Independence rocks

With three children in different stages of childhood, it’s a balancing act to ensure that each has their needs met—not to mention my own needs!

Learning Stages

By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

The baby won't nap, the toddler wants to play right now, and the kindergartner wants help with her work. With three children in different stages of childhood, it’s a balancing act to ensure that each has their needs met—not to mention my own needs!

To preserve peace in the house and my own sanity, I have had to guide my children towards playing by themselves for at least part of the day. The good news is that independent play can be educational and is an important part of a child's development.

I've faced two different types of challenges with encouraging independent play: a clingy toddler who needs constant attention, and my own eagerness to jump in too quickly when my kids are happily occupied.

We addressed the first challenge by gradually introducing the idea of independent play. Some toddlers will play contentedly in the same room with you but holler for attention the moment you leave. Others are distracted by your presence and can only concentrate on their own activities if they’re in another room. There is no right or wrong way—only what works for you!

The second challenge is a product of our times. My kids will be happily playing and instead of enjoying the moment of peace and quiet, all of a sudden I will think, "They need to learn about phonics, and mathematics, and the scientific process...they need me!"

If you have similar anxieties that cause you to interrupt perfectly good playtime, consider the educational benefits of toddlers learning on their own:

  • Imagination is best developed with little interference. Children are born with imaginations and only need the freedom to explore and a few good props. Throughout the day, I will overhear my children narrating bits of their day or fantasy scenarios with far more detail than they answer any of my questions. A little time alone is good for creativity!
  • Working alone can build problem-solving muscles. Children become accustomed to looking to us for the answers. If we take a step back, we allow them to think things through by themselves. Building with blocks, pouring water through sieves, and sorting beads in a muffin tin may seem like aimless play, but really children are learning how to manipulate their physical world and develop their sense of relative size, balance, gravity and a whole host of mathematical and scientific concepts!
  • And when children find a satisfying solution, they gain confidence. “Look, Ma! I did this all by myself!” 

And remember—a quiet child is not a bored child! Young children do not require the same sort of novelty and constant stimulation we're wired to expect as digital age adults. Just think of how many times they've asked you to make peanut butter and jelly for lunch or read Goodnight, Moon at bedtime! If your child is bored or frustrated, he will certainly let you know.

Convinced? Here are some of my best tips for getting toddlers to play independently:

  • Make sure you provide a handful of toys or props that will encourage independent play—preferably open-ended toys that do not require adult assistance or direction to be enjoyed successfully and safely. I find stacking toys and fill & spill toys (like the Shapes & Sharing Picnic Basket) to be a huge hit for independent toddler play.
  • Sorting will occupy older toddlers and encourage their awareness of color, shape and size. I remember sorting store shelves in rainbow order while waiting for my mom to shop. Now, I find remnants of my own children's explorations: figurines arranged from smallest to largest or toys reordered according to some indecipherable system. Put out a dozen or more (age appropriate—beware of choke-ables!) objects and a tray. If your child needs a little push, ask if he can find all the red ones (or square ones, or small ones) and then see what he does.
  • Monkey see, monkey do! When you want to fold laundry, give your child his own clothes to "fold" and put away. While doing dishes, set up your kid  with a wash basin and sponge and some plastic dishes and utensils.