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How can I get my 3 ½-year-old to play by herself?
Q: My 3 ½-year-old has a wonderful imagination, but she doesn't go off on her own to play and follows me around the house. How do I get her to play with her toys without me?
A: Your daughter is at the age where she is beginning to develop her social skills; therefore, interacting with a playmate is very important to her. It sounds like you're her favorite playmate and how lucky you are! These are precious moments that move along too quickly. Savor them now, because she will outgrow this phase soon enough. In addition to wanting to be with you, your daughter probably finds what you're doing around the house very interesting. As a matter of fact, many of the toys appropriate for preschoolers are designed to mimic items from real-life because children find them so interesting, like telephones, vacuum cleaners, tea sets, tools, cash registers, and computers. So, it's the combination of her developmental level and current interests that are influencing her behavior.

It might help to arrange for a small playgroup of children your daughter's age to occasionally meet at your home. That will provide your daughter an opportunity to develop friendships, and you an opportunity to meet with other parents to observe your children at play and to discuss parenting issues…I know many other parents have the same concerns as you do.

When it is just the two of you, however, encourage her to play independently and imaginatively by providing toys that involve pretend role-play, like a doll house or a kitchen center. You mentioned that your daughter has a wonderful imagination, and I have found these types of toys are great for stimulating independent play, especially when there is a selection of dolls or plush characters for her to include in her play scenarios. And because children often imitate real-life in their play, you might find your daughter creating imaginative conversations based on ones you've had together.

Another thing to try is providing your daughter with arts-and-crafts materials like play dough, drawing paper, crayons, stickers, a pair of child's scissors, non-toxic glue and old magazines so she can cut out pictures. You'll probably find that such activities will keep your daughter busily involved in making fun and interesting things to share with you.
Kathleen Alfano Ph.D. Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price®