I've been thinking about how to write this post for a long time, but this morning a friend asked me specifically about how to encourage her child to play independently, so it's time to stop trying to get it perfect and just post the darn post.
The important thing to keep in mind is that playing independently is learned skill, just like walking and talking. And while it comes naturally, just like walking and talking, that doesn't mean it comes effortlessly.
It's easy to see how we parents get caught in the trap of constantly entertaining our kids. We try to give them time to play, they start fussing if they're alone or fighting if they're together, we step in to fix the problem and end up managing their play for them. Then when we urgently need to complete a task, they hang around our legs whining, and we organize a screen to entertain them for us.
The question, then, is what to do. Here are my suggestions for teaching independent play.
It's never too late to help your child learn to play independently, but the sooner you start, the easier the process will be. If you teach your child to expect entertainment from you or a device, they'll have to un-learn that expectation before they can learn to play independently.
If you've got a little baby, start by putting him on his back in a safe place, and then just sit with him. Don't chatter or offer toys, just stay where you are and relax.
At the beginning, any independently play is a step in the right direction. Expect 30 seconds of play before you expect 90 seconds. It will probably be a while before your child can entertain herself while you make dinner.
Scaffold and Support
Set your child up for play, then sit back. Stay with your child, letting him take the lead. He may only play for a minute before he demands your input, and that's ok. See how little you can intervene. Maybe an acknowledgement of what he's doing will satisfy him: "I see, you have a turtle and a dog." Offer only the support he really needs to keep going.
When your child can reliably play for a few minutes without your input, practice stepping away. Say, "I'm going to go start a load of laundry, and then I'll be right back," and do exactly that. Your child will learn to trust that you will return.
See Struggle Coming
Playing independently will have a learning curve, just like every other skill. Your baby will fuss when you put him down. Your older child will follow you around the house whining. If you've got more than one child, they will scream and snatch each other's toys. It will happen. It's just part of the process, the same way falling down is part of the process for learning to walk.
Take deep breaths, and resist the urge to end their problems or solve their struggles for them. You can certainly prevent injuries: "I'll supervise, and I won't let you get hurt" and "I won't let you hurt each other" are two of my stock phrases. Aside from bodily harm, though, recognize that the struggle is part of how they learn this skill. They can work through it, and so can you.