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Your child has a roomful of toys – at least one, maybe two – that she never goes into by herself. She has a backyard she refuses to explore on her own. When there’s no friend handy, your child is at loose ends. How can you get your child to play by herself?

Independent play is a good thing, and not just because it frees you up to do your own stuff. When your child plays by himself, he’s free to exercise his imagination and creativity. He can experiment, solve problems, and think good thoughts. Your child, playing alone, practices being resourceful.

But if your child can’t do it – if she’s unable to feel settled and focused on her own, how can you help her? Now, before summer vacation rolls around, is a good time to practice.

First, give up your role as your child’s social director. You’re not responsible for filling your child’s every waking moment with educational and stimulating activities. He’s responsible for managing all the down time in the day. Leave him to it.

Second, play on your own terms. Playing with your child is wonderful fun for both of you but you’re not required to fill in for missing playmates whenever a child is bored. It’s just not your job. So when your child is casting around for something to do and lands on playing with you, accept if you can but with limits if you like. Say, “Yes, let’s play three games of Crazy 8s” or “Yes, let’s play catch for 15 minutes.”  When the limit is reached, let your child find something to do on her own.

Third, welcome boredom. Being bored isn’t the end of the world. You’re under no necessity to solve it. When a child complains of being bored, said, “Oh! Go think of something good to do – I’m sure you can! – and when you’ve figured it out, let me know. I want to know what you think up.” Smile. Be encouraging.

Fourth, beware of too many restrictions. If you don’t let your child do very much, there’s not very much to do. Let your kid got outside by himself. Let him do things that seem to you to be too hard. Don’t be too concerned about the mess (he can clean it up, after all!). Rules get in the way of fun. If you have too many rules, it’s time to lighten up.

Finally, avoid filling the time with screens. Television, computers, video games, and handhelds should not be your solution to independent play. If your child suggests one of these in a lonely moment, apply the same limits you do any other time of day (you do set limits on screen time, don’t you?). But avoid being the one to suggest screens. Suggest a book instead, or playing outside, or walking the dog.

Learning to play by oneself is a skill that develops over time. It’s not something most children naturally are good at. They need opportunities to practice. So if you want your child to play more by himself, teach him how to do this.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.