5 steps to encourage your child to play an independent game

Parents’ daily routine, and especially parents of children with special needs, can be insanely busy and intense. We feel our kids need our help to play and learn, their siblings need our attention, and that’s even before we start talking about cooking, laundry, and emails. To sit for a moment to drink coffee? Read two pages from a book? Talk on the phone with a friend or girlfriend? These are already real privileges.

I remember when my kids were younger, I wanted to spend every second playing with them and promoting them. During this time, my husband and I would do shifts: one prepares dinner, and the other is with the kids. Even when it was my turn to make dinner, I would yell at him from a distance what to do with the kids and not let him rest. I wanted to be helpful so much that I was harmful. I remember one morning he said to me, “It’s good for the kids too that I drink coffee quietly”. But how can one drink when they do not know how to keep themselves busy or play alone, and so quickly start to “Climb the walls?”. In time I learned that independent play is no less important for my children’s independence and learning, for the home, and for the family routine.

Many children with autism have difficulty playing independently, each with their own challenge. Some have difficulty choosing a game or organizing the space, some have difficulty getting started, some have difficulty playing over time. So today we want to focus on this issue, and give you rules for encouraging and developing independent play in your children.

First step – coordination of expectations:

The first important thing to do is coordinate expectations. Like anything, developing an independent game is a time-consuming process. This is not something that will happen in a day or two. At first, a higher presence is required, and slowly we can fade it and see the results!

Second step – organizing the space and toys

I remember being really surprised when I first read about encouraging independent play. We can do so many things even before our children have sat down to play, in terms of organizing the space and toys in a way that will encourage independence. These steps make so much sense, how come I did not think of that before?

  • Limit the number of toys available. We want to give our children various options, but in practice, we create clutter and overload. This makes it difficult for our children to settle into one game at a time. Store most of your child’s toys in a closed closet or high shelf. Six toys to choose from at any given moment is really enough!
  • Place the six toys you have chosen on a low shelf that your children can reach. Try not to have them on the floor, do not pile toys on top of each other. These two situations make it difficult for children to see all the toys accessible to them and separate those that are “on the shelf” from the toy I have chosen and which I want to play with.
  • Put toys with several parts in a box/basket so that your children can take them independently. The idea is that your child will be comfortable taking the toy at once. Transparent boxes are great – because they allow your child to see the toy inside without effort. The simpler it is, the more likely your child is to take the game without giving up or being distracted. Watch your child as he tries to bring something. Is the shelf high? Is it not comfortable for him to hold the box? Try to find the problems and solve them. Can your child open the box independently? We do not want him to get stuck because of this.
  • Organize a space adapted for the game. Put a small table and chair that fits your child. Put a rug next to them in case your child wants to play on the floor. If possible, try not to place the play area in an area where people have to pass many times during home activities, it can be very distracting. Make sure there is no background TV or food available and accessible when your child is trying to play independently. These two things are powerful motivational distractions.

Step Three – Fade your involvement in the game

Before we teach children to play independently, we need to make sure they know how to play in our presence. That is why in the first step, we need to help our children develop an adapted game with a variety of toys, say around 10-15 toys. There are many techniques for expanding the game in children, but we will not be able to dive into their depths this time, it is a topic for another post. What we can do, is give tools to children that are already somewhat successful at playing with toys with their parents to do it independently as well.

What toys are these? First of all – toys that your children love. Toys of the type we call “cause-and-effect” are a good option because it is relatively simple and clear how to play them. For example, a puzzle, a game of sorting shapes, beads for threading, building blocks, a pop-up, a slide with cars, building blocks. But if your kids enjoy playing with something else – for example, dolls or Lego, go for it! It is important to emphasize that watching videos on the mobile one after another does not fall into this category of independent play.

When playing with your children, in a familiar toy, at some point, take a small step back. Practically speaking. Try to be a little less available and in front of their eyes, let them continue in their turn and watch them quietly. What happens when you do this? Does your child continue to play? How long? If your child was able to play for a few minutes independently, compliment him on the game (“Yes! You put all the pieces in place!). If not – no problem. We will start building this skill. Keep playing with him and, after a while, take another small step back. But this time, be an active spectator, comment on his actions, smile, nod your head, but do not initiate an active turn, do not play with the toy yourself. Keep doing this until your child loses interest. Notice how many times you had to help your child to continue to play for 3-5 minutes. , We want to see this number decrease over time.

Step 4- Teach your child to switch between activities

Once your children can play a variety of games for a few minutes properly, you need to help them learn how to bring a toy and organize the beginning and the end of the game independently.

Organizing the game: Make sure your child physically reaches the game shelf and sees the options. Do not offer it to him from a distance. Encourage your child to pick up the toy he has chosen for the play area. If you need to help him physically, try to support him when you are behind him (and not in his field of vision). Encourage him to take the toy out of the box and prepare for the game. Do the same here-be next to him or behind him, but not in front of him. Wait for your child to start playing, and respond to his actions from time to time. If his game repeats itself, offer him an idea for a change after a while. Do not demonstrate to him the change yourself in a game with turns, this is not our goal this time. Try to give a different kind of assistance.

Finishing the game and moving on to the next one: When your child starts to lose interest, encourage him to put the materials back in the box. If your child is not used to doing this, you can build this skill gradually. At first you will arrange the majority, and he will insert only the last parts. Over time, you will increase the number of parts he returns until he does so independently. After all the parts in the box encouraged him to put it back on the shelf and take a box with a new toy. Again, if necessary, help your child when you are behind him and not in his field of vision.

Important Note: Change toys often. It is recommended to change a toy or two every day or two (but don’t replace them all at once!). This will create some kind of rotation between all the toys. Note that you replace them all from time to time. Also, toys that your kids especially love. It seems most intuitive and simple to leave their favorite toys, but it can create a downside in the long run because they will always prefer to play with them and not expand the circle. Remember – only toys that your children are already familiar with, in which you have already played together, can fall into the category of independent play.


Step 5- Gradually move away

Slowly, move away from your child during the game, and be less available instantly. Sit down in the distance and read something, move to the room next door. Do not provide more support than necessary. It’s okay if the kids occasionally lose attention or get stuck – do not run to solve it immediately and give them time to try to solve it independently. Get involved only when you see a significant difficulty to continue to play or making the transitions between games. Remember, the goal here is an independent game. We want him to be adjusted and not just repetitive or busy with sensory stimulation. On the other hand, we will not expect the most flexible and creative game your child has have in his arsenal. 

We’re done this time! Hope you find these tips helpful and that your children will slowly begin to enjoy the fun of playing independently.

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