Stop Entertaining Your Toddler (And Free Their Play)

How can I get my 2.5-year-old son to be more independent? He is my sidekick, my errand running buddy, and we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.  That being said, he seems incapable of doing anything without me right by his side, and honestly, it can get a bit frustrating. Am I asking too much of him at his stage of development?

I keep getting on his level and telling him that Mama needs to get some work done and that it’s his time to play, and when I’m done I will be able to play with him.  He seems to get to a point where he’s desperate for my attention and just keeps asking why I can’t play, or says “Mama play with me, Mama when can you play, etc.”  I almost feel as if we’re getting to a tough love approach, where I will have to impose “independent playtime” each day so he’ll eventually learn how to play alone.  – Concerned Mom

The entertainment trap. It is such an easy one for doting parents to fall into, especially with the firstborn child. I would definitely have gone this route myself if my baby hadn’t sent me a profound and pivotal message in our first RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class together.

For the first three months of my daughter’s life, I’d been entertaining her nonstop, assuming it my duty to occupy and engage her every waking moment with my activity while she remained mostly passive (which is all I thought she could be). Then, following my instructor’s suggestion, I placed her on her back on a blanket on the floor…and to my astonishment she lay there perfectly content for the two hour duration of the class.

My daughter’s message could not have been more crystal: Please stop keeping my mind so busy, Momma. I need a little time to think. 

Taking that giant step back to observe my baby was the ticket to an exciting adventure, because I was then able to begin to know and enjoy my daughter, while also witnessing the physical, cognitive, creative and therapeutic benefits of her play.

But even if we do get the memo about trusting our babies to be capable, active learners and allowing them some time to “be”, the toddler years present a whole new challenge. Toddlers are in the process of gaining independence and discovering their power. They are supposed to keep pushing until they find our limits – testing what it takes to make us jump and how high. This is not being “bad” — they’re just doing their job.

Taken at face value, our toddler’s age appropriate demands might lead us to conclude, “My child obviously needs me desperately and can’t possibly play alone!” As parents, we may also be reticent to assert our own needs and wishes, because we want to avoid confronting our child’s strong emotions. Either way, we can end up causing our children to “unlearn” to play.

Here are some key steps to freeing children (and ourselves) from play and entertainment dependencies:

1. Learn a less intrusive way to play together

Little-known fact: when we sit quietly and are passive, yet receptive and attentive to our children while they play, they feel just as nurtured by our companionship (if not more so) than they do when we are actively involved.  It is a profoundly validating experience for children to be able to hold our interest without having to ask or work for it. Without a word of our praise, our appreciation is palpable.

When adults play with children in the conventional sense, we almost always end up directing, dominating, or at least altering the course of action somewhat. We also tend to “hook” children on our involvement, which makes their transition to solo play a more difficult, almost foreign concept.

Learning to be a play “supporter” rather than playmate takes practice, entails sensitive observation, open-mindedness, acceptance and, most of all, restraint (especially for those more inclined to do than watch). But once we get this down, it is an incredibly relaxing, satisfying, Zen-like experience.

When and how should we respond so as not to interrupt self-directed play? 

We simply take cues from our kids, trusting them to request our input, which they usually do by looking at us or expressing themselves verbally. Then we respond by narrating or “sportscasting” succinctly.

For example, let’s say our child is stacking blocks and the blocks tumble. If she doesn’t look towards us, it’s probably best not to say anything or even assume that this is a problem. If she does look toward us, or perhaps we hear her groan, we would then narrate (or “sportscast”): “I saw that. When you tried to put the red block on the top, the green and blue ones fell down.”

What if my child asks for help?

Never say no to a request for help, but ask lots of questions and assist as minimally as possible. Using the block tower example, you might go close to your child and ask, “What are you trying to do?”

“I want to make a tower.”

“You have the blue and yellow blocks stacked here, what block will you use next?”

“That one.”

“Okay, so let’s see how you’ll place that green one on top of the yellow one…”

Usually, this type of support is all the help children need.

2.  Set limits with confidence, honesty and respect

“I almost feel as if we’re getting to a tough love approach, where I will have to impose “independent play” time each day so he’ll eventually learn how to play alone.”

If it were even possible to force independent play, that would defeat the entire purpose. Play isn’t play unless it’s a choice. But it is up to us to quit our job as entertainment director, get our personal work done, etc., and I certainly don’t see this as “tough love”. The child who whines, “Mama play with me, Mama when can you play” is only doing his job, seeking a straight answer from us about our limits. In return, our role is to:

Be clear — project confidence: “I am going to do some things in the kitchen” (Remember, our children can’t  possibly feel comfortable separating unless we are)

Offer a choice, if possible: “Would you like to help me shuck the corn or will you play in your room?”

Acknowledge feelings and desires: “Oh, I know you want me to keep playing with you. I see how disappointed you are. We can do that again after dinner. “

Develop routine times for independent play so that separation is easier for your child to accept.

Provide your child a YES Space, the term I coined for a 100% safe play area containing open-ended toys or objects  

3. Encourage play that is as mind-active as possible

The more time children spend in passive-receptive mode, the less adept and comfortable they will be playing independently. So…

Avoid screen use or keep it to a bare minimum

Offer simple toys and objects that make for more active, creative play

Instead of offering specific play activities, wait for children to invent their own

Have no fear of boredom

Let whatever children choose to do (or not do) be “enough”

 Remember these golden rules of parenting:

The more we do (or toys do):

  •         the less our child does
  •         the more our child thinks she needs us (or toys) to do for her
  •         the less confident, capable, creative and fulfilled she feels


I share more about fostering independent play in my new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.

Here are some inspiring and informative online articles:

What is PlayAll They Need is Play, and just about everything else on Lisa Sunbury’s blog Regarding Baby

The spectacular four part (so far) series on play by Nadine and Anna of Mamas in the Making

My numerous posts on play, especially Becoming Unglued, Solo EngagementHow To Stop Entertaining Your Baby and 7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play


(Photo by sean dreilinger on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. “Independent play” I totally understand and agree with the idea. But the question is where does it begin and end, between building a secure attachment, and raising autonomy and creativity in the child. Moreover, would this idea still be as true in the case of an only child?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations