Reader Question: How Do I Get My Child to Play Alone?

Reader Question: 
“How do I get my 3.5 year old to play alone?  I get so exhausted by the end of the day with playing with her and entertaining her all the time.  Her first sibling will make her arrival in October, so she doesn’t have a playmate at home except for me and her dad.  What do I do?  I have been trying to make her have quiet time / alone time each day, but she just doesn’t get it or know what to do.  How do I get her to play alone?”   –Shelly

My Response:
I am definitely not an expert in this area because my own two children are only 18 months apart in age, and thankfully, they are great friends.  They play together really well most of the time, so I haven’t had a lot of experience with trying to get them to play alone…my issue is more trying to get them to stop playing together and do something with me!

So, with that being said, here are some things I would suggest trying:

  • audio books.  If she likes to read, set her up in a comfortable area with some picture books and audio CDs, or even with some audio chapter books, like Magic Tree House or the Mercy Watson series, and let her have some independent reading time.  We also like LeapFrog Tag Readers for this purpose.
  • sensory bins.  Especially ones themed around her interests.  If you make it in a small box, then there’s really only room for one person to play.
  • getting a baby doll and some baby care items so she can pretend to take care of her new sibling.
  • if she doesn’t nap, establish a quiet time in her room during what would be nap time.  Be sure she has books, and items for pretend play like a doll house, figurines, dolls, cars, kitchen set, etc.  
  • if she likes art and can be trusted with some basic supplies, set up a “station” or a box and let her be as creative as she likes with the materials on her own.
  • try directly talking to her about how you each need to have a little alone time during the day where you each work/play by yourselves.  Perhaps set a timer to signify the start and end of alone time if that helps.  Start small if you have to — 5 or 10 minutes even — and work up from there!  Maybe you could even do a few shorter sessions of alone time per day to start with rather than one long one.  If the child isn’t sure about it, plan to do something with them right after alone time so they have something to look forward to.  “Go play with your blocks for 15 minutes and then we’ll go to the park together!”
  • you might also try a “workbox” approach — You can google it for more information, but basically you put out several boxes of activities that the child can complete by herself.  She can work through them as she wants.  Rotate the activities in the boxes daily or at least pretty often so they keep their appeal.  It typically is used for older homeschooled children, but I’ve found it helpful to keep my little ones from getting bored; they can just go choose a box and stay busy for awhile independently.  Ideas for inclusion might be puzzles, blocks or other building toys, Melissa & Doug educational type activities like the See & Spell or pattern blocks, coloring/activity books, etc. 
  • include her in what you’re doing.  If you’re making dinner, folding clothes, or cleaning, let her help as best she can.  Give her small jobs she can do.  My kids sometimes help and sometimes realize they’d rather go play by themselves.
  • also check out this post I wrote recently, titled 25 Simple Ways to Occupy a Preschooler, for some more ideas. 

Another thing that helps me when we’re going through a tough phase with the kids (…and I know this school of thought isn’t for everyone…) is to try to step back and see the big picture a little more clearly.  Usually whatever it is really won’t last that long in the grand scheme of things, and I realize that I might even miss it before too long.  At least that’s what I tell myself.  Like when Lilah comes to my bed in the middle of the night to slap me in the face and kick me in the back while she tosses and turns and tries to go back to sleep snuggle.  Or like today when we were leaving trying to leave from a play date.  Instead of politely thanking the hostess for inviting us over and putting on their shoes, both kids started screaming and running around like chickens with their heads chopped off when I said it was time to go.  Yeah, one day I’ll look back and miss those moments.  Well, maybe…just maybe… 😉

Do you have any helpful tips or advice for Shelly?  Please leave her some feedback in the comments section!

If you have a question you’d like to see featured in a future “Reader Questions” post, you can leave it in the comments below, message me on Facebook, or email me at inlieuofpreschool (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Genny Upton

A former teacher turned stay at home mom to two preschool aged children. Creator (and writer) at In Lieu of Preschool and Parent Teach Play. Currently publishing my first children's picture book!

  • Amy says:

    I have exactly the same problem I actually feel really guilty if I leave my daughter to play alone but I have to realise it does not mean I am a bad Mom if I do this.

    The tips that have been given are great ideas. I usually get out a pile of books and my daughter will sit with them and look at them. Usually, I will set up a play activity at night in readiness for the morning when I am rushing around trying to get everything done.

    The “invitations to play” which have been posted by the imagination tree blog have been fantastic inspiration to me. I hope this helps. Just know that you are not alone.

  • I like the quiet time idea. It has saved my sanity. Another idea that helps me is rotating toys. I do it because we have too many and the kids just dump them out, so it’s easier to have just one box out at a time. But it also means that the toys are new and interesting again once they’ve been in storage for a few weeks.

    A less specific idea: go with their interests. My little boy always wanted to build and make stuff (and take stuff apart), and now that he’s almost six, he has a room full of stuff he’s chosen—”materials” from the recycling bin, masking tape, circuit boards, and old typewriter. If I gave him a room full of toys he’d be bored out of his mind, but because I paid attention to what he really wants and let him have some say in it, he can keep himself occupied in his room for quite awhile now. It was a process, though, and obviously you can’t give all that stuff to a 3 1/2-year-old.

  • Cassie says:

    I like to provide my girls with items they don’t get to play with all the time for their alone time. I make sure that I rotate what is in the bag as well. So they each get their bags to play with. We have Leapsters, a Leap Pad, nook table for ebooks for special times, unique coloring activities, puzzles from the $1 section at target or dollar stores, workbooks, and matching games. For a few items we have in it. I have quiet time set for each day and they go to check their bags and see what they will be doing during that time.

    I make sure that each of them know we all need time alone and how important it is. I try and take my time alone at the same time. We work on why it is important.

  • Shonda says:

    I have some play time with me in the room and then I go to the kitchen to do what I need to do. I have a quiet time in the afternoon that he has to stay in his room, but he can read or play with toys if he doesn’t nap. I now have a 1 year old daughter so I balance play time with both. I also spend 1 hour with him while little sister is napping where we have our school time and play. My child’s love language is quality time so I need to be sensitive to that.

  • Alexandra says:

    I converted my formal dining room into a crafting room for my daughter. She has all her paints, colors, paper, glue, glitter, bits of fabric and string, etc. in there on a low shelves. This way she has a designated place of her own just for play. The room should be in a central area, and not closed off(a through way or something), so that she can share from time to time, and not feel like she has been left alone(even if she hasn’t).At the same time, she’ll have her own special place which feels private. I let mine make a mess, so she can be creative and learn to play by herself for short periods of time. Our floors are hard surface, so are easy to clean, but a tarp on the floor works well, and newspapers across the table.

    If you allow computer learning, Reader Rabbit has some excellent educational programs that are made just for preschoolers. It’s amazing how fast they learn to use a computer! We have an old one set up in the craft room for her.

    Toys which require imagination are the best(in my opinion) for keeping young children busy – blocks, doll houses, boxes or shoe boxes, cups or containers, dress up items, small scale children sized cleaning items(broom, dust pan,, etc.). Think Montessori. These toys are flexible and can be very absorbing when they get into the mental play zone (into flow).

  • Anonymous says:

    In addition to the above comments, use a child’s perspective to see how her toys are stored. Is it easy for her to get out a toy? Does she have non-cluttered room for playing?

  • Miknbec says:

    I found that my son needed to be “trained” to have independent time to play. It takes several days, weeks even- but now that he is just over 4, I am reaping the benefits. I would play with him in a common space (usually our family room) doing something I knew could become an independent activity- such as his trains. After 10-15 minutes together- I would ask him to do a specific play task (take the train back around to the station, find 3 other men for the trains, or add more cars, etc) while I go and complete a task that was out of his eye sight. I would then go and change the laundry over, take a load upstairs, or load a few dishes. When we began this, I would return 2-3 minutes later and ask him how he did completing that goal- and join back into playing with him. I would do this 3-4 times in a single day, each time I was gone only 2-3 minutes. It gave him the confidence that I was returning and that I was invested in what he was doing. (Those tend to be right at the top of the list of concerns for our kiddos!) My goal was to slowly extend my time away but return before the inevitable “MOMMY” call was made. If I heard that- it meant he had stopped thinking of playing because he was more concerned with being separated from me. As he gained confidence in this-I was able to stretch those times over the course of the days. The challenge was finding things I could ask him to do that would continue to play we were engaged in. I would ask him to do more involved or would take him longer- but he knew what to do while I was gone – he knew I would return- and he knew I would ask about what he had done as I engaged in play with him. After a while, I was able to suggest he go to play with his trains while I loaded the dishes. I didn’t have to engage him first or “assign” his play goal. Now- he is able to go and choose his own activities (or multiple activities) and play independently for extended time because he learned how to play independently. I found that just having independent activities available wasn’t enough because he doesn’t know how to approach or vary the play. I also found that my son was more consumed with my absence rather than the activity in front of him- no matter how much he loved the toys.

  • Thank you for the post and also for all the great responses. I will try them and see what works best for her and gets her eventually to a little independent play time.I think its important for kids to learn to play on their own and not depend on others for constant entertainment so I think that she is at a good age to start ge4tting her to learn to have some quiet time and independent play, especially before the baby comes.:) -Shelly

  • tkh007 says:

    I have 3.5 year old daughter as well and baby # 2 due in 2 weeks. I do like to play with her and our playtime is a lot of fun. I try to spend all morning playing with her(without distractions), then we have lunch while she watches TV for 30 min or so and I either rest or get around things to be done, then she plays by herself for another 30 min (or more if it goes for longer) while I do my stuff. She doesn’t have to go to her room, anywhere in the house is fine to play. I keep reinforcing it is important to let mummy do some things while she occupies herself and I’m quite strict with that, so she knows any complaining would not get her anywhere. We organised our home in child-friendly way and she can get most of the things she needs by herself (art supplies out including paints, paper, scissors and glue), good toys & activities rotation system so there is always something new to play with). We also use lots of ideas from this post (sensory bins, busy boxes, pretend play, books, while we also have either audiobooks or music on). After that we always do housework together: she helps me with laundry, cleaning and cooking (she’d get bored with playing on her own by then and if she wants to spend time with me she has to help!) and then we play again (or go outside if weather is nice). I’m not sure how our routine is going to work when baby comes though, we might need to work on a new shedule.

  • Anna says:

    I have a 3 yr old who just won’t play alone either.

    She has a toy room, full of invitingly set out scenarios and toys. She won’t go in it to play alone – even when I am sitting in full sight through the doorway. If I start her off in a play scenario, no matter how involved she is she will drop it and come find me within a few minutes of me leaving the room.

    She has a craft area set up adjacent to the kitchen and computer…yet prefers to whine (bored) at my leg rather than paint/glue/draw/create.

    She will happily play ‘independently’ as long as someone is within a metre or so of her and ready to interact at the drop of a hat. She is even better at doing it when there are a number of adults around (ignoring her and having a discussion).

    I have friends with kids who are the same, and friends with kids who never see them for all the independent playing. We had a big discussion about it all one day and came to the conclusion that it is mostly a personality thing. Some kids just want constant interaction with other people, others are happy without it for short periods.

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