Want Kids to Play with Their Toys?

Trains are boys best friends

As a parent, I know the familiar frustrations:

  • There are so many toys and activities in the house, and the kids are complaining they are bored.
  • You have to get dinner ready and want them to play with toys, but they are under-foot.
  • They finally find something to play with, and it lasts 6 minutes (you were banking on 20).

Answers:

  • Introduce and then occasionally play with them WITH their toys – When they get a new toy, it can be helpful to play with them with it. Help arrange furniture in the dollhouse or build a lego structure next to theirs. The more you can get down on the floor with them and play, really engage and play, the better. Through playing with them, you are showing them new ways to use the toys and ways to interact. Through your attention you are letting them know the play itself is valuable.
  • Have a stash of toys you can start with them, and they can continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, set aside a few that you can start with them and then make trips away. If they love to color, sit to color a page and then take regular breaks while they continue to color.
  • Focus on open-ended toys – Open ended toys are toys that can be used in a wide variety of ways and are often simple. There isn’t a right or wrong way to use open-ended toys. This includes blocks, balls, lincoln logs, bowls, legos, boxes and dress-up clothes.
  • Buy the low-tech toys that “do nothing” – If you are buying a new doll, opt for the one that does nothing. If you buy the one that grows long hair or the one that speaks Spanish, that dictates to the child how to use the doll. It narrows the play. If you are buying a dollhouse, opt for the one that is quiet. If you buy the one that has a doorbell, tv sounds and barking dogs, it lessens creativity.
  • Think multi-age – This means to look for toys like dress-up clothes, art supplies or building blocks that children can use when they are three years old and when they are seven years old.
  • Give them things to do that are like what you are doing – Need them to play while you cook? Give them a kitchen set and put it nearby your kitchen or give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water so they can “cook with you.”
  • Provide accessories – If your children like to play dress-up, add shoes, hats and bags. If it’s the kitchen set, give lots of pots and pans, place settings and food.
  • Organize the toys with all their accessories – It is helpful to their play if all of a toys parts are stored together. When they go to play farm, it’s best for all the animals, tractors and people to be right there.
  • Organize the space, so the toys are within reach – To play with toys, children need to have open access to them. Choose low shelves and clear bins.
  • Give them regular practice at independent play – It is good for kids to have real downtime (not screens), and it’s even good for them to get bored. Every day, children should have time to themselves. If your child is not good at independent play, they need more practice.
  • Encourage them or challenge them to keep at it – It is helpful to give an encouraging word such as, “wow, look how tall that tower is,” or a challenge, “can you build it faster this time?” to keep the play going.
  • Limit screentime – The more they are on screens, the less they are playing with toys.

Ways to Encourage Independent Play

Mädchen spielt mit Puzzle

It can be difficult when your child seems to need a playmate all day. If you aren’t playing with them, they complain they are bored or just wander and whine. It is a good skill in life to be able to occupy your own time. Here are several ways to encourage independent play:

  • First, pinpoint any particular needy times and plan accordingly – If your child is an early riser and always in need of company at that time, or if they need to reconnect when parents first return home, don’t expect those to be times for independent play.
  • Set aside specific times TO PLAY – Some children worry that they won’t get anytime with you if they don’t follow your every move and ask to play constantly. Giving them a time they can count on may aleviate this worry. It helps some if this play is the same time every day (think the needy times), but it can be different as long as it is your priority.
  • Explain why you need the time – Even very young children may appreciate an explanation of what you will be doing. This can be as simple as, “mommy has a few calls to make. I need quiet for 10 minutes.”
  • Set-up for play – Preschool classrooms are set-up for play. There is a reading corner with bookshelves, beanbags and puppets. There is a kitchen area with a stove, sink, fridge, table, place settings and babies in cribs. These set-up areas encourage children in to play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just think to make the play space inviting.
  • Create a space that builds on their interests – If your child is very into picture books, make a cozy reading corner that invites them in. Big beanbags, a low faceout book shelf, maybe a tape player for books on tape and a few related things like puppets. If your child loves trains, maybe a train table with lots of storage and a carpet with additional track.
  • Store toys and basic art supplies in view and within reach – Toys that are out of sight tend to be out of mind. If you prefer plastic bins, pick clear ones so kids can see what’s inside without dumping them out. Basic art supplies include crayons, paper, Play-doh or clay and water paints with brushes. If you are brave, this includes markers.
  • Store one type of thing per container – If you have bins or baskets, try to put just dress-up clothes in one and just balls in another. If you have a big toy box, add cardboard dividers so you have separate sections. When all kinds of toys are stored together, toys on the bottom are not played with and pieces tend to go missing more often.
  • Have specific areas for stored away toys – This means have a puzzle cabinet or a board game closet. While they may be out of sight, they are organized and together. Over time, your child will know where they are stored.
  • Start things with your child they can easily continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, maybe start a puzzle together and then take short trips away to “check on dinner” or, “change over the laundry.” Gradually make longer trips away.  When you do come back, each time comment, “you played so nicely by yourself,” or, “look, you got four more pieces done.”
  • Give your child things to do that are like what you are doing – If you are cooking, give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water, or let them “wash dishes” in the sink. If you are on the computer, give them their leap pad. They feel like they are doing something with you.
  • Set aside an independent play time each day – In the beginning independent play may go better if children are expecting it and they know how long it’s expected to last.
  • Provide more open ended toys – Closed ended toys have a built in end point. Open ended toys include dolls, blocks, kitchen and cooking sets, dress-up clothes and art supplies. Children use these toys in endless ways so the independent play may last longer.
  • Ask them their plan for play – If they often have trouble getting started ask them their plan or what they are going to play first. It may be easier for them to start once they have made a decision and have a focus.
  • Store some of your toys and then rotate – Many children have too many toys. When there are too many and toys just sit on the shelf, over time they become less interesting to children. The answer is to put half of the toys away in storage. When there are fewer choices, children tend to play longer and in deeper ways with the ones that are available. This also allows you to rotate toys which introduces toys as new without having to buy any. Rotating toys may be swapping half of what’s stored with half of what’s out every month or so.
  • Avoid filling their independent play time with TV and other screens – There can be a time for screens, but when you want your children to practice independent play, avoid them. Children watching screens are being otherwise occupied and not learning to play on their own.
  • Boredom is a good thing – Many parent worry about their children being bored when left to play alone. This boredom is what sparks creativity, allows children to explore their interests and leads to better quality independent play. It is good for kids to have real downtime. At a minimum think an hour a day of unstructured, just go play time. Time when they are in charge of what to do next.
  • Arrange playdates (if this is helpful) – Not really independent play, but once children are a bit older, they may want a friend to help spend their time playing away from you. You may have to have several playdates to find a mix of children that can play together nicely for long stretches. For others, the playdates are never really helpful. Some need more supervision on playdates, and there is no way you’d leave them alone. For more ideas about playdates, please read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/09/07/all-about-playdates/.
  • Give them more time – When children are bad at independent play, they often just need more practice.
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