Independent play comes naturally and almost effortlessly to some children.
My toddler didn't fall into that category.
As a highly attached child, my toddler required me in her line of sight all the time. That led to me becoming heavily involved in her play, and she soon became accustomed to my presence and directions during play. These habits eventually stood in the way of independent play.
Then, I discovered Montessori. It made a strong case for how important independent play (or 'work') is to children. That was when I became intentional, persistent and focused on encouraging my toddler to independently create play.
“… the child’s individual liberty must be so guided that through his activity he may arrive at independence … the child who does not do, does not know how to do.”
—The Montessori Method
Encouraging Independent Play for Highly Attached Toddlers
Re-learning How to Approach Playtime
It wasn't just up to my toddler to change, I had to change too.
These were the 3 fundamental ways I changed my own behaviour and habits to approach playtime differently. These changes helped to set my toddler up for success in independent play.
- I asserted myself less in my toddler's play. My role took a gradual transition from director to facilitator to observer of play (most of the time).
- Even when my toddler seemed 'bored', I held myself back from constantly entertaining/engaging/giving attention. This allowed her individual space, room and direction to figure out how to make use of her time. At first the restraint was particularly hard as she is my only child; gradually, my toddler no longer felt she had to rely on me to initiate play.
- I focused on making independent play a daily habit and expectation, much like how we clean up the play area when it gets cluttered.
Facing Resistance & Meeting Needs
There were many occasions whereby my toddler resisted solo play. That was perfectly understandable as even the most independent children have clingy phases. Needing to be near a caregiver is part of a child's normal development, as he/she struggles to balance autonomy and separation anxiety.
In those moments, it is totally okay to take a break from encouraging independent play to work on meeting his/her needs. Having children feel secure and knowing you are there for them build the confidence children need to be on their own. These build their positive associations with independent play.
After quality time spent connecting and helping them regulate their emotions, you could gently redirect them back to independent play.
Celebrate Any Progress
The behavioural changes can come really slow. But any progress is significant!
After months of consistent encouragement, my toddler developed a stronger desire and ability to create play on her own. It took almost a year for my toddler to cultivate the habit of independent play everyday, and it is a delight to observe.
Her independent play duration (which varies day to day from as short as 15 minutes to even 2 hours) doesn't matter as much to me as seeing how she develops in creativity to find things to do that kept her happy, productive and engaged - without my help.
I often remind myself that the journey of encouraging independent play, like the rest of motherhood, is WIP and learning-on-the-job. Everyday presents new situations, new developments and new learning curves to understand ourselves and our children's needs, to better work towards our goal of fostering an inviting environment for independent play.
Ways I Encouraged Independent Play for My Overly Attached Toddler:
- Acknowledge Feelings
It is normal and perfectly okay for toddlers to feel negative when our attention is turned away. In those moments of fussing and crankiness, I'll go to the level of my toddler, maintain eye contact and let my toddler know that being present and being there for her are important to me.
If I am able to, I would spend some time with my toddler before trying to leave when she is fully engaged and wouldn't miss me.
However - If I'm not able to instantly drop my task on hand, I say something along the lines of:
"I know you want me to stay. Let's build a house for these peg dolls and you can add the furniture while I add ingredients to the soup."
"I know you prefer playing with me. I enjoy playing with you too but I need to ensure lunch can be ready too. Why not you line up these train tracks while I chop up the carrots for our lunch?"
"I know you want me to play with you NOW, but I have to make sure food's not burning on the stove. I'll be back when the number on this clock turns X."
I am precise sharing about the work I'm doing, how long it'll take and I would provide a prompt on what she could do in the meantime.
As my toddler got older, I see it as a great opportunity to put the ball in her court to propose a solution.
"I know you want to be with me, but not in the kitchen. Could you think of a solution?"
To this, my toddler once suggested riding in my baby carrier while holding a toy in her hand so she could be near me while playing simultaneously.
Validation of feelings helps our children feel that we understand their challenges and emotions, building and helping them with emotion regulation. A strong relationship with our children also increases the security and stability they feel, boosting their ability to be independent.
- Being Respectful & Supportive
Nudging children to "go and play" (especially when they're not ready to, or in the mood) usually leads them feeling that they want to cling to their caregivers even more.
I strive to read my toddler's cues and ensure that I don't force independent play on my toddler. It takes both hands to clap. I let her know there's always an option to be at my side working alongside me if she's not interested to do shelf work or explore her toys.
As a Montessori parent, it is important to respect and trust our children's freedom to choose as well as their eventual choices. Knowing that they could choose to play on their own, or stick to us, is empowering for our children and sows the seeds for independence that would be demonstrated someday.
- "Together" Time
I took a leaf out of Montessori In Real Life's book as I find that dedicating quality time together with my toddler makes her more receptive to being independent in the time that follows.
What works for me is reading books with my toddler after our wake-up routine. It is a wonderful time for holding her close physically and filling her emotions and knowledge cup with good, inspiring books. This reading session in the morning often leads to successful lunch preparation whereby she plays while I cook (if she's not keen in kitchen practical life activities).
It's wonderful if you could rope in some help from your parenting partner. An arrangement that works terrifically for us is having my husband make breakfast while I read to my toddler till she has her fill of 'together time', and then me taking over for lunch preparation as my husband begins work.
- Consistently Prompting/Redirecting
I have a mental list of activities my toddler is interested in lately, and I suggest them when I redirect/guide my toddler to independently play. It is important that these activities are developmentally-appropriate and manageable for your toddler to independently work on, so she/he does not need your assistance.
"Can you show me how to stack the wooden blocks to your height?"
"Can you gather everything red and put them into this basket?"
"Would you like to get started on your visual journal?"
"XXX's birthday is coming. Why not you get started on making a card for him/her?"
The use of these prompts and redirections are always well-received by my toddler, who is excited at the thought of working on these inviting activities. This also gives a sense of purpose and drive, and consistent prompting/redirecting turns independent play into a habit.
- Empower Through Modelling
Many a times, children become frustrated in independent play if they don't have a good idea of how to create play or use the tools.
With new toys I generally give my toddler time to explore and tinker with them before modelling multiple ways we can use them to play. I remember when we first got our Magna-tiles, we formed 2D runways for cars, and then 3D doll houses. This helps them learn through observation, inspires them, and gradually they would be able to create their own scenes/stories/find their own purpose.
I know of parents who equip children with toys and tools that facilitate independence, like automated reader pens for book-lovers and no-screen music players for music-lovers. It is important for children to know how to operate them independently, or it would be a source of frustration.
Demonstrating how to use tools also empowers our children to leverage them effectively in their work/play, so we can leave them free in the choice and execution of work. This is particularly important for the art tools I set aside in our open and accessible art corner.
- Open-ended Toys
The most powerful tools for encouraging independent play would be open-ended toys.
Open-ended toys provoke and inspire creative, imaginary and independent play. There is no right or wrong way to play, there is no specific end-goal, and it can be played in a million and one ways.
The way children play with open-ended toys can vary everyday - based on their interests, developmental stage, natural abilities and imagination. These are toys that children can grow up with.
Open-ended toys that are favourites of my toddler include Magna-tiles, building blocks, realistic animal figurines and her play scarf. Here's a list of open-ended toys I recommend for 2 year olds.
- Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation
Play is intrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation is defined as the desire to take part in an activity for its own sake, and bring about feelings of autonomy, pleasure, and enjoyment. Children need high levels of intrinsic motivation to practice, persist, and play independently and with passion over time.
One of the best ways to help children find intrinsic joy in their play/work would be reframing praise into feedback and acknowledgement. Children derive their own meaning and satisfaction from independent activities, and are confident individuals who do not require external validations from adults.
- Make Independent Play Gradual
A little everyday goes a long way in changing habits.
With highly attached children who are accustomed to adult-directed play, it takes time for them to get comfortable playing on their own and finding inspiration and ideas to create play.
For starters, engage them in activities that align to their current interests, then start to take on a more passive, observer role. Move a short distance away physically if possible. When children seem focused in their play, gradually increase the distance. It helps to have the play take place in an environment where your child can see you even if he/she is not playing with you i.e. encourage play in the living room connected to your kitchen if you're making lunch. This creates a sense of comfort, familiarity and security, which is required as children learn to gain independence.
- Go Outdoors
Nature provides a great environment for independent play to spontaneously and naturally happen. Montessorians believes that the best classroom is in nature, and there's because of the myriad, ever-changing elements of nature that provoke sensorial exploration and processing.
Outdoors, children could turn nature items into toys easily. I've seen children transform twigs into walking sticks/swords/pencils and reimagine leaves into peekaboo masks/fans/wrapping paper.
So the next time you feel stressed over your children not playing independently, bring them out for a change of environment into the embrace of nature, and let nature engage them with its rich resources for children. You could be surprised by how children interact with nature on their own, sparking a journey of independent play.
- Find Little Ways to Engage & Connect
Sometimes our children don't require us as active participants of their play, but hope for some reaction to push play along. This is especially so for pretend or dramatic play. In these circumstances, find interesting, innovative ways to make short, consistent ways to engage while continuing to work on your tasks.
For instance, my toddler enjoys playing pretend kitchen and would occasionally come up to me as I cook, asking me to taste and hold her pretend food. These are important moments to connect, and assure your child that you are still there for him/her.
My hands would often be too wet/unhygienic to accept the pretend food, so I would do the following:
- Explain that I can't free my hands to hold the pretend food, but encourage my toddler to place on the kitchen countertop, or in my pants pockets
- Converse. I would provide feedback, "Oh! You brought me some fish!" and try to hold a dialogue discussing what she did.
- Extend play. I could suggest more meals.
The journey to independent play might come with bumps along the way, or seem to take too long, or start to feel stressful, but trust in the process and your child.
Playing Independently is Part of Human Nature & Development
Montessori believes it is in children’s nature to desire being independent, and that children naturally strive for independence in their growth and development. In Montessori terms, this is called "divine urge".
Given the desire and ability to create play is inborn, it helps us define our roles better.
We can think of ourselves as a supporters and nurturers. We support and empower our children in their natural pursuit for independent play.
Your Efforts to Encourage Independent Play Will Pay Off In Their Development
Independent play is imperative to children's development. These are the reasons I am intentional about promoting independent play.
Brain boost: Through freely chosen, spontaneous and unstructured play, children use their senses to interact with their environment. They make connections and discoveries, build, create, imagine, and experiment. All these activities build neural pathways in the brain and improves thinking capabilities.
Nurtures a growth mindset: Through child-initiated play, children become agents of their own learning to understand and test theories about the real world. They do trial and error, overcome failures and challenges. They learn that stumbles on the way are just part of the learning and the way there.
Self-reliance translates to other everyday tasks: Children who can independently play would be confident to take on many other everyday tasks on their own.
Social independence: They don't have to be around another person or a group of people at all times. This social independence will help them feel comfortable in any situation.
Habits Take Time to Be Tackled
Making independent play a habit is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
Adjusting your expectation knowing you're in for a long haul instead of a quick fix would help caregivers persist in encouraging independent play, and making it a priority for their children's daily lives.
Screen-time isn't evil, and it's totally okay to allow screen-time to save your sanity during moments when your child refuses independent play. Excessive screen-time isn't good for brain, eye and emotional development but limited, regulated allowances of screen-time is not detrimental. Pick educational documentaries for your child to watch (and discuss with him/her thereafter to reinforce the learning) while you take a rest and breather. Remember, marathons can't be completed if all your energy is expended right at the start.
"I have a preschooler. Is it too late to start?" It’s never too early or too late to encourage meaningful, independent play. It is worth the time and energy investment to cultivate this life skill that would serve our children well in later life, when they could create fun with anything that's available in their environment.
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Note: I'm not a trained expert or academia, just a regular mom who's hugely passionate about the Montessori way of raising independent children. The information shared is from research and recommendations from a Montessori-aligned community. I welcome suggestions to improve the accuracy or quality of this post. Thanks in advance!
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.