Toddler peacefully plays with toy  car independently

Independent Play: What are Reasonable Expectations for Toddlers?

From bathing to entertaining, toddlers require enormous amounts of attention. Invested parents understand that this is a critical time for their child and will do their best to engage with their children in meaningful activities.

Moreover, there’s an enormous pressure for parents to shower their children with attention as to develop their self esteem. Although this is all good and well, learning to play independently is an important skill for their development and should be incorporated daily.

How Does Independent Play Help?

Independent play time has a wealth of benefits. Not only does it allow space for exploration and discovery, but it also fosters problem-solving, creativity, mindfulness, autonomy, and patience. When children have quiet time to themselves, they discover their own interests and explore their imaginations. Furthermore, independent play is the gateway to other independent behavior.

How Long Can My Child be Expected to Play Independently?

All children are different and there are no hard rules for how long a child has to be playing independently. But, if you’re trying to build this skill, the guidelines below can help with managing appropriate expectations.

  • 12-18 Months: Start with 5 to 10 minutes a day and work your way up to 30 or 45 minutes. This can be broken down into short spurts throughout the day. At this age, your child is in the sensorimotor stage and will be interested in activities that exercise their fine motor skills and demonstrate cause and effect.
  • 18 Months to 3 Years: Most children can tolerate up to an hour or more at this age. Like with the previous stage, start with smaller chunks of time throughout the day and build up their tolerance.
  • 3 to 5 Years: At this stage of extended independence, your child can engage in about 2 hours of independent play per day. Imaginative play with dolls, action figures, cars, and the like can hold their attention for some time provided that they haven’t been overstimulated with constant entertainment in the past.

Tips for Encouraging Independent Play

  1. Stay close. Your child will feel more secure and, therefore, more inclined to explore if you are near. Do your own thing in the kitchen while your toddler plays at the table. Just be sure to set a boundary by explaining you have grown-up things to do but you’re right there just in case.
  2. Put away overstimulating toys. The novelty of a light-up, whizzing contraption wears off quickly and doesn’t encourage imagination. You know how kids love playing with the boxes toys come in? There’s a reason. Things that stimulate discovery and creativity, without bombarding them with stimuli, will allow them to get lost in their own thoughts.
  3. Reduce screen time. The stories and music that streaming media provides can be educational, but the constant imagery that it throws at our kids doesn't allow for imagination, an important component of independent play. Use audio devices, like the Storypod, to provide the same thought-provoking media minus the screens.
  4. Make sure the toys are age-appropriate. Toys that are too advanced will require your help and toys that aren’t advanced enough will become boring quickly.
  5. Rotate toys. Having too many toys at once is overstimulating and makes it difficult for kids to be satisfied. Put up most of their toys and bring down a few for a week or two at a time. This keeps things fresh and interesting.