How To Get Your Kids To Play Independently In 3 Easy Steps

Dec 06, 2017

When the kids were two years old, three years old and just a few weeks old, we moved into a brand new house. I was stressed and overwhelmed because getting the house together fell on my shoulders since my husband was traveling a ton. There was so much to do: unpacking, organizing, designing, hanging pictures and shelves, meeting with vendors, choosing window coverings, appliances, garage storage, landscaping and overseeing all the deliveries and installations.

The kid's toy boxes were all in our loft playroom upstairs but where I needed to be was downstairs near the front door and near the kitchen. I was often answering the door, making food or doing dishes.

We had an old table my husband had used as a desk and my in-laws were so kind, they sawed off the legs and turned it into a play table just the right size for the toddlers. I set it up in the kitchen as an art area. 

As soon as I put some paper and crayons out - boom - they were there for hours! It was amazing! It was an instant babysitter for the kids while I did things near them in the kitchen.

Kids are drawn to art because it allows them to express themselves and they can make sense of the world through art. Art activities develop fine motor skills, emotional regulation and enhances neural connections.

I go into most of my friends' homes and there is always a toy area - usually a toy room or play room - but very rarely is there an area set up and ready to go for the kids to use their creativity through art or tinkering. It's a huge benefit to have it there if you want to keep the kids occupied.

If we want more time for ourselves without the kids needing us every minute, we have to set ourselves up for success.


So let's get started! The first step is to create a dedicated area to set up art or "Play Presents” for your child. Play Presents can be art activities, building toys, familiar toys arranged in new and different ways... It could be a "challenge" for older kids or a small world.


Here's what you need to get started:  (you can find the entire list of materials in one master list here!)

1. Decide on your PLAY PRESENT LOCATION. Look around your home for a brightly lit area that is near where you spend the most time. For me, that's the kitchen - so our space is off the kitchen in the dining area. It's surrounded by windows and lots of natural light and because we have an open floor plan, I can see the area when I'm cooking, doing dishes, in the living area and from the kitchen table or bar.

2. Decide on your WORK SURFACE. You'll need a dedicated space to leave your play presents. If you can, a table the right height for your child and a floor that isn't carpet or at least an easy to clean rug. If you don't have a table, you can even set up a blanket or tarp with cozy pillows and a tray or hard surface for writing/playing on. 

3. Find some INSPIRATIONAL DECORATIONS. You want this to be a place your child gravitates towards and is proud to be in. Hanging your child's art or brightly colored pieces is a great way to set the mood. You can string up some wire or string with clothespins and hang your child's art or hang some pictures. You can also stock books in your area that showcase famous works of art, architecture, science, animals...anything your child is interested in. We have giant glitter letters "CREATE" and some string with clothespins underneath for artwork we change up every few weeks.

It’s not enough to just set up your Play Present Area and let it be. The next step is to guide your kids to play there. 

The best way to do this is to create a PROCESS-BASED play experience. 

Let’s start with art. A lot of parents think that art is doing a craft with their child. It means following step-by-step instructions and creating a finished product using all of the provided materials. Maybe there's an example of the finished product in a photo or made by you. This is a PRODUCT-BASED experience.

It can lead the child to frustration because theirs isn't as good as yours or they didn't want to do it that way or they aren't fast enough. It also involves YOU the entire time. Your child isn't able to do a craft by themselves until they can read and understand all of the steps on their own.

A PROCESS-BASED art experience is setting some blank paper, brightly colored crayons and puffy stickers on the table while playing music in the background. How much more fun is this for you and your child?!?  The child can probably figure out his/her own way of doing things. If your child is having trouble or is disinterested, it only takes some gentle guidance through modeling from you and soon you can step away and finish up those dishes in the kitchen and sip on some coffee.

This is what I'm talking about. You, as the parent, are guiding your child through a series of adventures! What you need to do is set up a play experience for your child that sparks their creative side and gets them going. It's so much fun.

Let’s try a basic PLAY PRESENT. This one appeals to most toddlers and preschoolers and even elementary students. You probably have everything on hand, too. Grab your tray or lay out an oilcloth or contractor’s paper on a table. Place a sheet of blank, white paper at least 80 lbs weight - or use a sheet of white cardstock - onto your tray or use painters tape to tape it down onto your table.

Next to it, add three colors of paint. We like this paint for young children because it’s washable and inexpensive. You can find it here or at your local Michaels Craft Store or Target. Dump a bit of each paint color on a paper plate. These paints come in little plastic jars, but if you have some disposable condiment cups, tiny jars or a paint mixing tray, that’s even better. If you give your kids the entire jar, most likely they’ll mix all the colors together or dump it all over your table!

Grab 3 cotton swabs (Q Tips), one for each color of paint.

Add some flowers to the table or some interesting objects that are the same color as the paint colors you chose.

This Play Present is perfect for little ones. They paint with the cotton swabs or they can do pointillism painting - a bunch of little dots - to make lines and shapes. It keeps kids interested and is so easy to clean up!

After you get the Play Present ready, you’ll need a few tactics to showcase it and get your child started: 

  • Make sure they got some energy out first at a park or in the backyard, or they are coming off an outing or home from school or a playdate.
  • Give them 15+ minutes of quality time with you before introducing a Play Present.
  • Allow your child to discover the Play Present on his/her own.
  • If your child doesn’t jump right in, go over and sit there and begin playing with it and modeling ways to play.
  • After your child begins playing, stay nearby not out of sight but don’t interrupt, ask questions and try to stay quietly focused on something else.
  • Add music if your child enjoys it to fit the mood - we love kids yoga music for creative play.

Let's keep our expectations real, here.... If you have a one year old, you're not going to be able to do your taxes and clean out your closet all at once! But - you can get them playing near you and not needing your constant attention if you get them really engaged. To figure out if you're getting the hang of it, here is a breakdown by age of how long a child can spend in independent play. Keep in mind these bouts of time can be repeated, but the child will need a break and check-in with you around these time frames:

Age 1 - 10 minutes
Age 2 - 15 minutes
Age 3 - 30 minutes
Age 4 - 60 minutes

Don't let the time frames discourage you. Practice makes perfect. What are you waiting for? Get to work and get your area set up so you are ready to go for your first Play Present this week! Send me a photo of what you get set up! Or tag me on Instagram @msstephanderson and use #playpresent. I love to see all the unique Play Presents and play areas. 

For a list of my favorite materials for an at home art area for kids under age 6, I set them all up for you in one kit! You can see it HERE.

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