Let’s just say it: there are major limitations to how long a 2-year-old can play on their own 🙃
Every child is different, but children at this age are generally going to need adult supervision, guidance, and help, at least beyond the first few minutes. According to a study in Infant & Child Development Journal, 2-year-olds have an attention span of about five to eight minutes.
The goods news: even at this early age there are ways of teaching your toddler independent play, and solitary play can be extremely beneficial for your child’s development.
Here’s how to support independent play in 2-year-olds
Consider a daily “work time”
If you begin this practice early, it can function in a similar way to “rest time” when kids start to outgrow naps. During “work time,” everyone is doing something on their own—adults may be working (doing professional work, reading, home projects) and kids may be playing. This time may not last for more than a few minutes, especially at first, but the more you instill its importance, the more they can build up to longer stretches.
Keep realistic expectations during work time: if you’re cooking, for example, you can give them a related task to work on nearby, like dropping chopped vegetables into a bowl or mixing ingredients.
Create a “yes space”
Spaces where children have just the right amount of playthings, at just the right difficulty and interest for them, and where nothing is unsafe or forbidden, are known as “yes spaces.” Children hear “no” a lot, and providing them with a yes space where they’re encouraged to explore without restrictions can build their attention span and help support independent play.
Offer fewer choices and rotate toys for novelty
The Montessori philosophy of play teaches that when it comes to physical objects, less is more. Providing only a few choices helps children get deeper into play, play for longer periods of time, and form more meaningful bonds with their playthings.
Set up stations
Daycare and preschool teachers often set up simple stations that kids can rotate freely between. The key here is “simple”—try putting only a handful of blocks in one basket, a small collection of natural items in another (leaves, pine cones, rocks), and a scale with objects to weigh in a third.
Invite them to play
It may seem counterintuitive, but an invitation to play—done thoughtfully and intentionally—can help build your child’s independence. Becca from Il Bambino explains:
“Set up an activity they can do on their own (sensory bin, looking at books, doll play, etc). Start the play with them. Be sure to stay present (avoid looking at a phone or wandering off to the mental checklist). Once it appears they are hooked into the play, switch to observation mode—less talking (naming shapes, colors, counting, etc., for them) and more letting them get into their concentration zone.”
You may still need to be nearby, but at this point you can try to leave them to play on their own for a little while.
Play less intrusively
When we play with our young kids, many of us tend to take charge: it’s human nature and a natural habit. When we practice being loving and helpful supporters of play—rather than directors—we allow children to discover more about themselves and what they can do.
Janet Lansbury, an educator and proponent of the RIE parenting method, says “learning to be a play ‘supporter’ rather than playmate takes practice, entails sensitive observation, open-mindedness, acceptance and, most of all, restraint (especially for those more inclined to do than watch). But once we get this down, it is an incredibly relaxing, satisfying, Zen-like experience.”
Practicing less intrusive play supports our children in learning independence and confidence. It also sets the stage for longer stretches of solitary play. When your child asks for help, try suggesting a solution for them to try rather than doing it yourself; when they ask you to get something for them, remind them where it is so they can go find it.
Take a cue from improv and play pretend
In the world of improv comedy, the governing philosophy is “yes and”—which means that whatever reality is put forth in front of you, you accept it and move forward with it. As 2-year-olds begin to play pretend, you may be invited to drink tea with them, put their babies to bed, or ride the train. When you meet them where they are, you validate their imagination and help them get lost in a world of pretend play. The more you reinforce that their pretend play is meaningful and fun, the more you’ll see them start to play pretend on their own.
Learn more about the research
Gaertner BM, Spinrad TL, Eisenberg N. Focused Attention in Toddlers: Measurement, Stability, and Relations to Negative Emotion and Parenting. Infant & Child Development. 2008 Aug;17(4):339-363
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