20 Simple Ideas to Kickstart Independent Play (Kid-Approved & Virtually Cost-Free!)

Sometimes kids need a little help and encouragement kicking their solo play mode into gear — especially if their default setting has been ‘screen mode’ for a while.

Independent play has so many vital benefits for our kids’ development (not to mention the major upside for moms!), that it’s really worth getting past the initial hurdles to reap all the awesome rewards.

These ideas are inspired, tried and tested by my own kids. They require minimal setup and supplies, and can be adapted to different settings, whether you’re home or away.

Find out which ones are a hit with your kids!

  1. Something messy in the bath — shaving cream or toddler bath foam spray, washable bath paint, or homemade slime are all winners to keep them busy for 15 minutes or more!
  2. Put your toddler in the bath with a gathering of plastic animal playmates, at a warm time of day, in just a few inches of water (you can always put on their swim suit). Or cover the bottom with foam instead of water — just be sure to use a rubber mat to avoid slipping hazards.
  3. Fill a large container with dried noodles (you can easily dye them exciting colours for extra allure!) — add a spoon or scooper, and a couple extra cups or bowls and watch those fine motor skills go to work!
  4. If you haven’t got a sandpit, try a mini indoor or outdoor version with some corn meal on a large tray or activity table — add a few forks, spoons, or toy animals for extra fun.
  5. Playdough never goes out of style for good reason — add a few plastic plates, knives, forks and other poking implements from the odds and ends drawer (no need to buy a fancy playdough set!), and you’re golden for half an hour or more!
  6. Create a themed sensory bin with a few simple materials following this teacher’s handy guide.
  1. A classic —get your child in their swim suit on a warm day, turn on the sprinkler, sit back and watch the fun (or get 20 minutes of work done!)
  2. Set up, or let them create a mud pit with water and sand or soil (a natural follow-on from the sprinkler fun)
  3. Give your child a special bowl from the ‘garden restaurant’ and suggest they collect ingredients to make a ‘salad’ for the insects or the birds (with the potential to progress to mains and desserts, of course)
  4. Ant bar: If you have ant nests, put a cracker or cookie out for the ants and let your child watch how long it takes the ants to eat it (be sure to provide an extra cookie at the start to avoid temptation!)
  1. Pillow pit — move the coffee table, strip off the couch cushions and enlist your kid to gather all the spare pillows and cushions in the house to create a temporary soft play centre in the living area (or anywhere else convenient). You can also throw in a few stuffies to play hide and seek.
  2. Tell your child they should make up a story with play figures (barbies, dolls, Lego people, animals… ), and you’ll be back in 20 minutes so they can play or act it out for you to watch.
  3. Bring out the Christmas decorations — if you have the wherewithal, put up your fake Christmas tree and let your child have at it. If not, let them figure out which part of the house needs some Christmas cheer!
  4. Give your kiddo a dress-up box with some of mom and dad’s (or older siblings’) old shoes, slippers, scarves, hats, coats, gloves, glasses, etc., and make sure there’s a mirror nearby!
  5. A jewellery box full of old or unused accessories is also a very alluring treasure trove for little hands to explore!
  6. Dig out your old home poker game chips and cut just the right size slit in the lid of an empty ice cream container or any large tin, then let those little fingers go to work (and maybe sow the seeds for some good saving habits!)
  1. Provide a stash of dry macaroni pasta or real beads and some suitable thread, and let them make a necklace (this one keeps my daughter busy for a full half hour!)
  2. Hand your preschooler some safety scissors and a few pieces of scrap paper (or old magazines) and in 20 minutes or more you’ll have a good confetti supply for your preschooler’s next pretend doll wedding!
  3. Give your child a long rope to play with outside — they’ll love experimenting with making knots and net-like structures if you have a fence, low-branched tree or any other basic framework they can use.
  4. Bath brew — collect some empty plastic bottles, bowls, and a couple of plastic spoons, and let your child experiment with various bath-friendly ‘ingredients’ to concoct pretend recipes or a witches’ brew — a definite winner with my 4-year-old!

Got some home-brewed winners to add to the list? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Nap deprived semi-working writer mom. Out to help parents embrace the struggle, find the joy and reclaim some sanity.