Many parents write me every day asking how to teach children to play alone and so I thought I'd tell you my experience and give you some ideas.
First of all, there is no magic wand to teach it overnight, it takes patience: independent playing must be cultivated every day in small doses, it's trial and error, it's progress and regression.
When I talk about "regressions" I mean phases. Sometimes children play independently for weeks and then stop for different reasons: separation anxiety typical of 9-12-18 months, changes in school, the start of the holidays, guests at home, tension between parents…
When faced with these situations, I try not to talk about it in front of the kids or not to see it as a problem. I also avoid saying sentences like "Can't you play alone even for five minutes?" or “If you can't play alone, we'll put away all your toys”… When kids feel the pressure of HAVING to play alone, that's when they become more attached to us (they need our presence).
Independent playing should not be felt as an obligation: it is a process, and with patience and consistency it will happen naturally.
Here are 4 ideas for teaching your kids to play on their own—you actually don't teach them, they learn it on their own, through practice:
- Prepare the environment. Every detail that makes the child independent in carrying out an activity gives them independence. In my experience, an environment that promotes independent playing has 5-6 toys well organized on shelves and within the reach of the child. If you want to have a look at our montessori-inspired apartment back when we lived in Spain, feel free to read this old post on my blog “Home Tour 2018 - Our new Montessori inspired apartment".
- Observe. Observation is the key for understanding anything related to children's development. Why are so many hours dedicated to observing children and taking notes at the Montessori training courses? Because observing is the only way to really get to know children and draw conclusions.💡 Please, note that it's not just a matter of observing, but doing it in an objective way: this is how we learn not to anticipate our children's actions and not to distract them when they are concentrated (which is very important to encourage independent playing), but also to understand their interests in order to prepare the environment with activities and toys that stimulate those interests. For example, when playing you can observe how much time they dedicate to each toy, and which are the toys that seem to keep their focus the longest (maybe it's just a minute, but it's a longer period than other toys). Don't be afraid to put away in the closet toys that at this moment don't seem to interest your kids, and leave out only those that really keep them focused.
- Give the opportunity. We must give our children the opportunity to learn to play independently. Do you know how it's done? By playing with them, modelling and helping them. It seems contradictory, but it isn't: if your child never seems to want/be able to play alone, you can't leave them alone in a room or on the carpet with toys and expect them to play alone. Stay with them, model with your example, go away and come back, and you will see that little by little they will learn.
- Use few words. When we are playing with our children, we should have quiet moments, because the more words we use, the more children are likely to rely on our active presence. Our goal, on the other hand, is to be invisible at times to increase their independence in the game. Also, using few words reminds us to observe them more, two birds with one stone!
Food for thoughts
I know it seems counterproductive to have fewer toys available: we think the more toys our kids have, the more they will be entertained (so in order to encourage independent playing we often buy a new toy rather than getting rid of an old one). Having many toys at home, though, achieves the opposite result: it creates more indecision when picking one (especially with small children), it makes mind and body quickly go from one toy to another without focusing on any (a bit like a bee in a field of flowers), and it creates more chaos and therefore more frustration when tidying up (which often ends in a power struggle). The solution is fewer toys: the less (right) toys you have, the easier it is to encourage concentration and promote order.