More Ways Toddlers Can Play Independently
Furthermore, toddlers are more likely to take pride in their accomplishments when they have chosen the goals. To encourage your kid to be self-sufficient, help him set up a pretend-play scenario, such as going to Grandma's house, but don't elaborate on the details, recommends Georgene Troseth, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. Ask questions about the car ride there and what will happen during his stay -- then give your child a little distance and see what happens when he "visits Nana."
Step 3: Cater to your kid's idea of fun.
One of the best ways to get your child engrossed in play that doesn't involve you is by paying attention to the stuff she's naturally drawn to. Dr. Troseth suggests taking a somewhat counterintuitive approach: "What is it you always have to tell your child not to do?" If your little one is constantly trying to get into your makeup and beauty supplies, you might give her a clean powder puff and a brush so she can mimic what Mommy does.
Keep in mind that toddlers love to mirror the adults around them. So if you need your child to occupy herself while you're getting through your to-do list (for example, tidying up the living room), provide a way she can "help" -- say, with a kid-size toy vacuum that simulates the real thing.
Of course, to your kid, a major part of what makes playtime with you so fun is simply having some companionship. To teach her to not always rely on you as a playmate, give her frequent opportunities to interact with other children, Dr. Acredolo suggests. Your little one will quickly learn that it's possible to have a good time without you.
Step 4: Be a toy editor.
If you want your child to become an independent thinker down the road, provide plenty of open-ended items for him to play with now, Dr. Troseth recommends. Objects with multiple uses -- like blocks, pots and pans, and cardboard boxes -- are especially great for encouraging solo play, because all those possibilities can keep kids occupied longer. The same goes for toys that require a little more work to play with (such as objects with buttons, Velcro, or zippers).
In addition to considering the type of toys you provide, focus on the quantity. Having a large number of toys can actually make a child more distracted; like adults, toddlers can become overwhelmed when they're presented with too many choices. In fact, stashing items in the toy box for a few weeks can end up giving them a certain appeal. "When playthings reappear after a period of being absent, children are likely to perceive them as more novel and, therefore, naturally more interesting," Dr. Acredolo explains. In other words, putting an object away for a while and then reintroducing it is one of the simplest ways to encourage your toddler to play with it for an extended period of time -- all on his own.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.