How to Encourage Independent Play in a Montessori Setting

Children refusing to engage in solo play or with other kids, and instead constantly expecting their parents to be the source of fun games and activities, is a modern-day parenting struggle. It happens to everyone, and that’s OK.

The important thing to know is that there are ways to motivate your child to start creating their own playing scenarios, enjoy playing independently, and rely less on others for fun.

You’ve probably heard your father tell you, “We didn’t need anything or anyone to play with us! We would just spend all day kicking the ball outside!” That might have worked in the good ol’ days, but our parents are not fully aware of how things work nowadays.

Little boy hopping, surrounded by bubbles.

However, there is some truth in there. Independent playtime is real quality time toddlers need to have with nobody else but their own company. It has many big benefits.

  • It helps children build confidence and independence.
  • It helps increase their attention span.
  • It removes children from overly structured content and plays that can stifle creativity.
  • It helps with enhancing their creativity and imagination.

Something else also makes independent play important - it leaves parents “enough” time to tend to their business.

But we can’t just tell our kids to go outside and come back when they’re hungry. It doesn’t work like that anymore. So, what can we do? First, arm yourself with patience, and don't get frustrated if it doesn't go according to your plans instantly.

You can start by taking simple, incremental steps to lead to your child’s independent play. Organize a safe space as your toddlers' play area where you can be sure you can watch them occasionally without dedicating your full attention.

It is OK to start with just five minutes in your daily schedule and gradually increase that time until, eventually, it becomes a welcomed daily routine for both of you.

Let’s see first where Montessori stands in regard to independent play. After all, we want to see what’s the Montessori twist in all of this.

Does Montessori Encourage Independent Play?

Montessori strongly encourages independent play. It is one of the core educational principles of the Montessori method. It might even be the most important one, alongside learning practical-life skills. As a matter of fact, those two complement each other perfectly.

From her first days in Casa dei Bambini, a school she opened in 1907 in Rome, Maria Montessori emphasized how important it is to let children explore, choose their own learning and playing materials, and take the lead in their education.

She realized that her students enjoyed doing practical work like gardening or preparing their own meals. The idea was to engage children in tasks they needed to complete on their own.

Such tasks proved to be an excellent exercise for independent play. Children would fully commit to them and, gradually, became more interested in the outcome than if someone was playing with them.

Boy digging sand on the beach.

Giving children something engaging to play with, a task to solve, or a challenge to overcome can motivate them to enjoy independent play. For example, open-ended toys work perfectly for this purpose.

That’s why modern Montessori promotes problem-solving toys and activities. The goal is to engage children in independent play while they also learn practical life skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

So, let’s see what you can do at home to motivate your child to play more independently.

How Do You Encourage Solitary Play?

Independent play and solitary play are one and the same. However, according to Mildred Parten's theory, solitary play is also the name of the phase in children’s development alongside parallel play.

So, here we won’t focus solely on encouraging children to play independently but on getting them to play without adult interference. It can also be playing with their siblings or peers.

Therefore, here are 5 things you can do to inspire your kid to boost their independent play skills without asking you to join in:

Create a Routine

Just like you would create a routine for doing your daily tasks, create one for your child’s play as well. Once your child learns there’s a special time in the day for their independent playtime, they’ll be more open to accepting it.

You can start by telling them, “Tomorrow after lunch, you’ll play with your toys next to me while I fold laundry.” Keep your word, give them a few toys, and go about your chores. Keep doing it day after day. They'll slowly but surely expect the time after lunch to be reserved for their independent play.

However, in order for this to happen naturally, you’ll also need to set a time when you actually spend some uninterrupted time with your child. That means no phones, TV, or any other distractions. That time of the day is just for you two, so your child can get your undivided attention.

That way, your kid will know they can count on spending some time with you. Knowing this will make the transition to independent play manageable.

Start with Short Playtime Periods

Your child can’t just start playing on their own for hours at a time if they’re not used to it. They need to practice first to enjoy their unstructured play if they are not used to it.

If you want to foster independent play, you need to start with baby steps. Begin with 5 or 10 minutes per alone playtime session and work your way up from there. It can be as easy as leaving your child with their stuffed animals before their nap time.

The older your child gets, the more they’ll be able to focus on their play, resulting in more time spent having fun without any adult interference. It will take time, but if you keep true to your routine, you’ll see the positive outcome you’ve been expecting.

Baby sitting on a beach and looking towards the sea.

You could say something like, “For the next 10 minutes, I’m going to wash the dishes. Take your toys and blocks and play for a while. After I’m done, I’ll come over and have a look at what you made.”

The crucial thing about this is that you really do come over after 10 minutes and show them that you really meant what you said. You can even be in the same room. It works as long as you are not intruding on their playtime.

Next time you ask them to do something for 30 minutes and that you’ll come over to check on them after that, they won’t have a problem with it because they’ll know you’ll be there after half an hour.

Don't Interfere or Interrupt

This might be the hardest one, and it’s all up to you, not your child. If you’re used to spending all the time together, you’ll have the urge to check on them every couple of minutes. Please, don’t do it. You don’t like being interrupted when you’re doing your work, and neither does your child when they're doing theirs.

Once they finally focus on playing without other children or parents, let them enjoy it as much as possible. Their brains are going full throttle at that point, and they must be left alone to explore, imagine and solve problems. The more uninterrupted time they have, the more they’ll get used to creating fun for themselves.

After they’re done, you’ll get to hang out together like you’re used to.

No Means No

This is the same as the last, but the roles are now reversed. In the first days of your independent play “training,” your child will often come back to you and ask you to join in.

If you said they need to play alone for a while, it must stay that way. You'll join in once that time is up, but not before. Doing so will teach your child what they can expect in the future.

This creates a sense that you won't give in no matter how much they protest. As time passes, your child will be less likely inclined to try the same tactic to win you over.

Read more about saying "no" to your child and how to be a more assertive parent.

Introduce Engaging Toys and Remove Distractions

Last but not least, we need something that will actually occupy their attention. Since you won’t be playing with your child for a certain amount of time, your child needs toys or activities to grab their focus.

The best toys for that purpose are those that require problem-solving skills. These can be either close-ended or open-ended toys. They need to be challenging but not frustrating. Some of the best examples of such toys are Montessori puzzles.

Puzzles are a super-beneficial pastime and can really motivate kids to engage in lengthy purposeful play.

Toddler playing with puzzles.

If you’re interested in looking into other toys that could also hold your child’s attention while you do your chores around the house, we sorted these Montessori toys by age to help you find the perfect one. Choose them wisely, but don't make the mistake of offering too many toys, as that might be too distracting.

When Should You Start Encouraging Independent Play?

You can start at a very young age. The sooner, the better, since independent play has a crucial pediatric role in enhancing the development of your child. Even your baby can enjoy five minutes of independent play daily while still wiggling around their crib.

How to encourage independent play? Whether by exploring their mobile or watching their feet and hands waving around, your baby learns from the earliest days they can be the source of their entertainment.

Later on, as children get older, it gets harder to get them accustomed to new playtime routines. However, it’s far from impossible, as children learn easily. Remember to encourage your child to play independently more and more as time passes.

Why Won’t My Toddler Play Independently?

It’s possible that their need for attention isn’t fulfilled. Almost every human craves human contact and connection. If you allow for some special one-on-one time with your toddler every day, without any distractions, that need might be fulfilled. It helps kids learn that it is OK to be alone for a while.

They might also feel separation anxiety, which is typical for young children. Your toddler might be dealing with some feelings they don’t understand and feel that it’s your job to help them cope with them - and it really is.

The best answer to the question about how to encourage independent play is - show empathy, talk to your children, keep eye contact, and take their every word seriously. You need to build a strong and trusting parent-child relationship. Once you do, your toddler will feel more courageous to explore independent play, knowing there is always a safe place to fall back to.

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