Emily Oster On The Secret Benefits Of Independent Play For Kids

May 16, 2024 / By Emily Oster

The opportunity to be a parent is a gift, but it’s also sometimes really hard! There are a lot of decisions to make, and chances to worry about what we might be doing wrong. I’m an economist who focuses on pregnancy and parenting. My goal is to analyze all of the scientific research and then present parents with the best data, so we can all feel informed and confident in our decisions.


Over the past several decades, if we had to summarize changes in parenting advice in one word, it might be “more.” As parents, we spend more time with our kids than in any generation before (even as we also spend more time working); we spend more time engaging directly with children, more time participating in their play and development, and on and on. This change reflects, in part, research that shows a relationship between time spent with children and positive outcomes like test scores.

Kids, at all ages, benefit from having independent play opportunities. This can be solo play or with their peers. This type of play encourages problem-solving and (when it’s with others) conflict resolution. It lets kids pretend, in ways that are different from what they’ll do when you’re playing with them. It also gives them experience with figuring out ways to entertain themselves.  

Independent play as young children is a gateway to other kinds of independence later. Kids don’t wake up one day at the age of 18 ready to be independent adults. They develop those skills over time, with our help. The toddler playing independently becomes the 5-year-old who can get their backpack ready for school, the 8-year-old who walks herself three blocks to a friend’s house, and the 14-year-old who is babysitting the neighbor’s child. Which is what we want! (Even when what we really want is for them to stay little and snuggly.)  

One problem with the culture of “more” in parenting is that it’s exhausting and leaves too little space for parents to be people, too. Because it is impossible to give “enough,” we too often feel we are failing. But a second problem is that it gets in the way of developing this type of independence. Doing less might literally be better!

If we’re willing to accept this, then the next question is how we can move to a place of more independent play, especially if our kids have gotten used to the constant engagement. One answer is consistent boundaries: set an independent play time and stick with it. Maybe it starts with 5 or 10 minutes and increases over time. During this time, parents and other caretakers are not available, meaning kids are on their own (at least from their standpoint — of course you’re nearby for safety, just in case). Making a plan and holding these boundaries will help develop a habit, and kids are very responsive to routine (the data shows that too!).

A second answer is to think about toys or activities that encourage this kind of independent play and problem-solving. Which is why I’m a huge fan of all of KiwiCo’s offerings, including the newly redesigned Panda Crate. With little kids, it can be hard to tell what kind of toy would hold their attention for a period of independent play. The experts at KiwiCo thought about that for you, and, let’s face it, we know kids love novelty. 

Parenting can feel like a never-enough prospect, especially with our time. There is something liberating about the idea that we could do more by doing less. And that’s what the research says, so we’d do well to believe it.

Emily Oster, PhD, is the CEO and founder of ParentData, a data-driven guide to pregnancy, parenting, and beyond. With a focus on empowering parents by providing the data and tools they need to make confident decisions, ParentData has become a trusted resource to get expert-backed information delivered straight to your inbox.

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