The Secret to Getting Young Kids to Play on Their Own for 30 Minutes or More!
You know what makes me a little bit crazy?
When my children tell me, while they’re surrounded by piles of toys, “there’s nothing to DOOOOO. I have nothing to play with!”
For some reason, at the moment when you most need a few minutes of peace and quiet, whether you’re making a work phone call, trying to get dinner in the oven, or just desperate for a moment by yourself before you lose your mind, most children seem incapable of entertaining themselves and every toy they own is completely boring.
Which is why a toy rotation is a lifesaver...
Set aside a cupboard or shelf that your children can’t easily access and store a selection of toys up there.
Then, when you really need them to entertain themselves, tell them that you’re going to pick a special activity from the toy shelf and they can play with it. Because it won’t be something they’ve seen every day for the last two years, and they’re focused on this new toy, you’ll get some time to get your own things done and they’ll feel like they just hit the kid jackpot.
One of my tricks is that I don’t let them choose which toy to play with.
Not only does it inevitably take forever when they choose, but looking at all the options makes them less novel because after a time or two, they’ve seen them multiple times, even if they haven’t actually played with them. Also, there’s a sense of mystery when they have no idea what toy I’m going to bring out – it’s like a present all over again!
I keep an eye on what toys they’ve really enjoyed but then when they stop playing with it for a few weeks, I quietly move it to the toy rotation. They never even notice!
Also, if your child is the kind to get overwhelmed by a lot of presents at birthdays or holidays, it’s not a bad idea to stick one or two of their new gifts from grandparents or friends into the toy rotation. Then instead of getting lost in the shuffle, that toy gets its own turn in the spotlight and really gets appreciated, even if it’s just a few days later.
I don’t use something from the toy shelf every day (usually about 3 times per week), so I try to have about a dozen items in there so I can go a month without having to restock or repeat items.
After your kids have played with the new toy, you can decide whether it goes back with the regular toys or if you return it to the toy shelf to be pulled back down in another month or so.
Here are some items that work really well for toy rotations:
My girls love puzzles, but inevitably the pieces get lost or they do them so many times in a row that they know every piece and can put it together in about five minutes flat. This makes them great candidates for a toy rotation closet. Plus, puzzles are great for developing problem-solving skills and teamwork.
Books like I Spy lose their charm quickly because kids quickly know where everything is from memory. Pop-up books can get torn if they get left around with the regular picture books but, again, these are perfect for the toy shelf.
Art project supplies
You can tweak this depending on the age of your child, but stickers, stamp sets, markers, sidewalk chalk or even a new 99 cent coloring book all go a long way to keeping a kid happy and creative while you’re otherwise occupied.
Really noisy toys
Know those toys that make you want to stab your eyeballs out (or that creepily turn themselves on at two a.m.)? They are perfect for a toy rotation because you can limit how long it’s used and there’s something so appealing about a loud toy for kids.
If you have a kid harmonic or tiny guitar? This is the moment to bring it out. Somehow, when I need to do my own thing, that loud beeping, singing, or flashing is music to my soul.
If you have fun holiday toys that come out only once a year (say, an advent calendar or an Easter puzzle), try bringing them out at about the sixth month mark too. I get more mileage out of them, since they get used more than once a year, and because six months is an eternity in kid time, they’re still totally exciting when the holiday actually rolls around.
When a set is part of your regular toy circus, it’s easy for pieces to get lost or scattered all over the place, so these are ideal for adding to the toy shelf because the pieces stay all together and when the kids want to play with it, everything is right there. We have a magnetic paper doll set that my girls can play with for hours at a time if they haven’t seen it recently as well as a little farm set that they love.
Obviously it’s no good if they need your help to play a game, but there are plenty of games out there that a young child can play without an adult’s help, from Memory to Trouble to Bingo.
That’s it! You have the magic key now, use it wisely!
Do you use a toy rotation system? And if so, what kind of items work well for you?
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About the author:
Stephanie is mom to three small children and the founder and managing editor of Modern Parents Messy Kids (MPMK for short). There her team provides inspiration to thousands of parents on living well via kid-friendly recipes, parenting tips and organizational hacks.