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Why Your Child Won't Play Independently For More Than a Few Minutes (& how to change that for GOOD!)

During my parent coaching sessions I often hear the following stress-ridden question: "why won't my child ever play by themselves for more than a few minutes???!!!" (AKA, "why can't I EVER get even just a little break?!!")

This is usually followed up by a long list of all the things parents have tried to make things better, the activities you've tried, the pinterests you've pinned, the printables you've bought, all leading to... mostly drooping shoulders and a sense of defeat.

We want our kids to enjoy playing. We even want to play with our kids. But not all the time. Sometimes, we just want them to happily play. ALONE. And it seems like it all should be pretty straightforward, doesn't it? We should simply be able to give our kids a toy (or the dream, they get themSELVES a toy) and they play while we sit back and read a book, drink some tea, take a bubble bath...

But this hardly ever happens, does it? And the reason is twofold:

First of all, most of us are simply too much in our OWN heads when what we should really be doing is trying to get inside our CHILDREN'S. Basically, parents usually do have great instincts when it comes to supporting their children. You know your children best, after all. You're just going about it in the wrong way. You're thinking about what you think they should want instead of what they actually, truly need and want. The good news, this is not your fault! And there is a way out of it! (We will get to that, so stick with this read, but first I want to give a bit more background)

The second reason we tend to struggle so much in supporting our children in sustained, focused and happy independent play is that much of the time, instead of truly understanding how to give our children what they truly want and need, we're all wrapped up in some version of the following classic debate of whether it's ok to simply let our children play however they want. You know the question: should play be child led or structured? I know that you would like a straight answer, but the truth is a bit more nuanced than that.

Yup, you probably guessed it: you should allow for both.

Now, if you are reading this and thinking "well thanks for nothing!" I want to share that there is a great, easy way to support your children's play, in both a child-led and structured way SIMULTANEOUSLY. So read on. The key here is to learn to support both the freedom AND learn to guide. You just have to learn a few simple concepts in order to do it. Got you intrigued now, right?


When we allow our children to completely lead the play, magic certainly happens, but so can chaos for our adult minds. Picture the day your child decided to play "moving" and literally hauled their ENTIRE room to the office floor? Yup! Fun, exciting, but a mess for us, right!

Now if you have a high tolerance level, that is fantastic. But it's also ok to want a bit of order. The problem is, many of us, in our "adultness" tend to shift to the other extreme and try to manage it all. And when we completely try to lead the play, it is usually for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we are worried about something our children are not yet "accomplishing" or we have seen other children tackle said task and are silently swimming in a sea of alarms? Or we have a certain expectation of how learning and growth should look and feel and when that continuum is not met we then panic. On behalf of our children. And then, we jump to trying to "support" our children with activities we believe are nourishing their growth, but what really ends up happening is that we end up, essentially, controlling too much because our own specific projected beliefs and worries.

Because here's how it really works when we try to completely control play:

  1. Grownup is worried and/or focused on a stage of development or learning that their child has not yet completely tackled

  2. Grownup then chooses or encourages play activity that tries to meet the **grownup's** needs

  3. Grownup then unintentionally pressures child through their words, actions, intentions, and even energy

  4. Child feels pressured and moves into fight/flight/freeze

  5. Child's brain is thinking about something completely different

  6. Child looks at said (possibly elaborate?) activity for say, 5 min?...then moves on

  7. We feel like we're back to square one and worry/anxiety increases

  8. Back to Step 1 with another activity...

And then, of course, we get into the trap of the following statements I hear all the time from tired, frazzled parents:

"How do I get them to play by themselves for more than a few minutes!!?"

"Why doesn't my kid want to do anything I give them?"

"Why is there so much pushback, ignoring, and defiance?? Why can't my kid just play in peace and quiet??" (AKA, give YOU peace and quiet for a moment, right?)

Does this sound familiar to any of you?

So what is the magic glue that you might be missing? Because, clearly, too much open play might lead to a bit more turmoil than we can handle. And too much control doesn't really work for anyone... so what DO we do?

Well thank goodness, there is another way! And it isn't that difficult to implement.

It all begins with the Developmental Play Schemas.

In essence, the play schemas are a way that this amazing human brain of ours works to control the thousands of neural pathways that are being created at every moment, especially in the first years of life. And what happens is that while the brain is making sense of the input it is receiving, patterns begin to emerge. These are the play schemas.

There are 8 main categories (transporting, enveloping, connection, positioning, trajectory, transforming, rotation, and enclosing), and when we are able to recognize them in our children's play, it opens up a world of possibility!

Because identifying which play schema our children are currently working on allows us to:

  • follow our children's lead while also pushing them to their next level of awareness, but at the pace where the learning will actually stick

  • keep our children focused and happy in their play (and work!)

  • have the peace of mind that the tools and activities we are preparing for our children will actually make a true, positive impact

And for our children, allowing them to play according to the schemas does so very much! Here are just a few main benefits:

  • it empowers them to get to play in their own way, at their own pace

  • it sends a powerful message of "I SEE you, my child and I will give you EXACTLY what you need and want to learn and grow"

  • it allows their brains to prune out what doesn't matter and hone in on the foundations that will support them for life

  • it gives them the opportunity to ask more questions

  • it opens up new worlds of possibility within the exact realm of their current fascination

So now that you know about the play schemas, you probably want to know how to get started, right?

Well it all comes down to a few simple actions.

The first and most important step is observation. Let me explain:

If you take nothing else from this post, please do this one thing: start watching your kids play! Step back and stop trying to control what they do, how they do, and when they do it. To help with that, only give them materials and set up conditions with limits that you are comfortable with. TRANSLATION: you should be able to walk out of the room for 10min or more and know that you will be returning to a peaceful, organized and serene environment!

But doing that is easier said than done, so the first step always will be to observe your children's natural play tendencies. This will not only give you great ideas for other activities they enjoy, but it will give you a true window into their worlds, into how their minds are growing and developing, and overall lead to a much more connected, fun experience for both you and your child when you are playing alongside them.

So the first step is to observe.

Once you do that, you'll get so good at noticing what it is your children actually want and need that you will naturally give it to them. And then you will get your TIME back (Seriously!! I am literally writing this post as my child happily and independently initiates and sustains her play, and have been for the last hour or so). And your children will get SO much: freedom, space, control, and best of all, it will lead to tons of creativity and exciting insights.

Let me break it down a bit more: to get your children to this state of sustained, happy, passion-led independent play, we need to support them in their current play schema. But how do we know which one to start with? And then, how do we make sure we are giving them enough opportunities to explore?

Luckily for you, I have a simple recipe that will help you guide your children in the exact play their brain is seeking. Here it is!:



By neutrally observing our children in their play, we can take note of what they might be working on. And when we notice a pattern, we get to capitalize on that pattern and provide play opportunities that are PERFECTLY in sync with what our children's brains are focused on! Win, win, right??

To begin, simply allow your children to play independently, uninterrupted for a span of 10 or so minutes. Then WATCH.

You might want a notebook to take down notes. Just be sure to take notice with neutrality and simply jot down what you see. For example, "Sam is stacking blocks. They fall. They try again. Now Sam is lining the blocks up..."Do this a few times for two weeks.


The next step is to take note of everything you see and try to unearth some patterns. Ask yourself, "what are they MOSTLY doing?" and "what repetitive actions do I see?" Is there a lot of throwing? Stacking? Organizing? Are they moving many things from place to place? Do they seem obsessed with water?


Now, this sometimes takes an expert eye, but don't get discouraged because this kind of guiding approach is simply a practice that can be honed, a skill to practice. I want you to feel completely supported in this, so if you're still reading up to this point, I would like to gift you with one of the exclusive resources I usually only give to my coaching clients: a complete explanation and guide to the top 8 play schemas. I hope that it will support you in guiding your children's play as it develops. You can access it here).


Once you identify the play schema, you can then provide all sorts of opportunities for your children to further explore the patterns they are currently fascinated by. Remember, this is literally their brains saying "Yes, THAT'S what I want to know about! Yes, that, this is the thing!"So give it to them in many different ways!


It is important to note that not every child partakes in every schema, and they are not linear, rather are more organic. So pay attention, hone into who YOUR unique child is, and allow their natural play tendencies to lead the way!

**If you want help with this, please reach out to me at and we can schedule a free session to support you in identifying the play schemas your children are currently focused on and how to align their play to their natural learning!

In summary, here's the recipe for play that will not only feel GREAT to both you and your child, but will lead to learning that sticks (and much, much longer independent play - I'm talking 40min or more at completely focused exploration!!!):


  1. Observe play

  2. Note patterns

  3. Identify play schema

  4. Provide aligned play opportunities that propel that schema's interests into new realms of learning!

  5. Rinse & repeat!

So there you have it, my simple recipe for a completely rebooted and enjoyable play experience for all involved! One that will not only give you a window into your children's world, but that will leave you assured and confident that you are supporting them in exactly the ways they most need.

By approaching play in this way, from a perspective that is BOTH child-led and guided, you will be opening up a whole new world of possibility for your children's growth, imagination, creative development, and the foundations that will lead them to grow into passionate, well-rounded, balanced and happy contributors of society. And isn't that what we all ultimately want?

So as always, happy playing, and here's to the play schemas!



P.S. If you follow me on instagram, go ahead and hop onto my IGTV Play Schema Challenge to learn more about all of the individual schemas and how to support your children even further. And if you don't, you should! Go to @thejoyousparent for tons of supports and resources that will propel your children's play as learning experience.

P.P.S. If you're as excited about the potential of using play to support your children's learning, NOW is the time to get yourself supported and in the know! It is my passion to help parents unearth the power and potential of the art of play, play schemas and so much more--so they can be confident they are giving their children everything they need and want to be balanced, creative, whole & productive humans.

But we can't (and shouldn't) do it all alone! The way I see it, we don't know what we don't know (our dkdk's) until we DO know, so invest in yourself and your children and take advantage of all of the knowledge and expertise that once you have at your fingertips, you will become a virtual play WIZARD! This stuff will fundamentally SHIFT your parenthood and your children's future. You are the one who has to take the first step and care about yourself enough to truly take advantage of this potentially life changing knowledge. It all starts with you, and then it trickles down to your children in a way that puts them two feet in forever. If that sounds like something you're ready for, invest in yourself and schedule a free 30min parent empowerment sesh that will get you and your children started with play that supports both freedom AND guidance! I will be so happy to meet you there! :)

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