In light of this crazy lockdown with so many of us working from home, trying to manage kids, careers, sanity, it’s no wonder you are probably just yelling at your kids to “go and play!” Why is it so hard for kids to just go and play by themselves?
Let’s unpack what independent play is and isn’t and how we can create more of it to benefit both kids and their grown-ups!
What is independent play
Independent play is the process whereby a child is content to play on their own or with other children and/or siblings. It is a child-led style of play that is usually free of direct adult involvement and it is a state of play that children actually seek out in order to get into their version of flow state. It is often a choice made by the child or encouraged by their parent and it is a skill that needs to be cultivated versus completely natural to all children. Different children in different circumstances at different points in their development will spend time playing independently differently. No one size fits all and that is a-ok. All healthy, typically developing children are capable of playing on their own and enjoying their own company. Even if they have never done it before and seem “late” to the party.
What is it not..
Independent play is not coercing or bribing a child to play alone. It is not locking a child in their room and forcing them to be in their own company against their will. It is not putting on the television and leaving the room. It is not a neglectful or punitive style of parenting. It is not an excuse or reason to leave a child unsupervised for extended periods of time and it is not a replacement for genuine human connection and dependent and co-dependent play and quality time with an adult.
OK so we have the details down and we understand the parameters of what independent play is and isn’t. One thing to highlight is that this style of play is learned. Like with reading, different children may catch on or seek it out a little quicker than others and sometimes playing on their own won’t seem like a skill kids need to develop, but trust me when I say it’s a learned skill. Often what don’t do matters more than what we do. When it seems like your child just won’t play by themselves and you’re ready to tear your hair out think about why we want to help them leave how to play happily on their own.
1. We want to develop their self-esteem. They are learning to be self-reliant, not always needing someone, separating from their adult and trusting themselves. During play is when these skills are tested and tweaked and it’s important we give them opportunities to love being with themselves.
2. It gives both parent and child that critical alone time that all humans need to think and be. It gives us a little bit of space to mull some problems over in our minds and work through issues in a healthy, self-reliant fashion.
3. It allows our children to get a little bored and you know what they say about boredom? Creativity is the necessity of invention. We need to just hang out with our thoughts to dream up the next Space X.
4. It resets the exasperation clock and allows mom to get a few crucial things down and have some time to herself to catch up on her messages, her email or may drink a cup of tea in peace. Very important tasks, especially the cuppa!
OK you convinced me but exactly how do I help my kids play on their own without them kicking and screaming?
Try these simple strategies and report back in the comments below.
1. Rotate toys. Oldest trick in the book but they really forget about what they have when out of sight, out of mind, and they love seeing old favorites again and taking them for a spin. This should buy you at least 10 mins 😉
2. Facilitate autonomy by having designated zones for different types of toys in areas that kids can reach. “Quiet” toys like puzzles, games, cards live in our living room in a low cabinet so my son can pick something while his sister naps in their shared bedroom. Our “dramatic” play area consists of a few capes and hats and masks and are all organized on hooks that the kids can reach to retrieve and hang up when they are done (VERY important!)
3. Use physical cuing to structure independent play. For example a small play kitchen is typically not the right size for a grownup so by it’s sheer structure, it triggers the child that this is for them and this is where I play – no moms allowed! We have a big rug in the living room that I remind them is for playing on and it cues them to play on their own unless they invite an adult or an adult asks to join.
4. Strewing. Never heard of it either. Essentially this is a technique where you stage a set up for your child to find when they wake up in the morning, or come home from school. Think Christmas morning with the gift wrap or the need to buy anything knew. I’ve set up little tea parties with teddies and dolls. Trucks with paw patrol figurines driving somewhere unknown, or a makeshift tent from blankets and chairs that they can find and hide themselves in.
So, will you try and of these techniques with your child? Won’t it be amazing to have a child that seeks out their own company, works through their challenges first on their own before they come to you. and separates from mom and dad in a healthy, thriving way? Aren’t you excited to raise a self-sufficient adult who treasures their me time and is self-sufficient? All of this will happen through independent play.
How you plan to increase the independent play in your household?
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