Give Yourself a Break: 5 Ways to Teach Your Kids How to Play Alone

The alone time you crave is good for your kid, too. Here's how to make it happen.

Training your kids to play on their own is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow. "It's the downtime for scribbling, making a car out of a cardboard box, or exploring the backyard that fosters the skills your child needs to be successful and fulfilled: creativity, critical thinking, and confidence," says psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.

The Best Rainy-Day Activities for Kids Real moms share their tried-and-true ways to entertain stir-crazy kids on rainy days.

Show Them How It's Done
The first step in teaching your child to be okay with being alone is showing him how fun it can be. This process begins even before he can crawl. "To a certain extent, being alone is a learned behavior, and if you never leave your baby, he won't learn to settle himself," says Cynthia Chandler, Ph.D., assistant professor of early childhood education at Black Hill State University in Spearfish, SD. "Putting your child in a playpen or crib with a few toys while you hang out nearby or even leave the room will plant the seeds of self-soothing and focus." Rattles, stacking rings, and other easy-to-grasp objects can keep a 6-month-old busy for up to 20 minutes - enough time for you to grab a cup of coffee.

Create Kid Space
"The best way to encourage your child to lose herself in independent activities is to create secure, baby-proofed play areas in your home and yard that encourage experimentation," says psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., coauthor of Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by My Kids? Michelle Workman, 39, a Los Angeles interior designer, created a wondrous playroom for her two sons, complete with oversize stuffed animals, a fake tree, and a built-in desk and toy boxes. "I covered the space in a thick, dark green shag rug with a pad underneath so heads and elbows are cushioned against falls," she says. "Saturday mornings, we put snacks in the room for them and buy ourselves some extra lounging time." You don't have to dedicate a whole room to your tots - even a low kitchen drawer full of Tupperware can be a treasure trove.

Keep Them Engaged
Chandler recalls giving her elementary-school students a homework assignment to place a cookie six inches from an anthill and time how long it took for the critters to devour it. "The parents couldn't believe how long the kids sat there, watching," she recalls. You can often keep children busy with little projects like lying on a blanket doodling the shape of the clouds. In addition to science experiments (visit for more), arts and crafts are ideal for keeping kids occupied. "When I need 45 minutes of uninterrupted meal-prep time, I set my kids up to make construction-paper place mats with crayons and stickers," says 42-year-old Suzy Martyn, a mom of four in Cypress, CA. Get 33 Kid-Approved Holiday Activities Here.

Stay Away from TV Time
While experts say there's nothing wrong with occasionally plunking your kid in front of the TV for 30 minutes, your goal is helping your child discover pastimes that require his active participation. "Children who always depend on someone or something else, like television or video games, to stimulate them have a hard time taking responsibility for their own well-being as adults," Paul warns. "Encouraging your child to develop passions makes him better equipped to handle life's challenges."

Surrender to Sloppy
Most kids love little more than a big mess, and making one can occupy them for hours."I dug a hole in the yard, gave my daughter the hose, and told her to make a mud puddle," says Bethel, CT, writer Jen Matlack, 39. "She squashed around for a whole afternoon while I gardened." Soil-encrusted clothes and tornado-like clutter may be rough on those of us with neatnik tendencies, but they're worth the cleanup. "Making a mess encourages kids to experiment and learn," Paul says. From lining the playroom with an old shower curtain so your child can finger paint with abandon to letting him co-opt all the pillows in the house to build a killer fort, figure out ways to make your child's creative chaos tolerable for you.

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