Some of the most enjoyable moments I've spent with my daughter have happened through play. From tummy time as an infant to dressing up as a princesses in a make-believe castle, I've witnessed first-hand how much she has grown already in just three years whenever we play together. As a toddler, her imagination is so remarkable — and I'm always blown away with her ever-changing vocabulary skills and creativity while we're playing with her doll house or toy doctor's kit.
Recently, though, my daughter has had a really hard time playing by herself. I mean, really hard time.
I noticed her strong resistance to playing alone for the first time shortly after her third birthday — we were nearing the second hour of playing with her carton of Hatchimals when I told her I had to start doing some laundry and cook dinner. Aside from throwing down the usual toddler tantrum, she whined and begged for me to keep playing with her. Instantly feeling that mom guilt (and secretly feeling good about the fact that I was that fun to be around), I agreed to play for a few more minutes.
Shortly after that first instance, it's escalated to the point where I can't even go to the bathroom alone without her crying and pleading for me to keep on playing with her. But as much as I would love to dedicate all of my free time to her and play for hours on end (because I really do enjoy it), the bills don't pay themselves — I have to work, and also do laundry, cook dinner, clean, shower, and occasionally take a few moments for myself throughout the day, too.
Like most other moms who enter a state of momentary panic, I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned this behavior is pretty normal for some toddlers . . . and that there were a few things I could do to help my daughter play happily on her own.
"There is a lot going on during the toddler years, and independent play is a really important developmental milestone," Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and owner of Harborside Wellbeing tells POPSUGAR. "Play is a powerful tool for expressing feelings, learning boundaries, making sense of the world, and learning how to relate to others.
Why don't some toddlers play independently?
There's a big underlying reason behind why some 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds have a hard time playing without Mom or Dad there, and it doesn't always have to do with the fact that parents are really fun to have around (sorry). In fact, Prior explains that a child's negative reaction to playing alone without one of their parents is mostly related to how securely attached they are to their parents. The crying and inability to play alone when a parent walks out of sight is due to separation anxiety. "Separation anxiety is normal in young kids, especially between the ages of 8 to 14 months," says Prior. "But no parent can be attentive to their child 24 hours a day."
How do you get a toddler to play without a parent?
So, if you're a busy parent with one heck of a to-do list (read: all of us) and need your child to play by herself so you can get a few things done, don't panic — Prior provides a few quick fixes and easy approaches for encouraging independent play for toddlers:
- Model how to play. "When a parent spends time with their toddler, they're modeling what play should look like," says Prior. "Once your child has learned what play 'looks like', they will imitate the play on their own."
- Eliminate distractions. "During play time with your child, make sure to turn off all technology and minimize distractions," she advises. "It's easy to leave the television on, answer a text, or respond to a work email, but make sure to spend some time each day solely devoted to playing with your toddler so they also see what uninterrupted play is like."
- Provide toys for open-ended play. When a toddler can be creative without having to follow specific instructions or rules, they're engaging in open-ended play — the kind of play that lends itself nicely to solo play. "Dolls, blocks, crayons, and paper are a few great items to place on the floor and allow your toddler to explore and pick up as the items grab their attention," explains Prior.
- Keep toys fresh. "Sometimes new toys can grab a child's attention faster than an older toy, so I recommend that parents only put out one new toy at a time to give the child time with the new toy," says Prior. "If you don't want to buy new toys, consider swapping toys with friends."
- Move outside. "Spending time in nature provides ideal opportunities for independent play," she continues. "Nature will grab your child's attention, give them the tools to be creative, and provides the added bonus of fresh air, exercise and a healthy dose of much needed vitamin D."