The Power of Pretend Play in Toddlers

Teach your toddler to play without you—and raise a more curious, confident, self-reliant kid.

When Shannon Cullins hears her toddler calling her name, the Chicago mom knows that it probably means one thing: playtime. Like so many 1- and 2-year-olds, Graham refuses to use even his favorite toys without commanding his mom's full, eye-level attention. "When I leave the room, he'll usually yell out for me, even if he's with his father," Cullins explains. "If I'm reading, he'll try to pull the book from my hands. It can be very frustrating."

Teaching toddlers to entertain themselves isn't just an essential sanity-saver for busy parents like Cullins—it also helps young kids build creativity and critical-thinking skills, says psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. "We often tell our children exactly what to do and how to do it, or that toys should be used in a certain manner. But creativity is an outgrowth of exploration, of using something in a new way," she explains. Letting kids take charge of their own amusement gives them much-needed opportunities to tinker on their own. Recent research supports the value of this approach; for example, one study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that kids were more likely to figure out a toy's happy surprises (the noises it can make, how it's able to move) when left alone with it than if a teacher first showed them how to use it—or if they overheard a teacher teach another child how to use it.

Encouraging your toddler to play on his own might seem like a daunting task if he insists you watch his every move, but with plenty of patience and these expert tips, you'll have him well on his way to occupying himself in no time.

Step 1: Ease into it.

To get your child used to the idea of busying herself without your involvement, start slowly. At first, just sit silently beside her as she plays instead of joining in. Once she's completely absorbed in what she's doing, you can try moving to another part of the room. "Independent play doesn't necessarily mean your child should be alone," notes Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., author of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love. "Plus, your toddler will feel comforted by having you still in the vicinity."

However, don't expect miracles from the outset. How long your child is able to play on her own depends in part on her age, notes Dr. Acredolo. While a 12-month-old may only be able to play on her own for five to eight minutes, a 30-month-old may be capable of up to ten minutes of independent play. Whatever your toddler can handle, be sure to praise her progress. Say, "I really like the way you're playing by yourself. Great job!"

Step 2: Give your toddler some space.

Sure, you want to be aware of what your little one is up to, but once he's happily playing on his own, try not to hover. Make sure that his play area is comfortably safe, and then show interest from afar. "If you're too close, it will be easy for your child to demand your attention," Dr. Acredolo warns.

Also be aware of how often you instruct your child about how to play ("Silly boy, that's a truck—you don't talk into it like a phone, you drive it around on the floor"). You might mean well, but if you interject too frequently, you risk raising a kid who always looks to you for direction. "Parents fill in the blanks too often. Even when they think they know all the right answers, adults need to give their children the permission to have their own ideas," explains Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.

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.

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