My little boy is 2½, and has never been very good at playing by himself.

When we take him to play-groups he won't ever go more than a few feet away from us at any time; At a party last week, he wouldn't come on the bouncy-castle unless I came on too; Whenever I leave the room- e.g. to go to the bathroom- invariably he stands outside the door screaming till I come out to play with him.

My wife and I give him a lot of attention, and play with him an awful lot. But it would sometimes be nice if he would go and play with his toys on his own.

He is actually a very confident little boy, and I hear he is always one of the most vocal and active when he is at nursery. He just seems to need us giving him our full attention all the time.

Can anyone suggest techniques for encouraging him to play on his own whenever we aren't able to play with him.

3 Answers 3


When you play with him at home, say to him, I can play with you for 10 minutes, but then I have to run to put dinner in the oven and will be right back. At the end of 10 minutes, say I am going to put dinner in the oven and then I will be right back, how about you make superman fly over the tower of blocks (or whatever you are playing) while I am gone and then we will see what he does next. Then return right after you put dinner in the oven. Next time you play extend the length of time you are gone by a few minutes, but still suggesting what he should do while you are gone. Yes, he may (read probably) cry the first times but if you are consistent and follow through about returning he will learn.

  • 5
    Definitely this - use very small, defined time slices at first, and always come back when you say you will. Then just extend that time slowly. It's often all about trust - that you will return.
    – Rory Alsop
    May 29, 2012 at 13:42
  • Agree -- train being absent for only a few seconds, then increase from there. This worked well for us too -- also at bedtime! May 29, 2012 at 18:47
  • Yes, this captures what to do if he can't play at home by himself very well. Nov 14, 2012 at 14:29

I have tried the simple direction "go play on your own" combined with praise when my son is found to be playing on his own. The results are mixed and the effort is ongoing. This article inspired me to work on my son's independence and might help you too. The title may not charm you but there are some interesting points made. Why French Parents Are Superior


I know you want to work on having your boy play independently, but that means buying into the assumption that he needs to play on his own a lot (or be willing to go into a bouncy house at 2). I will get to the crux of your question, but first I want to get this one out of the way. In regard to things like the bouncy castle and parties, He is two. He has only recently mastered walking, and most children at this age still can't really jump (it is around 3 that MOST kids learn this skill - still a few months off). Even if he can jump, he probably has not mastered it yet, and landing or taking off from an uneven and moving surface is entirely different to jumping from a still and relatively flat surface. Think about how scary a bouncy house would be without a hand to hold if you were in there with a bunch of noisy kids twice your height with a broken leg and no crutches or hands to hold (balance wise, that is about how it is for him at 2 1/2). Bouncy houses are fun for the late preschool and elementary set - not the two-somethings.

At a party being unwilling to leave your side, doesn't seem to me to be the same thing as lacking the ability to play independently OR being unwilling to participate in groups (from your question it seems he does fine at preschool or nursery). So this aspect of your question really does seem like a different question to me. For that reason, I will address what I interpret as your main question which is "How do I get my other stuff done when our boy won't play independently?"

Your son is two and he, developmentally isn't really supposed to want a lot of independent time yet. That doesn't mean however, that you can't still get your stuff done. PLUS by offering and allowing him time WITH you now, he is likely to be more independent in a healthy way sooner than without the time and attention now anyway. Given this, I thought I'd offer some alternative ideas for you in dealing with your situation that can still meet both your needs and his.

The alternative is to involve your son in what it is you are doing. Some examples:

If you are folding laundry hand him some washcloths and let him try his hand at folding. Yes you will need to go back and refold, but in the meantime he is learning that you value your time with him AND that you value his contribution (a REALLY important lesson that helps with a lot of things later on - including discipline and the development of the confidence required to be an independent young man). Laundry also makes for good "matching" lessons and opportunities when it comes to pairing socks. Also importantly, he is learning social skills as you speak together. While you talk about things that are NOT toys and games, he is learning about how to learn, how to listen and the give and take of language.

In the kitchen, give him something to stir or mash or knead (great life skills to know and sensory experiences). It is a good sensory experience for him, he learns kitchen skills from watching you and the two of you can talk about what you are doing which also helps him build his vocabulary. You could also put a little water in the sink and let him "help to wash dishes" as you make them (just don't have any knives wind up in his reach). Dish washing is another experience that teaches him a life skill AND gives him another important sensory experience.

This may sound weird, but seeing others use the toilet is a part of him becoming potty trained. Let him join you. As long as he sits a little away and gives you some space and isn't trying to play in the toilet, tub or trash, he'll be safe and you can talk to him about how potty goes, well, into the potty while you are at it.

I think you probably get the idea. If, he would rather play - let him and then he is getting practice playing on his own, by his choice at his comfort level. He may be perfectly comfortable playing independently as long as you are in the room. If he is, give him plenty of this time. You can do work (including a lot of housework and office work), read or just enjoy watching him during these time periods. Even phone calls will work fine too. The more you just accept the idea of time spent together now, the more he'll learn and sooner than you'd really like he'll become the more independent person you are wishing for now.

On the occasion that you really do need to have a minute or two to yourself, Morah Hochman has the right idea in regard to suggesting that you tell him exactly where you will be, why and for approximately how long and then give him something to do while you are away, "I will be right back, how about you make superman fly over the tower of blocks (or whatever you are playing) while I am gone and then we will see what he does next." Just make these absences SUPER SHORT.

Hope this helps.

  • 1
    Thanks for so wonderfully capturing the child's developmental stage. Children change so much from birth to six, every six months they are like entirely new creatures! And, thanks for advocating to include the child in the adult's activities, not just the other way around! (And, I think this is a typo you should fix: " is trying to play in the toilet, tub or trash" - should be "isn't") Nov 14, 2012 at 14:28
  • Yup, I figured it was an important one :) Nov 14, 2012 at 14:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .