Some children make their parents’ lives easy by playing contentedly alone, even from age one or two. Others hold on to playing in their parents’, usually mother’s, presence. Understanding the challenges involved in playing alone will help

The capacity to be alone: The capacity to be alone builds as a child progresses toward increasingly confident separations. Mastery of separation involves more than a child being capable of going to school or a playmate’s house without tears. It is also about a child’s ability to supply from within himself or herself the comfort, self-regulation, conscience, encouragement and other functions that he or she originally depended on his parents to supply. Why does a child’s ability to confidently separate particularly affect his ability to play alone?

Emotional challenges of play: Play is a child’s work and the primary way children expand their horizons. For example, they expand their fine motor skills when they build a tall tower or their gross motor skills when they attempt a headstand. They expand their views of themselves as they imagine being powerful enough to build that tower or accomplish the headstand. When they defeat the “bad guys” they may expand their sense of safety in the world. Playing a nurse, doctor, mother or father expands their view of what they could become someday.

Children are drawn to play because they are joyful when they achieve mastery, whether it is taking their first step or reading their first word. However, there is another side to this fun-filled mastery. Every piece of growth presents a challenge and, therefore, causes a bit of anxiety. As a boy builds a tower, he may wonder: Am I strong enough to make this tall tower? What does it mean if I can’t? Will I be able to control my frustration if it falls down? Although that boy is not asking himself these questions directly, they may well be in his mind, unformulated in words, but leaving him wary of going off and facing his play without his parent’s extra help.

Helping a child to play alone: If a child is unwilling to play alone, she may not be far enough along the path of separation to have developed enough capacity to deal with the extra risks involved in play. A parent can some time each day fully engaged and playing with her. As that child plays with her parent, she may absorb some parental capacities and be better able to function on her own over time.

Parents might also set some very short expectations for alone play. They can ask their child to go in the next room for two minutes. They should be sure to set a timer and go get their child when the time is up. The secret to making this successful is to only ask what their child is likely to be able to do, and to reward him or her with parental smiles, hugs and love. This is about parent and child, not a sticker.

Beyond the home: The best way to help a child play alone is to broaden the effort to help beyond the narrow issue of whether he or she can play alone and to help him or her achieve a healthy separation. Parents may have already noted that he or she has difficulty playing alone at school, too. School may be the best place to help a child build mental muscles for separation. The following strategies may help:

Parents can allow the child to take a beloved stuffed animal to school.

Parents can send a note that teachers could read during the day.

Parents can ask teachers to talk about the child’s parents during the day, perhaps asking if the child would like to show the parent that is picking him up a drawing that he or she is making.

Parents can provide a child with their undivided attention during drop-off and pickup. Many children can share their school day more easily if parents talk to them while they are in their classroom for a few moments at pickup.

Parents can recognize and verbalize at the drop-off that their leaving may be hard for their child (if it seems to be), and perhaps specifically identify his or her emotion if it is evident (sadness or worry, for example).

Parents can call in once if their child is in a morning program, or more often if he or she is in a full-day program. The child may need this contact to feel secure while away from his or her parents.

Not all school staff will support these actions, but some may understand and work with parents in these areas. The day will come when that little shadow will give you their parents some breathing room, and in the intervening time, that child has much exciting growth ahead.