Toddler development

Learning to play alone

Imitating adults is a favourite toddler activity, and is a natural way for toddlers to learn to play alone.

By Susan Spicer
Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

Jesse, almost two, will play alone occasionally. Even if they’re doing separate things, though, Jesse likes to be in the same room as his mom, Christine Larocque. “If I am making supper, he isn’t far away ‘cooking’ himself. I give him pots and pans and utensils.”

The ability to play alone is a welcome milestone. But with toddlers, it’s important that your expectations are realistic, says play specialist Jane Hewes, chair of the early learning and child care program at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton.

Not at the right age

“A toddler is not yet at the age when he can be left alone for any length of time,” says Hewes. When Duncan was just a year, says his mom, Danica Marshall, he would play with his cars or toy people for five minutes or so. Now that he’s almost three, if he’s really engrossed, he can spend 15 or 20 minutes at something.

Play develops out of the parent-child relationship, beginning in infancy with peekaboo, tickle games and the like. As children acquire language and become more mobile, they start to engage in more imitative and pretend play. Play with parents and caregivers is important: Like Jesse, toddlers want to do what you’re doing, and use the same stuff you’re using. “The younger the child, the more realistic the play objects need to be,” says Hewes. A basket full of papers, junk mail and envelopes might hold your toddler’s interest for a few minutes while you open the mail and pay the bills. Likewise, a small wash bin and some plastic dishes will allow him to wash the dishes just like you do.

Parents do need breaks, acknowledges Hewes, even if it’s just to read a magazine for a few minutes. Finding those little moments of respite is a matter of letting the child take the lead. Seize the moment, when your toddler becomes engrossed in an activity, to sort the laundry or sweep the floor. If you try to insist they play alone, it can result in conflict.


As toddlers get older, their capacity for independent play does increase. “When I need a few minutes to do a task around the house,” says Marshall, “I usually give Duncan some warning and then get out a favourite activity. He really enjoys playing with vehicles of any kind so a few cars he hasn’t seen for a while hold his attention for 15 minutes or so, enough time to get something done.”

What about throwing on a movie to buy a bit of time? “I think it’s OK here and there. But as a steady diet, no,” says Hewes. Toddlers need diverse sensory experience and lots of physical play. Cutting out a batch of playdough “cookies” is more valuable than watching someone do it on television.

What’s her play style?

“People have often commented on just how well Duncan plays by himself. Maybe I’m just lucky to have such an easygoing little boy,” says his mom, Danica Marshall.

Some children are happy to sit and play with the yogurt containers on the floor while you make the soup; others will need to toss them around or scale the cabinets, says Jane Hewes, chair of the early learning and child care program at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton.


Particularly active children have trouble staying still for even a few minutes. Working with your child’s play style will help. If she likes to climb and jump, set up an area where she can pile up the cushions or jump off the couch.

This article was originally published on Aug 04, 2009

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