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Teaching Children to Play by Themselves

Play is the way that young children learn. There are 3 kinds of play that children need: playing with parents, playing with other children, and playing by themselves. When your child plays independently, you don't have to be in the room (depending on the child's age), but you should check on your child.

Independent play helps children develop self-esteem and confidence. They need their own private space and time. Helping your child become more independent helps them learn about feelings, dreams, and ideas.

Teaching your child to play independently for longer and longer periods of time is a very slow process. You can help by giving them choices and by organizing play times and activities. The age of your child determines what type of activities you use to teach this skill. For toddlers, playing with a toy is a good activity. For older, school-age children, reading or hobbies may be best. Choose activities that your child likes.

  • Determine how long your child is now able to play by himself. (For example, coloring, playing with toys, or reading). It may be a very short time (1 to 5 minutes).
  • Pick a time to work on increasing your child's attention span each day. Having a specific playtime each day makes the process easier.
  • Ask your child to play quietly for a time. Choose an amount of time you feel certain he can manage (maybe 5 minutes). Set a portable kitchen timer for that amount of time.
  • Give your child brief love pats as often as possible during this time. Reward him but don't distract him.
  • Gradually increase playtime. The amount of increase depends on your child. At first set the timer for the same amount of time for 3 or 4 days. If your child is enjoying these quiet types of activities at any other time during the day, be sure to give her lots of physical contact during such times.
  • If your child has tantrums and refuses to play independently, place him in time-out. After the time-out is over, tell your child again to engage in the activity. Praise getting started and trying.
  • Model the kind of behavior you expect your child to have. For example, if you would like your child to read more, it's very important that she see you enjoying reading.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-30
Last reviewed: 2012-07-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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