Independent Play

What is Independent Play?

Independent Play, refers to a child knowing how to play by themselves, without needing adult support or intervention. Parents playing with their children is important, but so is teaching them how to occupy themselves.


As adults, we have hobbies and activities we can do ourselves without needing someone there to keep an eye on us, be it watching TV, playing an instrument or reading a book. Learning how to play independently from a young age sets a child up for independent hobbies and activities in the future.


For parents of children with autism, their child having this skill provides the relief of knowing that their child can occupy themselves safely or without stimming, not requiring round-the-clock monitoring. Moreover, it allows parents to have personal time to work and relax.


From our first lesson of this series on the Developmental Stages of Play, Solitary Play (or Independent Play) is an important developmental stage of play before playing with other children. If a child cannot first play by themselves, it will be an additional challenge trying to keep up with their friends at the same time.


However, there also happen to be children with autism who can be very content playing repeatedly on their own in a self-stimulatory way. Hence, as much as Independent Play is developed, Interactive Play must also be done so the child learns that playing with others is rewarding. 


Solitary play usually develops by 2 years old in a neuro-typical child.

Pre-requisites to Teaching Independent Play

Before a child with autism can learn Independent Play, they must have at least a few Toy Plays they have mastered. For example, a child who knows how to finish 12 piece puzzles, make shapes with playdough and set up tracks for trains, is in a much better position to learn Independent Play, compared to a child who spends most of their waking hours stimming or engaging in challenging behaviours. 


If a child happens to be in the second category, it is important to prioritise teaching them a few ways to play as well as reducing the challenging behaviours first.

Open-ended or Close-ended Toys

The type of Independent Play is also important. 


Some children who have language and imaginative skills are able to play for a long period of time with just their teddy bears and pretend sets. 


Some children who are more affected or have limited language may struggle with such open-ended plays that need creativity and imagination. Instead, they require plays that are close-ended and structured. Close-ended plays mean plays with a clear starting and ending. 


For example, jigsaw puzzles and shape sorters are close-ended.

Soft toys and lego blocks on their own however, are open-ended, not close-ended. 


So for children with more limited language, keep plays more goal-based so the child does not revert back to stimming or repetitive play because they are unsure of what to do.

The Developmental Milestones of Independent Play

In some cases, children who begin with close-ended Independent Play can evolve into open-ended plays as they grow older.








Image sources (left to right): Family Education, McKenzie’s Foods


At ages 2-3 years old, Independent Play activities might look like completing a puzzle and making playdough shapes, which are more close-ended.








Image sources (left to right): The LEGO group, Vox


As children grow into 4 and 5 years old, they may start to build objects with Legos or do fun worksheets like colouring and word searches.










Image sources (left to right): Toys R Us Canada, Business Insider


And by 6 years and above, children are using open-ended toys like Barbies, cars and trains, to build cities, towns and storylines.


Hence we try to encourage this as best we can in children with autism so they are not stuck playing the same close-ended play a few years down the road.

Materials You Will Need

1. A timer



2. Child’s mastered toy play



3. A social story on Playing by Yourself



4. Video model (Click to view)

How to Break the Skill of Independent Play Down

There are two ways a child shows they are independent in play. Firstly, the duration, or how long they can play on their own before needing attention. Secondly, how far away the adult is when they are playing independently. 


Ideally, you would like your child to be able to play for as long as is appropriate for their age, and be in a different room while that happen, if that is appropriate for the child. For example, it would be inappropriate to leave a 1-year-old on their one in an open room for 1-2 hours, but safer if it is a 12-year-old.


Below is an example of breaking down Independent Play by both duration and distance:


Durations can continue right up to 5 minutes or above, depending on a child’s age.

How to Teach Independent Play

  1. Read the social story and show the video model if needed.
  2. Tell your child, “Play by yourself.”
  3. Start the timer for the duration they are at.
  4. Sit or stand at the distance the adult needs to be from the child.

We would consider the child successful at a step if they did not need the adult to jump in to support them in any way.


And of course, the moment the timer beeps, reward them immediately with their pre-chosen reinforcement as well as saying,  “Good playing by yourself!”

Troubleshooting Tips

1. “My child finishes their activities before the timer beeps!”
Sometimes children are so fluent at the plays they are given, they can finish it very quickly too. Either give them more activities to match the timer, or spend time teaching them more activities first.


2. “My child loses focus easily even though it is an activity they know well.”
Some ways to help a child with focus issues is bringing the play back to the table, where attention could be better, and practising independent play there before going back to the floor.


A second strategy is to break the duration or distance down even more. If 10 seconds is too long, go to 8. If 8 is too long, go to 5. Make it so you can reward the child at the level most successful to them.

Finally, ensure they are consistently successful at that duration step 2-3 times before moving them to a harder step.

Your Turn

1. Identify a suitable toy you know your child is able to play by themselves, without needing an adult’s help. 

This could be close-ended, but it could also be open-ended. Remember that this varies by child.


2. Break down Independent Play for your child

Some children may need to start at 5 seconds, some children can start from 5 minutes.