Getting Started With Independent Play

Solo play is important for your child’s growth and development. Learn how to support their independent exploration with these age-by-age tips. 

baby girl playing with wooden toys at home
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Parents love spending time with their little one, but it's equally important to give them space to explore the world. Independent play helps kids improve a range of crucial developmental skills, including problem solving, autonomy, creative thinking, and more. Letting a child play alone—even if it's just for a few minutes—also gives parents a chance to reset during the day.

Whether you have a baby just starting to understand their surroundings or a toddler ready to explore, this guide will help them get started with solo play.

The Benefits of Solo Play

While interaction with adults and peers is vital to a child's development, experts say it's just as crucial for babies and toddlers to have alone time. Solo play provides a variety of learning opportunities, allowing kids to explore their environment at their own pace, become more self-reliant, focus their attention, and learn from their mistakes. As an added bonus, all of these experiences boost a child's self-esteem.

Because a child may see themselves as a separate individual for the first time around 8 months, independent play also helps to strengthen their identity. They'll start to become a friend to themselves and feel comfortable being on their own, says Claire Lerner, a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to promoting healthy development in young children. When your baby goes out into the world, they'll be more likely to make friends with people because they really like them, not just because they don't want to be alone.

Having a baby content with independent play is great for parents, too. While the child entertains themselves, you get a few minutes to do a chore, make a phone call, or just relax.

Other benefits of solo play for kids include:

  • Experience with creativity as they flex their imagination
  • Exploration of their interests
  • A chance to persevere when faced with challenges
  • A greater sense of autonomy and independence

Independent Play Time By Age

Before you embark on a solo-play campaign, there are several things you'll need to consider. First is your child's age and developmental stage. The older your child gets, the longer they'll be able to play alone.

Here's a guide to independent play time by age:

  • At 6 months, a child may be content playing by themselves for 5 minutes.
  • At 12 months, they can handle about 15 minutes of solo play.
  • At 18 months, they might play alone for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • At 2 years, they should last around 30 minutes.

Your child's temperament is another important factor when considering independent play time. An even-tempered, laid-back child may be more willing to experiment on their own at a younger age than a feisty, demanding one.

Getting Started with Solo Play

To encourage your child's interest in solo play, establish "alone time" every day so they get used to the idea. Put them in a small area that's been childproofed and offer a few of their favorite toys or books. Start playing or reading with them, and once they're involved in an activity, remove yourself from the immediate vicinity.

Babies under 1 can't be left completely alone, so sit a few feet away and offer words of encouragement every few minutes, which will give your baby a sense of security, recommends Lerner. As they get older, you can retreat to the other side of the room or leave it entirely for short periods of time. Stay within earshot and peek in regularly to ensure their safety. Offer a few words of acknowledgement about what they're doing before you leave again.

What if your child stops playing as soon as you do? Try this: Play with them for a few seconds, then walk away for a few seconds. Return to play. Keep up this pattern for a few days so your child begins to understand that when you leave, they can expect you to return. Eventually they'll become more interested in toys than your comings and goings.

Conquering Clinginess When Playing Alone

Once your baby understands they have an identity apart from their parents, separation anxiety often rears its head. Because infants have such a limited grasp of time, when you're out of sight, even for a moment, they have no idea when you're coming back. They often get upset and cry.

The best antidote for such clingy behavior is to let your baby initiate alone time. If they crawl into a nearby room, wait a minute or two before you follow. If you need to leave them for a minute, say you're going and reassure them with your voice when they fuss rather than rushing back. It may take some time, but eventually they'll learn that being on their own isn't so scary after all.

Stop Feeling Guilty About Independent Play

Sometimes it's not the child who resists solitary play—it's their parents. If they're not engaging their baby in some stimulating activity every second, they believe they're doing something wrong and feel guilty, according to Lerner.

While no one is going to argue the importance of quality time for parents and children, the concept shouldn't be taken to the extreme. Though it may be hard to watch your baby play alone, remind yourself that it's a necessary, positive learning experience for your child. Also remember that the time you spend with your baby should never be discounted.

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