. Give Your Child Some Attention – Larry Cohen the author of Playful Parenting
    says, I’m always amazed when adults say that children “just did that to get attention”. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them? When we try to get our child to play independently by saying ‘go play,’ or telling them we’re busy this can be counterproductive. If their requests for play are constantly rebuffed they may start asking for attention in more challenging ways. They might then go and hit a sibling, or pull the cat’s tail. If we can respond by saying yes, when children ask to play their connection cup gets full so they’ll be more chance of them playing independently in the future. I found this Ted talk by Shonda Rimes incredibly moving. She talks about how for one year she said yes every time her children asked her to play. I actually don’t think we should say yes every single time (see my further tips!) but saying yes as much as we can is a good aim to have.
  3. Do Some Special Time – Make special time a regular part of your life. It could be that a fixed time each week works for you. It could be that you notice the moments when your child feels disconnected, and use special time to build a sense of connection again. Sometimes when special time is over they will continue to play contentedly as happened in my story here. Special time helps our children internalise our presence so they feel safe to explore by themselves.
  4. Listen To Big Upsets – So you just did special time and found that your child did not happily continue playing with their Lego as per step 3!  Instead they started lying on the floor and tantrumming because you told them you had to go and tidy up the kitchen. Contrary to popular belief, crying is not necessarily a sign that your parenting methods aren’t working. Sometimes it’s actually a sign that they are working. As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, crying is a healing process. If you have played and given your child attention then they sense that you are available to listen to their bigger feelings. They use your limit as a trigger to release these feelings. Holding the limit while listening and staying close lets your child release feelings that get in the way of them feeling safe enough to play independently. Whenever upsets come up, it’s always good to stay in the moment and listen, rather than trying to distract or fix. Releasing big feelings in your presence allows children to connect deeply to you, and with that connection internalised they feel safer to play independently.
  5. Use Giggle Parenting You might find that you finish special time and your child doesn’t happily continue playing by themselves, nor do they throw a big tantrum. Instead they whine and moan, and follow you around. In this case, they may need to build their sense of connection with giggle parenting. If you’re going to tidy up, you might like to invite them to be ‘untidy’ to get the laughter flowing, as I did in this blog post here. Or you might want to put items away in the wrong places and then start exclaiming, ”oh no! That’s not right! Where does that go again?” get confused at your mistakes. Soon enough they’ll either be happily helping or you, or decide they’d rather play by themselves.

I hope these tips help your process the feelings that can get in the way of them playing independently. Do let me know how you get on in the comments below!

Further Resources 

A Little Special Time In The Morning – How Starting the day off right encourages independent play.

Giggle Parenting Inspiration for a clingy, ‘shy’ Toddler  – How a little laughter can encourage independent play.

10 Ways To Use Special Time To Transform Your Day – Adding little moments of special time throughout your day can encourage independent play.

7 thoughts on “5 Ways To Encourage Independent Play

  1. Once again, great tips! I need to keep number 4 in mind, especially! It’s so hard for me to not “give in” to crying and allow more time or 10 more minutes at the park etc! It’s really counterproductive how I do it!

  2. thank you Rachel! It is really ‘parenting’ best kept secret’ that when we give in to crying, we are actually making parenting much harder than it needs to be. Because actually children can be really flexible (way deep down) and can be fine about leaving the park, even though they had a great time. When they attach those feelings into not wanting to leave the park there’s usually a bigger reason, that they may not even be conscious of and probably can’t put into words, but just listening can help them get back to their flexible selves. It’s easier at home though! Because people really aren’t used to this listening way of being with children. Thank you for reading, i really appreiciate reading your comments.

  3. Oh, I love “their connection cup gets full”!
    Sometimes I don’t feel that I have it in me to give THAT much – my son’s cup seems to be a trenta 😉

    Tidying up always works in one way or another. Either he helps or gets busy himself.

    One day, as I was preparing for St. Patrick’s Day, he and his friend – they were 4 or 5yo I think – kept fighting. I let them choose between going outside to use some of their energy or come to the kitchen and peel some potatoes for our shepherd’s pie. Man, was I surprise when they asked for the peeling knife! They did a good job, too and totally calmed down!

  4. that is so interesting Tamara. They wanted to stay with you to get their connection cup full 🙂 With Hand in Hand we always talk about how when kids get disconnected from adults they often take it out as aggression. Yep, that’s why we have the parents getting listened to part, because the amount of connection children what is massive!

  5. Hi Kate, I like your giggle parenting tips and the idea from the other day about getting a puppet to tell the child what to do. I’ve luckily never had a problem with encouraging independent play as my first children were twins and my youngest is really content in her own world and can play for ages with playmobile or cuddly toys. The only problem at the moment is her dislike of separation, especially as I’m going away for the weekend on Friday, a very rare occurance!

    1. yes, for us it’s sometimes a challenge as I just have one child. Oh yes, I remembered we were discussing separation anxiety before! My daughter has also had a resurgence of it, (she’s 4.5). I wonder if for her she’s thinking about school and the impending separation and that’s triggering some feelings.

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