Play & Activities

Independent Play

Child playing with different toys from The Play Kits by Lovevery

Play & Activities

May start as early as

6 months

Related skills

Sensory Play, Pretend Play

Encouraging independent play isn’t quite as easy as letting your kiddo run loose in the yard. Young children often need a little more structure to help them get started. But encouraging independence and autonomy during playtime doesn’t have to be complicated either. Learn easy ways to get your child started with independent play, and why this type of play is so important for their development.

In this article

What is independent play?

When you hear the term “independent play,” you may envision your child happily playing alone for long, uninterrupted stretches with minimal guidance from you. The reality of independent play for young children looks a little different. 

For both babies and toddlers, independent play simply involves them playing on their own with a parent or caregiver nearby for short periods of time, often just a few minutes. Your baby may be able to play independently on The Play Gym or a blanket with you nearby. Your toddler may play independently by creating structures with blocks while you work or cook dinner nearby. 

Independent play is distinct from unsupervised play. With young children, an adult always needs to be nearby for safety and support.

Why is independent play important?

All types of play can benefit children’s development, but independent play in particular helps children practice important skills. Some of the benefits of independent play include:

Encouraging creativity: When children play independently, they get to come up with their own ideas for how to play. Research suggests that independent play may be linked to divergent thinking in children, which is the ability to think “outside the box,” find creative solutions, and see multiple paths forward.  

Practicing attention: Independent play lets your child practice focusing their attention on one activity. When they play alone, children have fewer distractions and may find it easier to engage with play in a focused way. Research shows that as children mature, they’re often able to focus on independent play for longer periods of time, especially between the ages of 1 and 3.5.

Developing self-regulation: When children are allowed to play independently, they’re given more opportunities to choose their own activities and assert their autonomy, which helps build self-regulation skills. Children who participate in unstructured quiet free play in early childhood (ages 2 to 5) may have better self-regulation skills even years later.

How to encourage independent play

Every child is different, and independent play may or may not come naturally to yours. With practice, your child can learn to play more independently, especially as they grow to preschool age. Here are some ways to encourage independent play:

Support independent play by staying close. Toddlers often need a little support to get started with independent play—initially, they may prefer you close by, at least in the same room. Start small by encouraging your child to play independently for a few minutes while you write an email or prep some vegetables for dinner. You might present your child with a short independent task, like using the Super Sustainable Sink to “wash” cups. Knowing you’re close may give them the confidence to play independently for longer than you’d expect ❤️ 

Avoid interrupting. While your child is playing independently, you may be tempted to ask them questions or compliment them on their focus, but try to let them work on their own without interruption. Later, you can ask them questions and mention you noticed how hard they worked.

Set up your child’s environment. Research finds that giving young children specific guidance or ideas for their independent playtime may help them learn to engage in longer periods of sustained play. You could leave out a Treasure Basket full of items your toddler may not have seen before—keeping all the items in the same category may help encourage play, such as balls, toy cars, or animal figures. 

Provide open-ended playthings. Open-ended toys allow your child to use their imagination and creativity to find new ways to play. Blocks, scarves, art supplies, or nesting cups can be used in different ways every time. One day your toddler’s block can be a car, the next day they can pretend it’s a piece of fruit. 

Open-ended playthings like the Nesting Stacking Dripdrop Cups from The Inspector Play Kit encourage independent play.

Allow your child to problem-solve. As your child plays independently, they may encounter a challenge or problem they have trouble solving. Perhaps they can’t quite figure out how to stack more pegs from the Wooden Stacking Pegboard without making the tower fall. It’s hard to see your child get frustrated and struggle during playtime, but wait a moment before intervening to see if they can discover a solution on their own. Problem-solving is one of the benefits of independent play.

Share a difficult task. For babies and young toddlers, you can support problem-solving during independent play by doing part of it for them, then encouraging them to do the rest. For example, your baby might not be able to place the ball on top of the Ball Drop Box at first. You can put the ball on top of the hole for your baby and encourage them to push it through. They may want you to keep placing the ball over and over again to practice—repetition is how they learn. As they figure out how to voluntarily let go of an object, you can help guide their hand to the correct spot until they’re ready to try it on their own.

Child playing with the Ball Drop Box from The Inspector Play Kit
The Ball Drop Box from The Inspector Play Kit offers a just-right level of challenge for babies to explore independently—with support from you.

Independent play time by age

Your child’s ability to play independently depends largely on their stage of development. Babies and young toddlers can play independently for very short periods before needing support or assistance from you. Having developmentally appropriate expectations for your child’s independent play can help prevent frustration—for you and your child.

Babies: up to about 2 minutes
1- to 2-year-olds: up to about 4 minutes
3- to 4-year-olds: up to about 8 minutes

These are just estimated ranges—your little one’s ability to focus on independent play will vary from day to day, and can be impacted by everything from the time of day (post-naptime is generally a great time for play) to hunger, illness, sensory overload, or your baby’s mood or temperament.

Independent play for babies

Babies can and should engage in independent play. It may not look like much, but at this young age, “play” is simply having the autonomy to move around or engage with a toy or two. All the while, their minds and bodies are working and learning.

Even when your baby is playing independently, you can be responsive. Observe what your baby is doing, and they may invite you to join them by making eye contact or sounds. Follow their lead and let them work up to longer stretches of entertaining themselves. A good rule of thumb: Wait for your baby to invite you into their play with eye contact or sounds.

For a baby, independent play does not mean independence. Your baby should not be left alone to play in a room by themselves. It’s very common for babies, after focusing on their own, to need to refuel their emotional tank with a hug, cuddle, gaze, or other interaction with a caregiver. This allows them to go back to playing. 

Independent play activities for babies

No need to surround your baby with playthings; just one or two simple toys for independent play is enough. Start with items that attract your baby’s attention such as a high-contrast book, a rattle, or a toy that has a variety of textures.

A good way to begin is to allow your baby to play independently on a play mat or a soft blanket, like The Play Gym. Once your baby is sitting up on their own, they can explore The Play Gym and other toys from a new angle. From a seated position, they’re able to reach and discover more than before. Now they get to make choices: Do they want to reach and hold the Organic Cotton High Contrast Ball or sound the Batting Ring’s bell? 

The Play Gym is designed to encourage early independent play.

The Stainless Steel Jingle Keys are another perfect item for solo play. Their quiet, soothing sound offers stimulation but also leaves space for your baby to concentrate. What does this concentration look like? Your baby may shake the keys, transfer them from one hand to the other, drop them—or look like they’re doing nothing at all.

By allowing your baby to play independently, you’re validating their methods, choices, and ideas, which builds their sense of self and gives them the opportunity to problem solve and follow through on their own  ❤️

Independent play for toddlers

As your baby grows into a toddler, you can establish a routine of regular independent playtime. When you create a space and time for independent play and exploration, you demonstrate that your child’s interests and ideas are valued and trusted. 

It may not be realistic to expect your 2- or 3-year-old to play independently for long periods of time right away. A child’s attention span grows as they age, and their focus does as well. Start small and as they become more skilled at independent play, you may find that they enjoy it for longer periods of time. 

One key to encouraging toddler independent play is to avoid overwhelming them with choices. Laying out a roomful of toys for them to choose from may backfire and can cause your child to move from plaything to plaything without really deeply engaging along the way. Instead, try putting out just one or two options for independent playtime. 

Independent play activities for toddlers

Simple is often best when it comes to independent play activities for toddlers. Keep in mind that your toddler may not be capable of extended periods of independent play. You may want to play with your toddler for a few minutes to help them engage with the activity, then step away and let your toddler engage on their own. 

Set up stations: Daycare and preschool teachers often set up simple stations for children to rotate through. 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. After a few play sessions, find new items to put in each basket to keep things interesting.

Encourage independent play by setting up play stations with experiments or activities. In video: Every Which Weigh Scale & Pails from The Enthusiast Play Kit

You can also try setting up various types of stations with different activities at each one. For example, one station might have a variety of books, and another might have a set of small figures like the animals from the Montessori Animal Match or peg people.  

Offer choices with structure: Set your child up at a small table with the Anywhere Art Kit with several pieces of paper and the paint sticks. This approach offers your child some choice in what to create, but provides just enough structure that they won’t feel overwhelmed.

Give them independent challenges: If your toddler needs a little more structure during independent play, a single-player challenge game or task might be a good choice. These are activities where your child challenges themselves to complete a pattern or task independently.

Child organizing different Lovevery toys based on shapes
Try setting up a fun challenge for your toddler or preschooler to complete independently.

Try laying out a small mat or tray and presenting your child with the Match & Tap Hammer Box. Your child can independently work from card to card, challenging themselves to complete the full board each time. You could work to complete a card together first, and when you’re confident your child is able to do it on their own, step away.

Make practical life activities into play: Toddlers often love to help with “grown-up” activities. This motivation can be a perfect way to foster independent play. Your child can help dry lettuce next to you as you work on making dinner. While you fold bath towels, your toddler could “fold” washcloths nearby. Encourage your child to rinse dishes in the Super Sustainable Sink while you load the dishwasher. Working on a task while you work alongside them helps your child feel empowered but not alone.  

Child using the Super Sustainable Sink from The Helper Play Kit
The Super Sustainable Sink from The Helper Play Kit gives your toddler practice with “real life” skills that can encourage independence.

What to do when your child won’t play independently 

Some children take to independent play more easily than others. If your child is accustomed to having you as their playmate, it might take some practice for them to learn how to play independently. Toddlers crave connection with you and may continually ask to play with you. Of course, you want to play with your child some of the time, but you can encourage them to play independently at other times. Here are a few ways to help your child play independently:

Offer extra connection time. If your child hasn’t had much time to play with you recently, they may need some connection time before independent play. Strive to spend at least a few minutes each day in undistracted play with your child doing something they enjoy—playing with blocks, being a partner in pretend play, or just roughhousing with them. You may find that connecting with your child first helps independent play go more smoothly.

Validate their feelings. Young children have limited ability to understand another person’s perspective. When you suggest they play solo while you work or do chores, they may struggle to see the situation through your eyes. Toddlers especially may not understand why you can’t play with them all the time. Rather than dismissing their feelings of disappointment, try to validate them as much as you can: “I know you really want me to play with you. I hear that you’re disappointed.” Validating their feelings doesn’t mean you have to give up on your plan. Once your child knows that you understand their feelings, you can still encourage your child to try playing independently, even for just a few minutes.

Keep trying. Independent play is a learned skill and it may take repeated tries before your child feels comfortable and confident playing on their own. If your first few attempts at encouraging your child to play independently don’t go well, keep encouraging them and make space in your schedule for your child to try again. 

What are other types of play? 

Independent play is just one of several types of play your child may explore in their early years of development. Encourage your child to discover different types of play such as:

Your child learns through play, and each type of play helps your child develop and practice different skills. Physical play helps build your child’s gross motor skills and coordination, sensory play helps build neural connections in your child’s brain, and pretend play sparks creative thinking and social skills as they play with siblings or peers. Each type of play activates different aspects of your child’s development and fosters new learning.

Posted in: 7 - 8 Months, 9 - 10 Months, 11 - 12 Months, 13 - 15 Months, 16 - 18 Months, 19 - 21 Months, 22 - 24 Months, 25 - 27 Months, 28 - 30 Months, 31 - 33 Months, 34 - 36 Months, Play & Activities, Independent Play, Playtime, Social Skills, Child Development, Types of Play, Play & Activities

Meet the Experts

Learn more about the Lovevery child development experts who created this story.

Rachel Coley, MS, OT/L
Rachel Coley is a pediatric occupational therapist and child development expert, and founder of CanDo Kiddo.
Sarah Piel, MSEd
Sarah Piel is a certified special education teacher and child development expert. For over 15 years she has worked with children from birth to age 5 to support social, emotional, cognitive, and language learning.
Amy Webb, PhD
Amy Webb, Associate Writer at Lovevery, is a child development scholar and researcher who holds a Doctorate in Human Development and Family Sciences.
Gabrielle Felman, MSEd, LCSW
Gabrielle Felman, founder of Felman Early Childhood Consulting, works with children from birth to age 7 to support social, emotional, and cognitive learning.
Emily Newton, PhD
Emily Newton is a writer at Lovevery with over 20 years of experience as a researcher, professor, early childhood educator, and parent. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology and an MA in Child Development, with expertise in infant and toddler social, emotional, and socio-cognitive development.
Zachary Stuckleman, PhD
Zachary Stuckleman is a researcher and child development expert who holds a Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and is the Lead Content Researcher at Lovevery.

Research & Resources

Beaulieu, L., & Povinelli, J. L. (2018). Improving solitary play with a typically developing preschooler. Behavioral Interventions, 33(2), 212-218.

Colliver, Y., Harrison, L. J., Brown, J. E., & Humburg, P. (2022). Free play predicts self-regulation years later: Longitudinal evidence from a large Australian sample of toddlers and preschoolers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 59, 148-161.

I is for independent play. ZERO TO THREE. (2022, June 9). 

Lloyd, B., & Howe, N. (2003). Solitary play and convergent and divergent thinking skills in preschool children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 18(1), 22-41.

Ruff, H. A., & Lawson, K. R. (1990). Development of sustained, focused attention in young children during free play. Developmental Psychology, 26(1), 85.

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