Encouraging independence

Development | | Gail Miles

Hints and tips on how parents can nurture and support this age & stage

By Gail, The Playful Expert

Unsurprisingly, encouraging independence in young children takes time and patience. Some children are naturally more content in their own company but for others, playing independently can be a bit of a struggle, particularly if they have had play done for them from an early stage.

The point I’m making here is that unfortunately, without meaning to, we often inadvertently teach our children that their own play is not good enough. Through our own excitement, we play for our babies instead of trusting in the contentedness they often have at that age. We play little games for them, rattle things in front of them and show them how the things they are playing with work rather than letting them explore their toys and environments for themselves.

When we trust that they really don’t need to be entertained by us, we actually teach them to be content with their own discoveries - through their own excitement, while exploring and finding out for themselves. When we take this step back, we nurture their independence; allowing our child to become self-reliant, to learn from their mistakes, to explore new environments at their own pace – resulting in them developing faster and boosting their confidence and self-esteem.

This is not to say that I am I advocating for you to not be involved in your child’s play but sometimes taking a step back and letting them be in ‘charge’ really does have some wonderful benefits.

Here are some tips on how you can develop and encourage your 18-month-old’s independence through play:


Alone time

Although interaction with adults and their peers is a crucial part of your child’s development, it is just as vital for them to have a period of ‘alone time’ too. You can develop your child’s interest in independent play by beginning to establish a period of ‘alone time’ in their routine every day. Once they are used to this idea, it will become part of their normal day-to-day routine and they will enjoy it and thrive from this time away from you too.

This alone time can be started off by moving away from the child whilst they are happily playing for a couple of minutes and then coming back to engage in their play again so that they see you return. Over time, you can then extend this time away from them and it will become normal to have periods of time in their day without 1:1 interaction from someone, which will benefit other areas of their life (and yours) too.

As children have such a limited grasp of time, when you're out of sight, even for a minute, they have no idea when you're coming back and as a result they often cry, get upset or cling to you.

Remarkably, the best solution for such behaviour is to let the toddler initiate alone time themselves. If they wander off, wait a minute or two before you follow them. If you need to leave them for a minute, tell them that you're going (rather than making a dash for it when they aren’t looking) and reassure them with a positive tone to your voice when they fuss after you rather than rushing back to them immediately. It may take a little time, but eventually they will learn that being on their own isn't so scary after all.

Independent play is one way that can help to build a sense of security and confidence in your child. 

Open-ended play opportunities and explorations

Toys are a massive part of encouraging children’s independent play. Children are born with a huge capacity to learn and be creative. When we provide them with toys that entertain them at the push of a button, the creative part of their brain is not stimulated and fed, as the toy is doing all the work for them. The novelty of the ‘flashy toy’ quickly wears off – we then find our children require more and more from toys to achieve the same buzz and entertainment factor, thus resulting in us spending more money too!

By making simple changes in what we provide for our children to play with, we not only encourage children to use their imaginations but we leave them free to control their play too. For example, if we replace their battery operated or single function toys with more open-ended, problem solving and role-playing opportunities, we can then build the child’s confidence in their ability to play, thus allowing them to become more independent.

I recommend providing them with inspiring materials and then letting them explore and create how they like! Open-ended items such as food clips, balls, spoons, cups and bowls and loose parts, blocks, shops, play kitchens, pieces of material, cardboard boxes, dressing up sets and trains are all great toys to let a child’s imagination roam free.

Take their play seriously

Sometimes when our children are playing, it can be quite easy to think of their play as not ‘important’ or to trivialise it. But when we take the time to stop and respect that they are engaged in their play, even when it doesn’t look like much to us, it encourages them to be content playing on their own and will help to develop their overall independence too.

Learning space

If you want your children to be independent, then I’d recommend making sure your home is set up so they are able to be. This includes areas for them to play independently too. Does your attitude reflect that you want your child to feel free to help themselves and direct their own learning? Or are you easily frustrated by mess and by your child taking their time? Your attitude  and what you provide can make a big difference to your child.

By tuning in to the interests of your child and providing an environment that is engaging and promotes independence, you will allow your child to feel inspired and have the freedom to create, which will then transpire in other areas through independence too.

Step back

Children really are capable of far more than many of us give them credit for. When given the right environment and are provided with sufficient love, support and respect, children will naturally learn, thrive and grow at the perfect pace.

Children flourish in play in the presence of their adult support but actually lose confidence in their own ability to play when play is done for them. They actually feel like their play is not valued when the adult takes over or controls the play scene. Therefore, it really is important to leave the play to the child. As I said before, this doesn’t mean you can’t be there to enjoy their play with them, it just means that observing and taking a step back from time to time is better for encouraging your child’s natural play instincts than actually doing the playing for them.

Don’t interrupt

Where possible, try not to interrupt your child when they are playing. They are fully absorbed in that moment and that is something you want to encourage, not interrupt. It may look like ‘just play’, but play is their ‘work’ and it is highly important to them. This is how they learn to develop their focus and concentration. It is therefore really important to show them that you value and respect their play. 


Lastly, dedicating some time every day to sit and watch your child play is hugely important, so that they also know that they are valued. It allows them to see that you are genuinely interested in them and what they do, and what is important to them. You will also find that you learn a lot about your child; their interests, ideas and thoughts. When they have your full attention for a part of each day, they are less likely to demand attention at times when you are less able to give it.

It is lovely to think that independence in play also strengthens your child’s identity. They become a friend to themselves and feel comfortable being on their own. When they are old enough and they go out into the world, they will be more likely to make friends with people because they really like them, not just because they don’t want to be alone.