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Should 2 Year Olds be able to Play Independently?

I find it so frustrating to watch my friends’ 2 year olds play on their own while I have to constantly entertain my daughter. Will she never let me chat or have some grown up time?

Whenever I find myself thinking these thoughts, I remind myself how 2 year olds work. This helps me to understand my daughter better and what to expect.

Should my 2 year old be able to play independently?

Parents’ frustration often arises from the belief that a 2 year old should be able to play independently. This is largely a myth – at least for some children.

2 year olds are at a transitional stage in their development. This is where the “Terrible Twos” come from. They are developing a strong view of themselves as an individual, distinct from their parents. As a result, some 2 year olds become very independent and insist on doing everything “All By Myself” – whether that’s trying to dress themselves or playing with toys. This makes it easy to conclude that all 2 year olds should be able to play on their own. So why are some 2 year olds so clingy and will only play with adults?

However independent some 2 year olds may seen, they are still very dependent on their parents, both emotionally and practically. Everyone is different and while some 2 year olds choose to assert their independence and will play alone, others aren’t yet ready to feel safe on their own. They need to be reassured that a parent is close by.

Another factor is that some 2 year olds have more initiative and independent thought than others. Less free-thinking 2 year olds still need a parent or carer’s guidance in how to play. Left alone, they will gravitate towards an adult for entertainment as they haven’t yet learned how to entertain themselves.

Is it right to encourage my 2 year old to play alone?

It’s natural for a frustrated parent to want to encourage their 2 year old to play alone and be more independent. A word of warning – if you encourage them too strongly then this will backfire and can even make them LESS independent.

Attachment parenting theory – pioneered by William and Martha Sears – states that the best way to promote a child’s development is through a strong emotional bond with your child. You should meet your child’s needs by always being available when they need you. Don’t leave babies crying and don’t push away your toddler when they’re asking for you.

A lot of people think that if you go to your child whenever they ask for you, they will get spoiled and will never learn to be independent. However, attachment theorists say that the opposite is actually the case. A child only becomes spoiled if you smother them with attention when they’re NOT asking for it. To achieve the right balance, you need to sit back and let your child be independent when they show signs of wanting to do so, but always be willing to spend time with them when they need you. This will change from moment to moment – one minute a child is playing alone and the next minute they are clinging to your leg. This is completely normal and the parent’s role is to respond to the child’s needs.

The science behind attachment parenting is beautifully described in Margot Sunderland’s groundbreaking book What Every Parent Needs to Know (previously called ‘The Science of Parenting’, which I thought was a much better title). This has always been my personal parenting manual and has made a huge difference to the way I care for my daughter Sophia. The book explains how the way you parent a child under 5 physically affects the way their brains develop. A child who has been parented in a loving and positive way will literally develop more brain pathways than a child who has been abused or neglected. Whenever you treat a child in a close and loving way, their brains produce a load of yummy chemicals that help their brains to develop. If a child spends a lot of their time in fear or distress then their brains produce stress chemicals that hinder their development. Over time, this can permanently alter the structure of the child’s brain and have a permanent effect on their personality. Scary stuff!

No one says that minor upsets will have a damaging effect on the child. However for me, this underlines the importance of not pushing toddlers to be independent before they are ready.

If you pressure a 2 year old to play alone against their wishes then you risk causing feelings of panic in them. For whatever reason, they’re not feeling independent at that moment. Their survival instinct is telling them that they need their parent close by, spending time with them. If you then them off for refusing to play alone – or even try to sneak out of the room – then the child will feel panicked and will cling even more.

This means that the only way to encourage a 2 year old to play independently is to use a gentle approach. Don’t push a child away when they need you – instead, set them up with toys and games that will capture their interest and are the right level for them to play independently. Stay close by while they play and don’t make them feel abandoned.

Choosing toys to promote independence

Don’t set your child up to fail. If you provide toys which are too advanced for them – for example complicated puzzles or dressing up costumes when they can’t dress themselves yet – then don’t blame them for trying to involve you in their games!

All the toys featured on my blog Best Toys for 2 Year Old are designed for a 2 year old’s level of development. Read through the articles and think about which toys are simple enough for your 2 year old to play with unaided.

Experts often advise that if you want to boost a child’s development, you should provide toys that are slightly above their current level of development. I do agree with this in general, but not when you’re trying to encourage them to play alone. When you play together, by all means use toys that will help push them to the next stage. But when you want to encourage their independence, choose simpler toys that they won’t need any help with.

Help, it’s not working!

If you use the toys and the techniques I’ve described above consistently then a lot of 2 year olds will start playing independently more and more. If they still panic and reach for you as soon as you stop playing then it means they’re not ready. This is disappointing and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you push the child harder then they will cling even more.

Keep following the advice in this article and follow the child’s lead. It may take days, months or years but at some point they will learn to play alone. And then you’ll wonder what to do with yourself!

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