My eldest son, Diego, has always been Mr. Independent. At 3, he was already dressing himself and arbitrating what made it into his lunch bag. But the moment he got down on the rug to play, this self-sufficient streak vanished. "Come race!" he'd plea, yanking me off the couch. "You're Chick, I'm Lightning." He'd whine, "Draw with me," pulling me out of the kitchen and away from my coffee. Gratifying as it is to feel so wanted, there have been many days when I would easily have traded my favorite pair of black boots for a half hour of Diego's playing happily on his own while I got to read a magazine or whip up dinner uninterrupted. As it turns out, this is par for the course for moms and dads of preschoolers. "Three- and 4-year-olds are extremely hungry for social contact, and tend to hang onto their parents," says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book.
Before you choose the path of least resistance and resign yourself to yet another installment of Car Town or Doodle City, consider this: Helping your child figure out how to entertain himself will pay dividends down the road. Experts agree that play sans playmates teaches children a great deal about themselves and their personal interests, and also encourages a sense of autonomy and self-confidence that will last long past the obsession with Cars. Read on for some common obstacles that prevent preschoolers from venturing into the playroom on their own -- and tips for getting them to embrace "me time."
Obstacle: You've overscheduled your kid's days.
In your quest to provide her with exciting, enriching experiences like soccer classes, French lessons, and trips to the zoo, you may be shortchanging her in the goofing-around department. "Solo play is important for your child to discover what her interests are and to learn that she doesn't always need other people around in order to be entertained. But social interactions are still the top priority for most preschoolers," says Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and play therapist in Salem, Virginia. If your kid isn't getting enough time with pals, chances are she won't be psyched to hang out on her own.
Solution: Cross off that Intro to Chess class, and pencil in a playdate instead. Ideally, you want to plan for at least some playtime with other kids daily, whether it's at preschool, the park, or on home turf. "That should make her more willing to play alone for a reasonable amount of time," says Dr. Pratola. To minimize meltdowns, schedule solo play during a naturally mellow stretch of the day, like early morning or post-nap. Initially, your child may be able to keep herself occupied for only five or ten minutes (just enough time for you to down that mug of joe!), but as she gets used to self-entertainment, you can slowly draw it out to 30 minutes or more.
Obstacle: You may be getting in the way.
If your kid is used to having you swoop in every time he makes a mistake or can't figure something out, it's possible that your overly involved parenting is cramping his play style. "Choreographing your child's playtime can interfere with his imagination developing," says Naomi Aldort, Ph.D., parenting coach and author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
Solution: Reduce your child's dependence on you as his problem-solver by providing toys and supplies that he can figure out easily and use to create his own fun. Jenn Berman, Psy.D., Parents advisor and author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years, recommends stocking up on dolls, Legos, trains, and coloring books and steering clear of tricky crafts and other toys that could make him frustrated.
Obstacle: You're trying to sell solo play.
You've probably noticed that your preschooler isn't a fan of being told what to do -- and is much more agreeable when she feels as if she's in control. It could be that she's resisting the idea of playing on her own because she feels like she's being forced into it against her will. "You don't want playing alone to feel like a test or a form of deprivation," says Dr. Aldort. So avoid rigid rules like "Mommy can't talk to you for 15 minutes."
Solution: Your child is much more likely to warm up to playing by herself if you make it seem like a treat rather than something she has to do, akin to eating her veggies. Give her daily solo sessions a fun name like Big Girl Time, and create a special box of favorite toys that only comes off the shelf for the occasion. But don't push your luck. "If you stretch the time to the brink and say, 'Just let me finish one more load of laundry,' she may not want to play by herself the next day," advises Dr. Aldort.
Obstacle: Your kid doesn't see much of you and is starved for your attention.
It's normal if he shadows your every move; kids this age hate feeling excluded or ignored, especially by Mom and Dad. And getting him to detach from your hip could prove even more difficult if he spends most of his day in preschool or child care and only gets evenings and weekends with you.
Solution: Establishing a daily routine that includes a good amount of one-on-one time for you and your child should go a long way toward easing anxiety associated with playing alone, says Dr. Karp. If he's still hesitant to be out of your sight, start with side-by-side activities. If you're gardening, give him a shovel to dig in the dirt. When you cook, pull out pots, pans, and Play-Doh so he can stir up some faux food. "The goal is not to teach your child how to deal when you leave the room," says Dr. Aldort. "It's to show him that he can generate his own activities and fun."
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Parents magazine.