How To Encourage Independent Play

How To Encourage Independent Play

I’m writing this in a silent kitchen with a hot drink next to me whilst Sonny sleeps upstairs and Jack is…I’m not entirely sure. He’s somewhere in our home, and I trust that he’s fine. And by somewhere, I mean he’s probably playing or reading or getting bored somewhere. (Or he’s not and there’s about to be an almighty crash, but I don’t think that’s the case.) We wander in and out of each others’ spaces but we are very independent of each other which means we can get on with life – which is kind of lovely and really useful. A few weeks back I did a shout out on Instagram asking if anyone was interested in a post about fostering independent play in your toddler, and the response was overwhelming so I thought I’d share a few behaviours of ours as parents that I think encourages this sort of play. Here goes:

1. The default is not with mama – even from a young age
Let’s get this out there right away: I don’t play with my kids. When Sonny and Jack wake up, I give them milk / change them and then I pretty much leave them to it. There are toys and books around and I just let them be in a space that I know is safe with stairgates locked etc. I don’t play or read with them; everybody just gets on with their things ’til someone needs something… In Jack’s case, this can be 1 -2 hours. (For Sonny, who is 1, it’s a little more hit and miss). I often put on music which seems to help the kids get in their ‘flow’. I love my best friend’s phrase who assures her son that he’s a “strong independent boy” when her baby does the (albeit exceedingly cute) knee hug move at her feet, and that maybe he doesn’t need mama.

2. Lurk don’t latch
I’m definitely a lurker parent; by that I mean I watch from afar, wandering in and out of the room rather than latching myself to them. This way they know that I am around in the vicinity but they don’t really feel my presence and it means I have a rough idea of what they are doing and which room they are in.

3. Wait ’til they come to you
Even if I can see Jack slightly struggling with something or if I think he might be a bit cold, I tend not to rush in and prefer to wait for him to choose to come to me whenever he decides to. I don’t like the idea of fussing over them and live by the mantra, if they’re quiet, then they’re happy.

4. But don’t just watch….
I think it’s important for Jack and Sonny to see that I have my own things to do and that I’m not just here to service him (though obviously that is my main priority, let’s be honest!). I don’t mind if he sees me on my laptop – in fact, I tell him that mummy is working which he understands and I just get on with my morning routine. I also always try to do all the chores when the kids are around and awake. Not only is this great for me as it frees me up for when they are sleeping to do my own actual stuff, it also encourages them to help and join in with some of mummy’s work. They get intrigued when they see me sweeping or putting a wash on and always want to try to help.

5. Trust them
Probably one of the most important but hardest parts of fostering independent play is trusting your child. I let Jack go off and explore our home and trust that he is OK. Admittedly this took a bit of getting used to to ensure that he knew our space well enough so I would listen out or peek in and of course now I check in with but he is always more than OK. Now that he is 3, I am going to start leaving breakfast out for him the night before so that he can help himself to food in the morning and come bedtime, we tell him that he doesn’t have to go to bed but that he can play in his bedroom and when he is tired to get into bed. I trust that he’ll do this and we always find him splayed on his bed fast asleep later on.

6. We let him work life out
If Jack comes to me to ask for help with something, I always try to encourage him to do it himself first. Then I might show him how to do it instead of doing it for him and even though he might get frustrated and want me to do it for him (far easier), I try as much as possible to pursue whatever it is with him and let his mind tick over. I think this stands him in good stead for when he is alone – it is really rare that he comes to me asking for help.

7. Give them tasks
There is nothing that Jack loves more than being asked to do something. It makes him feel grown up and it occupies him, and can be very useful – recently, he’s been watering the garden which has been epically helpful! He’s also started feeding Sonny – another really helpful task. All these behaviours I think make him feel empowered and set him up well for being independent and not needing me so much.

8. Certain activities encourage more independent play than others
I’ve never taken my kids to play groups which might seem mean but I think it has also encouraged them to be creative and learn to play alone. Similarly, I try to consider carefully the toys we have for them – these are their favourites, none of which are plastic. I’ve talked before about my love for wooden toys which is not just for their environmental credentials but also because I do think they call upon childrens’ imagination far longer than the flashing lights or noises of plastic toys – which don’t get me wrong – we have a fair few of too. The boys spend hours of their lives playing with wooden trains and I know Jack makes up entire universes with them. I love the Magda Gerber quote: “The toy in the child’s hand is alive.”

9. Always check in
Whilst I don’t want the kids to feel like I’m on top of them, the last thing I want them to feel is ignored or neglected so at any random times I will shout over to check in on them or wander over to see what they’re up to. This generally seems a nice surprise for Jack though equally sometimes I can see he is just way too engrossed in his own activity and he doesn’t even look up.

10. Happy mama, happy kiddos
You have to find what works for you. Each child is of course different and what ‘works’ for us might not work for you and yours as well as the fact that each parent is also obviously different: some people might consider my attitude mean or rubbish parenting or equally, they find Jack’s behaviour antisocial. (Nursery assure me he plays with other kids :)) For us, our set up works and I find it immensely satisfying to see Jack being so independent. He is anything but needy and has confidence to explore places and meet new people. It’s also very useful when there is more than one child in the mix, work to be done and coffee to be drunk….

Do you have any tips for encouraging independent play? What works for you and your little ones?

Emma xxx

P.S  Slow and Simple Things to do with Kids and Spend More Time Doing Less




  1. Rachel
    July 4, 2018 / 1:23 pm

    Gosh yes. I constantly feel like I’m explaining myself to peopleon this one as friends follow their children about and seem reassured when their child won’t leave their side. Whereas we’re like “mate, I’m here. You’re fine. Let’s all get on.” It’s wonderful to read you saying the same thing! My boys are 7 and 4 now and play happily together and separately. The only thing I do say is that I give them parameters to play within- so “this afternoon we’re all in the garden.” Or “you can play across both your bedrooms” or “we’re all downstairs this morning.” Just so I am in earshot – my youngest has some additional needs and can need more help but I don’t want to presume he requires it. Does that make sense? Thank you, always find your blog so refreshing.

    • Emma Ross
      July 10, 2018 / 2:32 pm

      ah we sound so on the same page! loving the use of parameters too x x

  2. Imogen
    June 6, 2018 / 7:43 pm

    Hi Emma, really nice post. I’ve been following your Instagram and YT videos for a while now and must say I’m very inspired with how you go about your life! I’m trying to improve mine. I’m a full time working Mum and my son Jack-Owen is 1 1/2 so any spare time I get I fee obliged to spend with him, if I don’t I feel guilty. As much as I love to be with him I don’t want to foster neediness and need time for all the other things in my life. I wonder if you still took this approach while you were working? And at what age you started to encourage independent play with your first son. Eager for any advice 🙂

    • Emma Ross
      June 15, 2018 / 9:01 am

      hey imogen – i have always been like that with my kids, from day 1. i think it’s best for them, and for mums. im so convinced of the power of space for children to learn and to discover and grow their own wings, one day. x thanks so much for reading the post and for being here and of course your kind words x

  3. Hannah Smith
    April 26, 2018 / 4:08 pm

    Hi Emma! I’ve just come across your Instagram which soon followed to this blog! (Btw it’s wonderful!) I feel like I’ve found my place! Haha!
    This post caught my eye! My little boy is 14 months & I’ve always felt that it’s good for children to be bored sometimes, from boredom sparks imagination.
    People have commented on how I don’t ‘play’ with my little boy and that I should be constantly stimulating him while he learning so much, but that constant narrative I just don’t feel is good for him or me! ‘What’s this, what colour, can you see the bird, birds fly in the sky, the sky is blue, blues a colour…..’ it just doesn’t feel right to me. He very happy and content playing by himself, exploring & learning independently growing confidence in himself everyday. If he invites me to play I will join but this doesn’t happen very often. Usually He’ll be playing by himself, he’ll pause, look over to me with a massive smile on his face, a smile of contentment & pride then get back to what he’s doing!
    A friend asked me the other day what do you do with him while your out in garden? I said nothing he finds his own thing to do, I’ll do my thing and he’ll do his & we both very content.
    I totally agree with your comment on doing chores around them, my little boys favourite thing to help with now is unloading/loading the dishwasher, wiping surfaces and hoovering. He loves to help!
    I could go on forever! Haha! Sorry for the ramble by it’s so refreshing to see someone that share the same opinion of independent play.
    I’ve now downloaded you playlist! As I was feeling we needed a new one, so we’re listening to that, drinking a cuppa, reading more of your wonderful blog posts and little boy is playing somewhere with something 🙂

    • Emma Ross
      April 27, 2018 / 2:01 pm

      hey hannah! thank you for your lovely comment and it’s great to have a like minded spirit here. children have the best time just being in their own world, with some occasional interaction and snacks and smiles and cuddles from mama, that’s all they need! thanks for reading xxx. p.s i will feature this fab comment in my weekend post today so check back!

  4. Esther
    April 17, 2018 / 10:56 pm

    OMG thank you for writing this. My kids are 5 and 3. I love being home with my them but I’ll be honest I get totally bored “playing” with them at home. So I’ve been leaving them to it and getting on with what I need or want to do round the house. I always ensure we spend time together at some point during the day doing an activity (baking, creating, gardening, or I get them to help with house chores or we go out together, where weirdly I find I can engage in play) and during that time we talk lots and enjoy the activity but I just can’t play with them and decided long ago they won’t want a mummy who is distracted and yawning through bordedom – this is our balance and we’re really happy with it. BUT I’ve been racked with guilt that I’m not a good mummy because I don’t play with them. I can’t believe that actually others do this! What a revelation!

    • Emma Ross
      April 18, 2018 / 11:00 am

      YES! so good for all parties i really believe to just let people flow, uninterrupted – for them and for you to get time to do other things. don’t feel guilty – embrace it. have a lovely day 🙂 x

  5. Saleema
    April 12, 2018 / 9:09 pm

    *love language

  6. Saleema
    April 12, 2018 / 9:08 pm

    I think the key is not to be a source of entertainment for our kids. I think it’s OK if a child wants you to play with them a bit but don’t take charge of the situation. Where you take over ‘the game’. My son is incredibly social and he loves company so it was hard for him to always be playing by himself. There is also the live language factor – his is quality time and I like to give him the choice what he wants to do and its always – let’s play! My daughter is the complete opposite 😊I think it may have to do with personality

    • Emma Ross
      April 13, 2018 / 6:26 pm

      love that idea of not being a source of entertainment for kids – TOTALLY! and yes, so much about personality as well. thanks for reading saleema! going to feature this ace comment in my blog post tonight so take a look… 🙂

  7. Hayley Stevens
    February 26, 2018 / 1:04 pm

    Emma, this is really interesting and helpful. I’m working on this, in no particularly identifiable way yet, but you’ve planted a seed that I’m going to ponder more. I like it when that happens! X

    • emmaross
      February 26, 2018 / 1:21 pm

      hey hayley, ah i like the sound of seed planting too! glad it gave you something to think about <3 have a lovely day x

  8. Bethany
    February 21, 2018 / 4:19 pm

    I loved this! How did you introduce this and encourage them to play more independently? Since losing her GG my little girl is definitely more for spending time together (I mean most of the time) and likes me to play with her, but would love to make her feel more safe and comfortable playing alone / with her baby sister?! Any tips would be great!

    • emmaross
      February 21, 2018 / 8:34 pm

      hey bethany, thanks for reading and for commenting! do you mean how did i do this for the very first time? would love to help out, just trying to work out your qq exactly!

      • Bethany
        February 22, 2018 / 4:17 pm

        Yeah so, have you always left them to play alone? How did you encourage them to play independently? My daughter loves to come over to me and show me and get me involved, which is lovely but she used to sit and play on her own for ages whereas now she seems to need the reassurance or praise from me? I’m not sure how to get back to her playing independently(or with her sister without me) Hope that makes sense!

        • emmaross
          February 22, 2018 / 5:24 pm

          so i guess maybe it’s about giving her the confidence to be alone again like she was. maybe try to encourage and empower her by asking her to show her sister / be in charge (if her sister is the younger one?) / or listen (if her sister is older?) also try settling her and then sort of creeping away when she s happy! i did a lot of this too <3 x x x

  9. February 10, 2018 / 7:37 am

    I have two sons 20 months and 3 years. What I fear about leaving them by themselves is that they might hurt each other. Because my elder son is jealous of his brother and sometimes he throws something to him or jump over and younger one obviously doesn’t like it. What about your sons do they get along well?

    • emmaross
      February 10, 2018 / 5:35 pm

      my two are pretty good – i leave them alone but im always close by and have one eye on them… i think try leaving them for a few moments and each time leave them a little longer and see how you/they go? good luck! and thanks for being here x

  10. July 4, 2017 / 10:03 am

    I totally agree that its important for children to develop independent play. I have always thought this and always thought that there is way to much pressure on parents to have to be spending time with there children 24/7. You almost feel guilty for not doing so but really its healthy for them and will help them grow independence in many ways. My daughter is 2 and will hardly ever play on her own. Im not sure where I went wrong because its something I have always tried to encourage. She will play alone if i’m sat in the room, but if I leave to say come do a blog post then she is in here with me, and wanting me to play with her. I do plenty with my daughter, nice activities, take her out. I just wish sometimes she would be happy to play with her toys alone. Or in the mornings when we are upstairs, play in her bedroom. Im hoping the older she gets the more independent she will be. I think her going to nursery helps alot. Love honest truth posts like this! More people should read it!

    • emmaross
      July 4, 2017 / 3:35 pm

      hey cassandra, thanks for reading the post and for your interesting comment – i totally agree with you regarding the pressure on parents to play with their kids. in your scenario, it sounds like you are responding to your daughters’ needs. as you say, this is what she seems to want right now but perhaps, when she starts nursery she’ll become a little more independent. you know best mama xx

  11. Becks Foster
    July 2, 2017 / 9:19 am

    As someone who is about to have our first baby (37+2)I stumbled across your Instagram page late last night when I was struggling to sleep and I can honestly say I am hooked! I find this article to be a very honest account of parenting and as someone who often finds playing, dare I say it, boring, this is an encouraging read and I will certainly be trying this approach out with our little baba. Thank you and keep doing what your doing x

    • emmaross
      July 3, 2017 / 8:33 am

      hey becks – hope you are feeling well and thank you so much for reading the blog, and for your lovely comment 🙂 I’m so glad my words resonate with you and YES ! you don’t need to play with your kiddo!! #wordsbiggestparetingsecret. Happy Monday and shout if you need anything else! xx

  12. Anna
    June 27, 2017 / 10:07 am

    I’ve been trying this out since seeing a similar article and I’ve always been aware of the importance of independent play (after being a nursery nurse in my early career)
    My problem is my 3 1/2 yr old is so active she just LOVES to climb and leap and physically tear herself constantly. This is fantastic on the right environments but not so much in the house. It also means my 19mth old little boy copies. So I’m very One edge when I leave them to it (with regular lurking obviously) that they may not be physically safe. I try my best to trust her ability – in fact both of them- but there are occasions they misjudge obviously and I don’t want a nasty accident! Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated! Perhaps I need to make a safe zone for physical play or get out more! We all need some time in the house though!
    Great article … thank you 😊

    • emmaross
      July 1, 2017 / 1:57 pm

      ah yes i hear you mama – once they get to that age when they want to be really physical (Jack is getting there too now that he is 3, and yes, Sonny copies – even more so even since writing this post!), it is tricky. I do have to keep a closer eye on them, but as you say you can make safe or ‘safer’ environments to keep worry at bay. i try to encourage jack to be calm and look after sonny and not to be rough…not always taken on board though for sure! thanks for reading and for commenting! x

  13. Avril
    June 20, 2017 / 12:37 am

    Very brave post. My first was DEFINITELY brought up this way – mainly through necessity- I was on bed rest for number two. I’d see her at the start of the day when she’d come into the room and take the box of biscuits/slice/fruit that hubby had left as food for the day, again at nappy change time then very little actual ‘seeing’ till dad got home. She made a nest under her dad’s desk & would spend the day eating & looking at old magazines. I’d be calling out to her for comfort!.
    My second I played with more because I wanted to but he was happy sitting next to me and playing independently. Current bub I play with LOTS but it’s because I want to/have the time. If I don’t (out for coffee, having a conversation etc) she’ll watch so intently or draw. I think I’ve been pretty lucky. Oh how I wish I could have left breakfast out for them at then it was “muuuuuuuuuuuuum’ years. Ugh.

    • emmaross
      June 22, 2017 / 11:54 am

      it sounds like you’ve really adapted depending on *your* own circumstances which i think is so important. note – we’re yet to try leaving breakfast out for him – waiting til it gets a bit cooler. hope you are well mama and thanks as ever for reading my posts xxx

  14. June 19, 2017 / 10:53 pm

    I agree with all of this but practice it sporadically! Working harder on number 5 as I know I’ve been guilty of doing too much for my 5 year old and now he has a 1 year old brother I get grumpy with him when he says he needs help with simple things (subtext for ”be with me”)!

    • emmaross
      June 22, 2017 / 11:54 am

      ah i hear you ! they all have such different ‘demands’ at different ages don’t they? sounds like you are working through it amazingly well though xx

  15. Stephanie
    June 19, 2017 / 12:28 pm

    I wish I’d done this with Freddie!!! He’s always had me fully engaging and playing with him. So now he’s 2.5 and I’m due with our second in October I realise I’ve created a monster!!! He does have some blissful moments of playing independently and I run a mile but he soon notices I’m gone or ‘needs’ me to play and be one of the characters on his train track! 😫

    • emmaross
      June 19, 2017 / 3:01 pm

      i’d say it’s definitely not too late! plus when number two comes along the dynamics will totally change so it may be a good time to start to try to encourage him to play more independently… thanks so much for reading stephanie 🙂

  16. Kate
    June 19, 2017 / 12:07 pm

    This is great!!! I often leave my 9 month old to play without me hovering over him and think independent play is very important…but I don’t know any other mums that do it. I was brought up like this and can honestly say I’ve never felt lonely and I’m very happy in my own company. It’s a great skill to have in life.

    A great read… thanks!!

    • emmaross
      June 19, 2017 / 12:20 pm

      ah yay, i’m not the only one 🙂 it can feel like i am / that im a bad mum… thanks for reading and for your comment 🙂 happy sunny monday x

  17. Sandy Michael
    June 18, 2017 / 9:08 pm

    Hello! This makes for interesting reading as my 1 year old has decided to whinge when she’s left to her own devices. I’m talking high level whinging, not the temporary low level whinge I was accustomed to, and it starts after 2 seconds. Only one week ago she could quite happily play on her own for up to 30 minute. It isn’t separation anxiety because she whinges/cries if anyone leaves her. She just loves an audience. I have taken her to lots of classes; the plus side is she’s the most sociable bad ass baby I know, and these classes were a GREAT way for me to meet other mamas and distract myself from the insane sleep deprivation for the first 9 months (she’s wired). The downside is I fear I may have created a monster. I was wondering if your approach was different when you had Jack? If Sunny (my daughter) had a sibling I’m sure she’d be a lot more chilled. For now, I need to do something that won’t involve my uterus.

    • emmaross
      June 19, 2017 / 10:26 am

      that last line! bless you. it’s so tricky isn’t it… have you tried setting her up with a bunch of toys that she can explore alone and then when she comes up to you, keep taking her back to the spot with her toys and showing her some bits and then almost creeping off and seeing if she stays put, and starts getting used to playing alone? with jack we have always been quite consistent in just letting him be and giving him toys to entertain himself and lots of space and trust. can you make her an audience of her dolls?! #probablyasillyidea – thanks so much for reading and for your interesting comment xx

  18. Lisa
    June 18, 2017 / 8:19 pm

    My lg was like this until she turned 3 and a half and then suddenly she absolutely wanted me to be totally involved in allher make believe games, it’s not the same on my own she’d tell me and no-one but me would do.
    It was such a shock to see her go from playing for hours on her own to the constant “mummy I need you”. An age thing I suppose.

    • emmaross
      June 19, 2017 / 10:27 am

      ah interesting.. jack is coming up to that age! i think that’s when they might need a friend or someone to play with i guess.. hmmm interesting. thanks for the potential heads up and thanks so much for reading and commenting 🙂 x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.