Independent Play, Part I

Dear Miss Faith, My boy is 3 ½ , and he’s used to having me as his main playmate. I would like him to start being able to play on his own more, but when I try to make him do it, it feels like I’m being mean. How can I get him to play independently?

Dear Mom, I absolutely agree that it’s valuable for kids to play independently, both for their own exploration of the world, and for your ability to have down-time and own peace of mind! But if your kid is used to having you at his beck and call, how do you change this pattern? Certainly trying to “make” him do it doesn’t feel good to anyone; it simply feels like you’re pushing him away. The key to helping a child learn to play independently is to alternate times of paying direct attention to them with times of being ‘busy.’ There are tricks to both of these to make them successful.

Paying Direct Attention If you’re like many moms, you’ve spent the last couple of years ‘playing along’ with your child. If he tells you to be the lion, you roar. If he wants to play with the truck you’re playing with, you give it to him. This can start to get old after awhile, but you don’t know what else to do. I’m not suggesting that you stop child-led play altogether, especially if that’s what he’s used to, but I suggest that you start alternating your ‘direct attention’ times between child-led activity, and adult-led activities. So what do I mean by adult-led activities? By these I mean activities where you, as the adult, are saying ‘how things go.’ A game like Ring-around-the-Rosy has a very specific ‘way’ it goes: you hold hands while you sing certain words, you fall down at the appropriate time, etc. Reading a book together, likewise: you sit down together, perhaps the child gets to turn the pages, you generally go from beginning to end, etc. Here’s a partial list of common adult-led activities that I do over the course of a day at Rainbow Bridge:

Adult-Led Activities

-Reading a book together

-Telling a story

-Playing a game (like Ring-around-the-Rosy, Trip to the Zoo, Simon Says, Red-Light/Green-Light, etc.)

-Doing a puppet show (little dolls on your lap acting out nursery rhymes are captivating to young kids)


-Seasonal activities or crafts (stringing cranberries in the winter, planting spring bulbs, May Pole dance)

-Mealtimes (most people don’t think of meals as an activity, but it is: you do it together, you have specific expectations about how things go, in which order, etc., and can be a wonderful time to connect)

-Going to sleep

Children generally LOVE adult-led activities, love showing how they’re gaining competence, love the approval they get from you when they do it right, etc. It’s important to do adult-led activities with young kids, because it helps them learn how to follow instruction, helps to teach them skills, and keeps them from becoming little tyrants! If you haven’t been doing many of these types of activities, think about how you can start incorporating more of them into your daily rhythm. It works best if you do them at the same time each day: for example, doing a little puppet show on your lap or the coffee table each day directly before lunch can become a much-loved activity. Don’t know the first thing about how to do it? Try this:

First, get everything ready for lunch. Then get started with the puppet show. Have a little song that you always sing when you’re getting ready. Start to sing it and put the cushion that your son will sit on for the puppet show in front of your rocking chair, along with a throw-blanket. Get your little girl puppet and your little sheep puppet, and an apron or a cloth. Let your son know it’s time for the show by ringing a little bell, or saying ceremoniously: “Sit down! Sit down!” Have him come sit down, and spread the throw-blanket over his lap, tucking it in around him. Go sit down in your rocking chair and bring out your little girl and the lamb. Sing “Mary had a little lamb,” and have the lamb follow Mary to school, have them dance at school, have her give the lamb a hug. You can repeat the song two or even three times, then ceremoniously put them away, fold your cloth, fold the throw-blanket, and ring your bell. That’s pretty much it! Although, if you want things to go smoothly, incorporate going to the lunch table into the ritual of the puppet show: The first few times you’ll say to your son, “I’m going to fold your blanket and ring the bell, and when you hear the bell ring, you’ll go right to your chair at the table and sit down for lunch.” Then fold the blanket, ring the bell, and make sure that he goes straight to his chair. By the third or fourth time, you won’t have to tell him. In this way, you’re taking a very simple activity and making it into a ritual; children feel fulfilled by these types of rituals.

This is an example of an adult-led activity, but any activity you enjoy, the children will, too. Some adult-led activities involve lots of movement on the part of the children, others involve them being still. Develop a tool-belt of a few of each.

Be ‘Busy’

So, you don’t want to do adult-led activities all day! This post is about teaching children to play independently, after all. So let’s get to it: the way to do that is to alternate times of direct attention with times when you’re ‘busy.’ In order for both of you not to feel like you’re pushing him away, you’ll need to be busy in a very specific way: where you’re physically busy doing something, but you’re completely available both verbally and emotionally.

And…I’ll tell you how to do that in the next post…this is getting too long! Check back in the next day or two and I’ll let you know how to be available while still being apart.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith

P.S. Go to part two here: /2012/01/independent-play-part-ii/


  1. Great post! Looking forward to the next segment. 🙂

  2. Such a wonderful post! thank you for sharing your insight with us


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