Encouraging Independent Play Through Invitations

Written By

Jess VanderWier
February 13, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Play is essential for helping kids learn skills like creativity, leadership, problem-solving and more! The most important type of play for our kids is play that doesn’t have a clear start or finish. 

One way that we can create opportunities for our child to play is through something called “invitations to play.” An invitation to play is arranging the environment so it “invites” your child to come to an area to explore, investigate, touch, and play with objects independently. This is a great way to teach your child how to play independently and you can start this with very young toddlers. 

Simply set up an item with objects a child can play with, show them the area, and allow them to manipulate the objects without instruction from you. This may look like blocks in a playroom, playdough and pipe cleaners on the table, painting with water, or any number of open ended ideas! Many parents that we hear from love the idea of an “invitation to play” but want to learn how they can help their child engage in this play independently. 

Here are a few ways that we can encourage independent play:

1. Start with small invitations together

If you set up your invitation to play and your child wants you to participate, no problem! Encouraging independent play starts with you being an active participant in the play, and then slowly weaning yourself out. 

For example: If you are drawing a picture of a house and your toddler wants you to do all of the drawing, invite them into the process. Ask them what kind of door to draw, what the windows would look like, etc. We want to start small, allowing them to see bits and pieces of their own creativity. Next time we may give them the marker and ask them to draw the windows. The next time they may be able to draw the whole house! Slowly inviting them into the process of play will help them in their independence. 

2. Create a “yes space

Especially for our tiny tots that can easily get into things they shouldn’t, the “yes space” can help create a safe space for littles to play. This looks like an enclosed space where you can trust that they can explore independently without getting into anything they shouldn’t! Helps you sit back and have a hot coffee while your child explores!

3. Follow your child’s interests

What types of play does your child enjoy? Try to have open ended toys that would be interesting to your child. For example: cars and a mat, a play kitchen with food, or figurines from their favourite movie! Invitations to play become easier when your child is interested in the toys or objects presented to them. 

4. Trust the process

Your toddler is looking to you to see “Can I do this?” and “Will I be ok playing on my own?” We want to show them “Yes, I trust that you can do this!” 

You may start playing together for 5-10 minutes, and then slowly remove yourself from the play for a few minutes before coming back. Over time, you can remove yourself from the play for longer amounts of time before coming back. Showing your child that you trust they can play on their own! 

5. Stay out of their way

If you notice that your child has independently started playing, don’t join in. Allow your child to get lost in their own imagination and enjoy their own creativity. When we rush in, we can easily take over the play with our own thoughts and ideas! 

6. Understand developmental norms

Most children have short attention spans. They very likely will switch from activities anywhere between 5-15 minutes. This is normal. With repeated opportunities for independent play, and as you slowly transition yourself out of their play, they may start to play for longer amounts of time.

Get started today with these simple ideas

Invitation #1: 

  • Rocks
  • Paintbrush
  • Water

Invitation #2:

  • Playdough
  • Pipecleaners
  • “Eyes”

Invitation #3:

  • Washable Paint
  • Paintbrush
  • Tin Foil

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    Article By

    Jess VanderWier
    Jess is a seasoned Registered Psychotherapist with a deep commitment to enhancing emotional well-being in children and families. Holding a Master's in Counselling Psychology, Jess has extensive clinical experience in guiding parents through their children's intense emotions, sleep struggles, anxiety, and other challenges with empathy and understanding. In addition to individual sessions, she is known for her work educating parents on social media through @nurturedfirst. Outside of her professional life, Jess enjoys the peace of nature hikes and spending as much time as possible enjoying her family.