It can be difficult to see your toddler cry when you have to get away to do a chore and they really have to play on their own.
Whining and crying, and you probably can't bear to leave them alone for a while.
But this behavior is quite normal for some toddlers, and there are a few things you can do to keep your son or daughter happily playing alone.
In this article, I'll take a look at why toddlers don't want to play alone and what you can do about it.
If your toddler cannot play independently, his dependence on you is also greatly increased.
Conversely, independent activity allows him to experience autonomy. That's what Éva Kálló and Györgyi Balog say in their book The origin of free play.
There are many parents who are concerned about their child's inability to play alone.
They perceive their child as extra needy, too “attached” or too social, or simply not the type that can ever play independently.
But that does not exist.
There are no toddlers who are completely unable to reap the joy and benefits of self-directed play.
There is a lot going on during the toddler years and independent play is a very important developmental milestone.
Play is a powerful tool for expressing feelings, learning boundaries, understanding the world and learning how to interact with others.
Researchers have found that problems with play are primarily our parents, not our children.
Which is good news, because it means that it is also in our power to fix the problem.
What we discuss in this comprehensive post:
Your own influence on independent play
The first step is to recognize how our
- guilt feelings
- and wrong perceptions hinder the game.
In addition to believing that our child is naturally not very good at this area, we may also think:
- Our job is to play with our kids, or at least keep them busy.
- Our kids will one day show they are ready to play on their own, but until then, we must heed their complaining requests to "play with me, Mommy!" (where not playing along is hard to come by, right?).
- Our children may not feel loved the way we do, because our own parents ignored us. It may be that your childhood looked like this and you are now overcompensating.
- The fact that our child whines and cries when we have said that we cannot play now means that he now urgently needs us, is scared, abandoned, and heartbroken.
There is one common concern that is valid and true:
we cannot and must not force children to play (as if that were even possible).
And I'll add, we shouldn't even convince them to play, because it's coaxing
- signals to children that we are uncomfortable,
- tend to increase their resistance to what we want them to do,
- and can even turn an activity as innately enjoyable as play into a chore.
Why don't some toddlers play independently?
There's a big underlying reason why some 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds have a hard time playing without mom or dad, and it doesn't always have to do with the fact that parents are really too nice not to be around ( Sorry!).
A child's negative reaction to playing alone without one of their parents is mainly related to how securely they are attached to their parents.
The crying and inability to play alone when a parent is out of sight is due to separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is common in young children, especially between the ages of 8 and 14 months. But no parent can watch their child 24 hours a day.
Our misconceptions and projections about play can make it virtually impossible for us to do the one thing that it takes to keep our kids playing, which is:
simply set a limit to say clearly, confidently, comfortably and calmly what we are going to do (make lunch, get a cup of tea, go to the bathroom) and for how long (approximately).
Ideally, we naturally leave our child in a safe, familiar play area where they have toys and items appropriate to their age.
And then, the hard part: allowing him or her to express a version of “noooo, I want you to stay,” which will probably sound more like, “How can you do this to me cruel, selfish parent ?! ” without your guilt pushing you to weaken your limit, or worse still or take it with you.
So there is certainly room for feelings of guilt if we decide to let ourselves feel it, but that makes letting go to make room for play even more impossible (for both parent and child).
It can be challenging for us as parents to recognize our part in creating game dependencies.
How do you let a toddler play alone without a parent?
So, if you're a busy parent with a whole to-do list (read: all of us) and your child has to play alone so you can get a few things done, don't panic.
There are some quick fixes and easy approaches to encourage independent play for toddlers:
- Model how to play: When a parent spends time with their toddler, they model what play should be like. Once your child has learned what the game “looks like”, they will imitate the game themselves.
- Eliminate Distractions: While playing with your child, make sure to turn off all technology and minimize distractions. It's easy to leave the TV on, reply to a text message or reply to a business email, but make sure to spend some concentrated time each day playing with your toddler so they can see how uninterrupted play is too .
- Provide toys for open-ended play: When a toddler can be creative without having to follow specific instructions or rules, they play open play, the kind of game that lends itself well to solo play. Dolls, blocks, crayons and paper are a few great items to place on the floor so your toddler can explore and pick up while the items grab their attention.
- Keep toys fresh: Sometimes new toys can grab a child's attention faster than an older toy, so I recommend giving only one new toy at a time to give the child time with the new toy. If you don't want to buy new toys, consider trading toys with friends, for example.
- Go outside to train: Spending time in nature offers ideal opportunities for independent play. Nature captures your child's attention, gives them the tools to be creative, and provides the added bonus of fresh air, exercise and a healthy dose of much-needed vitamin D.
Going outside means for toddlers that you will come along, but they can train to play independently.
In any case, you can finally make time for that book you wanted to start, and to be able to pay close attention you can also these audiobooks from Storytel see what I wrote about before.
Guide your toddler to play independently
Here is the process of guiding your toddler to play alone.
The first step is a short play session at fixed times that they can recognize.
For example a playpen (or ground box we also mention it in our article about itjust outside the bathroom when you shower.
If it is a short period of time and a fixed time, they are often more likely to accept it, but for a child who cannot play well alone, they will ask to come out once you are done with your activity.
So then it's about 10-15 minutes where they really get lost in thought and play and forget their needs for a moment, but they know absolutely right away when shower time is over!
Then I tried to make short moments for myself.
So I started by telling him that I was going to have a cup of tea on the couch and that he had to play in the living room himself.
Every now and then he came to me but I kept pointing to tea. And he started playing quite well himself the first time.
When he saw that my tea was finished, he said “empty”, and I was supposed to play again. We agreed that too. Sweet!
If that works out well, it's time to work on moving their independent game to their own (locked so it's safe) room upstairs.
To feel even more sure that things will work out, you can install a video monitor.
The first time you try it, your fear may surface and you appear questionable, or you say too often that you are leaving now and thus make it a whole thing.
Then you get a lot of crying and resistance.
But go ahead and be firm and just present it as fact. Tried again the next day and only told him once.
They might cry a little when you leave, but if you're firm chances are they'll start playing soon.
It's the hardest at first because they'll cry and complain a lot, but it's getting easier.
After a week or so, if you keep it up, you will get very little or no protest at all and they will start playing right away at an increasing rate.
It works best to always do it in the same place, so in their bedroom or we do, for example, a playroom that we have set up.
And it works best to always do it at the same time, or at least with the same activity that you will be doing (which hopefully happens at about the same time every day).
For example, always when you
- is going to take a shower
- is going to cook,
- is going to vacuum
- or will work briefly on your blog
Same time, same place every day, work hard to tell him firmly what you are going to do and for how long and then leave confidently.