Must Have Toddler Toys for Independent Play
Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to continue to entertain your toddler? Wondering at what point will they play independently so you can get some housework done or sit down for a second? Independent toddler play is something desired by most parents but is often not achieved. Instead parents feel burned out by the constant need to entertain their toddlers.
I get it, we have transitioned from the hands-off parenting of the past and moved on to overly hands-on parenting of the present. But not allowing our kids to play independently robs our children of valuable skills. According to an article by Melbourne Child Psychology Center, independent play allows children to build their imagination, resilience, problem solving skills, and allows their brain to have a much needed break from all the surrounding noise.
And those are just the benefits for children. In our constant desire to measure up to the new societal standards of hands-on parenting, we forget to talk about any benefits for parents. During independent play time parents get a much needed break from their kids. They can tend to any pressing business of their own, take a break, or actually miss their children. It’s important because when parents are burned out by constant entertainment and interaction with their children, they stop being as present and stop parenting effectively.
Setting the Right Expectations for Independent Toddler Play
Before I share with you how we’ve been able to keep our sanity during quarantine with a 4 and not quite 2 year old boys, I want to talk about what’s reasonable to expect from your toddler based on their age.
6-12 months of age: expect no more than 5-10 minutes of independent time during awake periods (I know it’s difficult to always be available to your child but this will pass. If you need some more information on what to expect in the first year, read Expectations: Part 4 – Your Growing Baby).
12-18 months of age: you can expect roughly 10-15 minutes of independent play time
18 months – 2 years: expect 15-20 minutes of independent play
2 years – 3 years: you can expect upwards of 30 minutes of independent play
3 year+: you can start expecting an hour or more of independent play from your child.
Keep in mind that these are merely guidelines and every child is unique. While my eldest didn’t self entertain very much till almost 4 (now he can play by himself for almost 2 hours during quiet time), my youngest has been playing on his own since the moment he sat up at 9 months.
But any child can be taught to extend independent play time. Start with 5 minutes and move in 5 minute increments every week or so. With some luck, you will be able to have some freedom from your toddler. This is especially important for parents who will be needing to tend to their older kids’ distance learning and needing to get work done from home.
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How We Have Encouraged Independent Play with our Toddler Sons
The way we encouraged independent play was starting with just observing how long they would naturally play without needing our attention. I’d get them started with a toy, and then walk away if I saw they were engrossed in play. I’d stay nearby but not immediately available and sort of out of sight (usually behind the counter doing dishes). I would say that being out of sight while teaching your child to play independently is the key to success. If they can see you, they will want to involve you. So stay nearby but out of their line of vision. I wouldn’t come up to them unless they called me. So while I didn’t set any specific time expectation for them to play, I took any free time they gave me.
When it came to Quiet Time for my 4 year old, we approached it with much more structure. After we realized that he does not want to take naps on most days, we talked to him about having Quiet Time while his brother napped. We explained that we needed him to stay in his room for a certain amount of time. And once time was up, he would be allowed to come out. We used a Ready to Wake Clock, like the ones below, to give him a visual clue as to the timing. You can also use a sand glass type clock or a timer on your phone. Anything that makes it clear that time is up, since your toddler can’t tell time yet.
We started with 30 minutes of Quiet Time and have now worked it up to about 2 hours. It was rocky at first, with a lot of room escapes. But with time and patience my son learned that he’s expected to just play in his room until his puppy turns green. It’s pretty easy now and he only has occasional times that he wants to come out earlier, and we usually let him.
How We’ve Entertained Our Children During this Pandemic
Before the pandemic and accompanying quarantine hit, our family had a great routine in place. My eldest went to school for half the day, while my youngest stayed home. My youngest typically had a wonderfully long nap that would last until I had to pick up my eldest. This allowed me to get work done and even catch up on some chores around the house. But with the quarantine both kids are at home EVERY DAY and this has created some challenges.
While I’d love to say that I’m the type of parent that scavenges Pinterest for fun and exciting projects, I’m not. I’m the type of parent that loves going on walks with my kids, running around the yard, and watching an occasional Disney movie from my childhood. While I enjoy playing with toys with my sons, I do need time to work and tend to some house chores. And that’s why I stocked up on toys that can be used for independent play and teach my toddlers more independence.
This approach works for younger toddlers (under 3)but over 3, you can start setting play time expectations.
So here are some great toddler toys that keep my rambunctious boys entertained and playing independently.
Toddler Toys – Indoor Scooters
We are lucky to live in a house with a lot of space and minimal furniture. This means my kids can scoot and ride around our living room to their heart’s desire (which they frequently do). What I love about these scooters is that they teach them how to balance, control their speed, and navigate tight corners. They love playing chase on their scooters.
Toddler Toys – Cars and Trucks
My eldest was never into playing with cars until his brother showed interest. I mean what toddler doesn’t immediately, desperately need what his sibling is using. (Insert eye roll emoji). But I have to admit, it’s super fun to watch them roll cars to each other or just run around screaming and pulling their trucks along.
Toddler Toys – Play Kitchen
I really don’t know what it is about play food but kids love it. They also love play kitchens, play vending stands, etc. We have a whole assortment of different cooking accouterments in our house. It’s one of the best ways I’ve seen my sons play cooperatively and works well with both the 4 and almost 2 year old.
The slicing food is one of my favorites because it works on fine motor skills. It’s so fun to watch how determined the kids get to line everything up perfectly to be able to slice through the food.
And the imaginative play of my 4 year old takes my breath away. He will sit there and arrange the food into different concoctions, talk about who he’s feeding his concoctions to, and even let me try them. Naturally, his younger brother tries to imitate and it’s so funny to watch.
Musical Instruments and Books
Both of my sons love listening to music. Our dinner time has become a symphony of different Disney cartoon songs that my eldest fancies. I really started to feel a strong kinship with Moana over the past month.
But they also enjoy playing with different musical books and instruments. My youngest loves the immediate cause and effect of pressing a button, and making his favorite tune come to life. His fascination with musical books has led to the cutest rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. And I’m all for developing my sons’ musical interests. I’ve exposed them to the world of classical music through the Allegro Book down below. I highly recommend it. It’s beautiful, easy to listen to, and let’s kids experience classical music at their fingertips.
Toddler Toys – Blocks
Both of my sons love building but I can’t, in good conscience, allow my almost 2 year old to play with tiny Legos unsupervised. Luckily, there are blocks that are much larger and better suited to younger toddler’s needs. Their large shape makes it easy for little hands to manipulate, and my older child loves how large his creations turn out. The bristle blocks are fun because they allow for a different building and sensory experience. I personally love feeling the bristles in my hand. And I’ve seen my kids play around with the texture as well.
Educational Toddler Toys
Both my sons loved buttons from the moment they could press them. So they absolutely love playing with these educational toys. My older one learned counting, letters, and letter associations with his Leap Frog computer. Now his brother is following suit. It’s rather fun watching a toddler sitting at his computer with a super serious face, pressing buttons and then trying to mimic the sounds.
This is a great way to use a toy that mimics technology but has much less visual stimulation. All of the things on the screen remind me of the snake game from the mobile phones 20 years ago. Just some black shapes on a grey screen.
All the toys listed above are currently on sale on Amazon. So don’t wait and purchase them before the school year starts and you’re scrambling to entertain your toddler while trying to homeschool your older children!
While this has been a challenging time for all of us, there have definitely been bright moments. Due to the fact that we still have to keep up with work and household chores, our kids had to learn to be a bit more independent. And it’s beautiful. Watching your kids play side by side (and on rare occasions together) is a marvelous parenting moment. It makes you proud and sad all at the same time. They’re growing up and you get to witness it. Just amazing!
So if you have to resort to more toys or screen time during this difficult time of quarantine, it’s OK. It’s a stressful time for all. Just remember that your kids learning independence skills is very important for their development. And you are not a bad parent for not being able to do it all or feeling like you’re crumbling under all this pressure. Childcare is a lot of work and is very time consuming. You can’t do your other work (well or efficiently) while caring for small children and so it’s perfectly fine for them to play by themselves or be entertained by a screen.
If you’re looking for some more toddler toys, check my post “My Top 10 Toys of Summer for Toddlers” for indoor and outdoor toys to help keep things fun.
May you all stay healthy and safe. And may your children be happy and entertained!