Independent Play and Your To-Do list

Independent Play and Your To-Do list

by Olynda Smith, AMS Certified Montessori Teacher and Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach

If you are like most parents, you have a very long to-do list. With little ones at home, it can feel near to impossible to cross anything off the list- except of course all the things we are doing to care for them! Here are a few thoughts and practices that can help you cross a thing or two off the list in a way that is still supporting your child’s development and wellbeing. 

Encouraging Independence & Concentration 

It can feel like leaving children to play on their own while you tend to household chores or send a few messages is neglecting them. But done mindfully, with support, giving children time to play independently is actually supportive to their development! Montessori includes fostering independence as one of the main goals of our work with young children. When we work from the beginning to support children in being able to do things for themselves it strengthens their confidence and decreases their frustration. Sure, when they are happily engrossed in their work it gives us a minute, but we can work to find the time in a way that is also beneficial for them. 

Ebb and Flow

Most children will do their best independent play once they have “filled up” their tank with lots of connection with a beloved adult. One way to grow your children's ability to work independently is to keep an eye on their “connection tank”. Before you take a little time to do something that takes your attention away from your child, spend 15-20 minutes in totally focused play together. Maybe book reading, snuggling or doing whatever activity your child chooses. Then let them know you need to do a job. Let them know where you will be, and give them a sense of how long you’ll have diverted attention.

For young children, you’ll want to be within eyesight of them. After a while, come back and spend another bit of time totally present with your little one. They may be eager to show you what they have been working on! After you spend some more time together, you can move away again while they play. I think of this as the “ebb and flow” of connection time. 

You’ll get to know how often your child needs a refill of your presence. Over time, and as your child gets older, you can stretch the amount of time you are attending to other things. 

Setting up for Success

  • Prepare the environment. Make sure they can access everything they will need, and that they have engaging toys. If you try this, at first, right after a toy rotation, children will have a better chance of focusing.  


  • Timing is everything. Try this out when your child is well fed, rested and feeling well. 


  • Manage expectations. Each child’s capacity for independent play and concentration is different. Start very small, like 2 minutes, and work your way to longer times. By the time they are three many children can eventually play on their own for 30-40 minutes. 


  • Resist the urge to use the screen. Relying on screen time, while convenient and sometimes absolutely necessary, it can work against your child’s ability to actively concentrate. 


  • Never “ebb” all the way. Even when you are attending to your work or a household chore, stay connected to your child by being near by. If possible you can chat with them as you work - if you are folding laundry for example. 


  • Go with the flow. Some days children just need a little more of us. If your child is really resistant to independent play on a given day, you may need to stop this “exercise” and think of another solution for attending to your to-do list. 


  • Start small. For the first few months of trying this out, plan to only work on things that take very little time or that don’t actually need to get done right then. This way you can really view this time as time you are using to develop this skill for them. 

This technique isn’t the only way to incorporate some of your to-do list into the time you are spending with your child! Next week we’ll explore how we can actually enlist their help!