5 Ways To Foster Independent Play At Home

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Foster independent play

Last week I talked about our near break-up with LEGO. That experience led me reflect on the impact we, as parents, have on our kids’ play habits.

It seems simple enough doesn’t it? Give the kids some free time and plenty of toys and they should be able to play independently for hours. Well, maybe it’s that simple in your home, but not in mine. Had you raised this idea to me five years ago, I would’ve wondered what on earth you were talking about. Of course kids naturally know how to play! Fast-forward a few years and I realize my rookie parenting mistake – no two kids are alike, and no two kids play alike.

Elena could entertain herself in just about any situation. If she had a friend to play with, all the better. If not? She was equally happy. She spent her early years playing in homes where toy real estate was at a premium. Neither of the homes we lived in previously had rec rooms or basements. Toys were kept either in her room or the family room. In both homes, the main living area was an open floor plan, so if she was playing chances are one of us was nearby to facilitate play and keep her company. However, she has always enjoyed her own personal, quiet space. Playing with toys in her room was just as pleasurable, if not more so, than playing where we were.

Eli, on the other hand, has always needed more help to play independently. He prefers to play with someone else, and if he doesn’t have a playmate, he wants to play near wherever the adults are. He’s also pickier about the kinds of activities he enjoys. Where Elena always enjoyed crafting, puzzles, or looking at books, he prefers sports, games and role-playing activities.

Last spring, we moved to a new home with a basement. I envisioned the basement as a kids’ oasis, and put nearly every toy we owned downstairs. After a few months, I was perplexed. The kids rarely played down there. Unless they had friends over and specifically wanted to play something in the basement, they only ventured down if we made them. We had a basement full of toys, yet when given free time my kids would choose to sit on the couch upstairs and play on the iPad or watch TV every single time.

The success we had in moving the LEGO bins from the basement to Eli’s room forced me to think about how and where kids play. Why don’t they play a certain way, whether it be independently, imaginatively, or artistically? And why, we when have so many perfectly wonderful toys, do they not play with them?

These questions really vexed me. I want my kids to choose play that is both fun and good for their development. I want them to draw, build, and use their imaginations. I had to ask myself: am I setting up our home for show or for living?  I don’t like toys strewn about and I don’t like clutter.  But while out of sight might give me peace of mind, it also seems to put opportunities for free play out of my kids’ minds.  If the TV and the iPad are the only things that are easily accessible in our main living areas, why wouldn’t they choose them over other kinds of play every single time?

In the same way that we have to help children learn how to play independently* outside when they’re not accustomed to it, we have to help set them up for independent play success inside our homes as well.  We have to keep their desires and thought processes in mind and create an environment that fosters the kind of play we want to see them engaged in. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that play is like a muscle. If you haven’t used your play muscle in a bit, other than trying to beat your high score on Flap Happy, it will take some work to get it moving again. That’s where we have to step in as parents and provide the little nudge that gets the play muscle moving. How do we facilitate the kind of play we’d like to see?

Life with boys: a sea of Legos. #keepinitreal

We have to be willing to endure messes.


Play can be messy. It’s the bin of blocks spread all over the floor to find the perfect one. It’s glitter on the table for the latest masterpiece. It’s all the cushions pulled off the couch for the fort. When the day is over we can work together to clean the mess up, but trying to keep play tidy as it’s happening is a play buzzkill.


We need to have toys accessible.


The toys need to be where the children enjoy spending time, not necessarily where we think the toys look better (Guilty). Our basement is cold in the winter, and totally cut off from where we are. For Eli, who enjoys having someone nearby, this was a dealbreaker. Find creative storage to house the toys when they’re not being played with, and be aware of ways to incorporate play in the rooms you use the most, like this dollhouse in a kitchen cabinet.


But not so many toys that they’re overwhelmed with choices.


How many times have your kids whined that they’re bored, as they’re standing in the middle of a room packed with toys? I’ve threatened many a time to pack up the toys and send them to kids who would love the opportunity to play with them. The funny thing is, the less they have to choose from, the better they get at choosing. I store some toys in a closet and rotate through them periodically. It’s like Christmas when the “new” toys come out. And when they don’t get any reaction or play time? I know it’s time to donate those toys to someone else.

Prepared environment for crafting


Embrace the prepared environment. 


This is a term used in Montessori classrooms, in which the rooms are thoughtfully set up to encourage learning.  In the prepared environment there is order, accessibility, and the freedom to move and choose activities freely. At home, that means we have to plan ahead sometimes and have an activity ready, if only to get them started.  You might set out a selection of crafting supplies, which gets them started creating art. Select a few toys to have out at a time, so they’re not overwhelmed with choices or toy clutter. Leave out some planned discoveries to get their engines running.


Embrace your kids passions

Pay attention to their passions.


Once you find out what really excites them, look for ways to add playful opportunities to their passion. Pinterest is a great resource for creative and inexpensive ways to boost specific themes of play. Conversely, be willing to let go of toys that don’t speak to their passions. I have a habit of buying toys that I think are cool, but my kids don’t necessarily love. I bought a lovely (and not-so-inexpensive) Quadrilla set a few years ago. I loved the way it looked and imagined hours of endless play. They never loved it. In fact, they’ve never been big into building with wooden blocks of any kind, but that didn’t stop me from buying another kind of wooden marble run, Lincoln logs, and a big set of blocks. I’d get annoyed every time I looked at them collecting dust on the shelf. I finally let them go, freeing up space to spread out all of Eli’s Super Hero toys and accessories – which he loves and plays with frequently.

If no two kids play alike, then no two homes are alike when it comes to set them up for an enriching play experience. But we can use these guidelines to help us answer the questions that perplex us and come up with a solution that works for us. It seems like a lot of effort on the front end. However the extra time we spend thinking about how and where our kids play best will be rewarded with priceless hours of play. Not the mind-numbing, isolating “play” in the glow of a screen, but the kind of play that nurtures our kids and feeds their souls.

Have you ever thought about the way your kids play and how you can help them play better? What are your biggest struggles? How have you helped them engage in screen-free play?

* By independently, I mean free play in which adults are not directly involved, but not necessarily solitary play. Other children may be involved in the play.



  1. Although my girls are only two years apart, they were completely different in their styles of play. My older daughter always wanted someone else to play with her and favored “dramatic” play (singing, pretending she was on stage). My younger daughter even at 11 still enjoys pulling out boxes of little playsets and making “movies” with the characters. I thought we were going to have boxes of Little People in our family room until she left for college! When they were little, I just had to be okay with some of the toys being all over the living space. Now we just set some guidelines. Cassie can bring out a box of stuff and play across the fireplace hearth for a few hours but if it is out for more than a day, it has to go back to her room. You are so right that it is all about figuring our YOUR kids and how to make it conducive for them.

    • It is fascinating how different they are. I totally identify with your younger daughter. I was well into middle school and my best friend and I still enjoyed playing with our dollhouses and making clothes for our dolls. I bought a very nice dollhouse for my daughter as a preschooler, and she barely touched it. (Again with the buying things *I* think are cool for them to play with!)


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