5 ways to get your kid to play alone

Because it's impossible to play with your kid all day long.

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Photo: @SueWhite on Instagram

Four-year-old James doesn’t like to play on his own. “He enjoys Lego and building toys, but even then he seems to want an adult to play with him,” says his frustrated mom, Lori Hogan. “He wants to show us his progress every five minutes.”

It was the same story at his preschool in St. John’s. “James was constantly looking to the adults around him for interaction,” says Hogan. “He won’t spend a lot of time ‘playing pretend’ by himself.”

If your kid is like James and won’t play on his own, there’s a bright side: The fact that he’s good at interacting with adults and other kids is a positive sign in his developing maturity, says Jane Hewes, associate professor of the Early Learning and Child Care program at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

That said, your kid won’t have you or another playmate available all the time, and he needs to get used to playing independently. Here are some strategies to get him comfortable on his own.

1. Start gradually
Warn your kid in advance that you’ll be leaving him for a few minutes (say, to wash some dishes), but don’t go too far, and make sure you come back when you say you will, says Chaya Kulkarni, director of infant mental health promotion at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “Over time, the need for your proximity will reduce,” she says. What you don’t want to do is sneak away when he’s not looking, as that may alarm him and only increase his requests for your attention.

2. Swap out his toys
Gather up some toys, toss them in a box and put them away for a few weeks. The items will seem new to him when they’re reintroduced and will make for a good distraction from the lack of your presence (for a little while, at least!).

3. Parallel play
“To encourage children to be independent and play by themselves, parents need to model that behaviour for them,” Hewes says. Suggest that he look at a book while you read beside him, or set him up at the table with a colouring book while you go over your bills. “There’s a big benefit in doing similar activities alongside them,” says Hewes. “They watch what you’re doing and imitate your behaviour. They want to be just like you.”

4. Plan playdates
Contrary to what you might think, “self-regulated play does not develop from playing alone—it actually comes from interacting with others,” says Hewes. Hours spent fighting dragons, playing hide-and-seek and putting “babies” to sleep with other kids will fuel his imagination for those times he’s at home. By playing with others, your kid will learn to take turns and develop patience—skills he needs in order to be content on his own when you can’t (or don’t want to) amuse him.

5. Get him involved
Acknowledge his need for your attention by including him in what you’re doing. Get him to help you wash the dishes, fold laundry, rake the leaves or clear the dinner table. He’s entertained while you finish your tasks, and he gets a sense of accomplishment at the end.

Remember, while it’s certainly easier for you if your kid entertains himself for an hour, treat this as a work in progress. Don’t rush him into playing on his own—and don’t panic if the process takes some time.

In the Hogan house, James is spending small nuggets of time playing with a recently “rediscovered” Lego set, and his mom sees this new self-regulated play as an encouraging sign. “We still try to be responsive to his needs,” she says. “But we don’t always stop everything to play with him when we need to get things done.”

Expert tip:
Work on getting your kid to play on her own when you’ve got plenty of time and patience. If it’s not in her nature to amuse herself—and you’re asking her to do it when you’re stressed about dinner guests who are about to arrive—you’ll both get flustered and frustrated, says Jane Hewes, associate professor in the Early Learning and Child Care program at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline, “Encouraging alone time”, p. 96.

Read more:
8 tips for teaching kids to be independent>
Confessions: Playdates gone wrong>
How to raise a self-sufficient kid>

For more tips on how to encourage your little one to play alone check out this video:

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