When a child plays, either by themselves or with others, it promotes executive function,
including the ability to self-regulate their emotions, develop patience and impulse control.
Independent play also helps develop their attention skills and encourages problem-solving.. The
link between play and positive cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development is so
strong that in 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a recommendation for their
providers to ‘prescribe’ play for their patients.
The ability to play independently is something that happens gradually. At around six months of
age, babies might be able to play for a couple of minutes at a time, up to 5 minutes. By around
12 months of age, this time increases to around 10 minutes of independent play, and, at 2 to 3
years old, toddlers may be able to play on their own for 30 minutes or more.
Here are a few ways to encourage independent play:
1. Start when your child is young. Even babies can entertain themselves for a few minutes.
In order to occupy themselves for an extended period of time, a baby must have a safe
place to play with simple, age-appropriate toys or objects. This can begin in their crib,
and be moved to a play pen, or a secure play area on the floor. Be nearby to observe,
but don’t interrupt their play – they need uninterrupted time to explore and learn to
2. Give your toddler open-ended toys that can encourage creativity, such as blocks, trains,
dolls, play foods and even boxes. There are multiple possibilities for how these can be
used and that can keep your child actively playing longer. Limit the kinds of toys that
“entertain”, such as toys with lots of lights, sounds and actions. Focus on the quality, not
quantity- having too many toys available at once can actually make a child more
distracted and overwhelmed with choices.
3. With younger children, sit down and play with them for a few minutes first and then step
back and let them play on their own. In the beginning, your child may need to play in the
same room you are in. Start gradually, by moving across the room or leaving for just a
minute or two, and slowly you can add more time as they get comfortable playing on
4. Make sure your child gets your undivided attention at other times during the day, then he
may be more willing to play without you.
5. Make independent play time part of your child’s routine. Pick times when your child is
most likely to be successful, not when she is overtired, hungry, or has just been away
from you. If solo play time is given a space in the daily schedule, it becomes something
your kids will expect and they will likely tolerate it better.