How Do I Help My Child Play Alone?

Child Independent Play

Question: My 4-year-old son, Pablo, loves to play with his trucks, build with Legos, draw pictures — but I always have to be in sight.  Hardly a moment goes by before he’s asking me a question or showing me something. He also acts like this with his teachers at school. Is there anything I can do to give him and me space?

Answer: Some children make their parents’ lives easy by playing contentedly alone, even from age 1 or 2. Others hold on to playing in their parents’, usually mother’s, presence. Understanding the challenges involved in playing alone will help
The capacity to be alone builds as a child progresses toward increasingly confident separations. Separation is more than a child going to school or a playmate’s house without tears. It is also about a child’s ability to supply from within himself the comfort, self-regulation, conscience, encouragement and other functions he originally depended on his parents to supply. Why does a child’s ability to confidently separate particularly affect his ability to play alone?

Emotional challenges of play

Play is a child’s work and the primary way children expand their horizons. For example, they expand their fine motor skills when they build a tall tower or their gross motor skills when they attempt a headstand. They expand their views of themselves as they imagine being powerful enough to build that tower or accomplish the headstand. When they defeat the “bad guys” they may expand their sense of safety in the world.  Playing a nurse, doctor, mother or father expands their view of what they could become someday.

Children are drawn to play because they are joyful when they achieve mastery, whether it is taking their first step or reading their first word. However, there is another side to this fun-filled mastery. Every piece of growth presents a challenge and, therefore, causes a bit of anxiety. As Pablo builds a tower, he may wonder: Am I strong enough to make this tall tower? What does it mean if I can’t? Will I be able to control my frustration if it falls down? Although Pablo is not asking himself these questions directly, they may well be in his mind, unformulated in words, but leaving him wary of going off and facing his play without your extra help.

Helping a child to play alone

Pablo may not be far enough along the path of separation to have developed enough capacity to deal with the extra risks involved in play. Spend some time each day fully engaged and playing with him. As you play together, he may absorb some of your capacities and be better able to function on his own over time.

You might also set some very short expectations for alone play. Ask him to go in the next room for two minutes. Be sure to set a timer and go get him when the time is up. The secret to making this successful is to only ask what he is likely to be able to do, and to reward him with your smiles, hugs and love. This is about you and him, not a sticker.

The best way to help Pablo is to broaden your effort beyond the narrow issue of whether he can play alone and to help him achieve a healthy separation. You have already noted that he has difficulty playing alone at school, too. School may be the best place to help Pablo build mental muscles for separation. The following strategies may help:

*Allow Pablo to take a beloved stuffed animal to school.

*Send a note that teachers could read during the day.

*Ask teachers to talk about you during the day, perhaps asking if Pablo would like to show you a drawing that he is making.

*Provide Pablo with your undivided attention during drop-off and pickup. Many children can share their school day more easily if you talk to them while you are in their classroom for a few moments at pickup.

*Recognize and verbalize at the drop-off that your leaving may be hard for Pablo (if it seems to be), and perhaps specifically identify his emotion if it is evident (sadness or worry, for example).

*Call in once if he is in a morning program, or more often if he is in a full-day program. He may need this contact to feel secure while away from you.

Not all school staff will support these actions, but yours may understand and work with you in these areas. The day will come when your little shadow will give you some breathing room, and in the intervening time, he has much exciting growth ahead of him.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents’ questions.

To submit a question about children’s emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to with “Ask Lucy Daniels” in the subject line.

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