How to encourage/promote independent play in 5 Simple Steps

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Working from home with kids… SUCKS to put it mildly.

 If you can’t afford a babysitter or nanny to watch them while you’re trying to get s**t done a simple task that may take you 15 minutes kidless turns into a two-hour battle of the wills.

What you NEED is for your child to play independently and stay engaged in activities to help you get stuff done so you can spend time with them. Sound good? Of course, it does!

So… how do you do this?

This shift in mindset will help. Try to think in terms of “how can I encourage independent play or learning.”

NOT “how can I keep my kids busy or entertained.”

Focusing on encouraging independent or solo play will allow your kids to develop important skills, while also keeping them engaged for long stretches of time so you can actually get something done.

Why is independent play important?

Promoting independent or solo play not only benefits you but your child in ways you probably never even thought of. Besides the fact that it promotes creativity and encourages them to use their imagination it also sets them up for adulthood.

Have you ever met someone who just can't STAND to be alone? Or maybe you can't stand being by yourself, and if that's the case you know it's not a healthy feeling. Socialization is important and it is a joy to be around friends and family, but we should also be happy just hanging out with ourselves. 

By starting independent play at a young age you are setting your child up to enjoy his or her own company. You are instilling that it is okay to not be constantly entertained and that sometimes just behind on your own is a form of bliss. 

Solo play helps teach your child valuable life skills

One of the many benefits of independent play for children is that it encourages problem-solving. It also helps them learn how to deal with failure. They are put into a situation that requires them to figure out how to entertain themselves and squash boredom.

If something doesn't go their way ie. their block tower falls or they just can't figure out how to put the last piece of a puzzle together; it requires them to do more, to actually figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. If we run in every time they just can't seem to get something to work, what will they learn? Nothing. 

If we let our children figure out their own problems it will carry over to adulthood. They will learn to handle disappointment and start to gain an understanding of when to push forward and when to walk away.

5 Steps that help Promote Independent Play

1. Start Purging Toys – too many toys syndrome is a REAL thing

Research shows that the kids with fewer toys have higher quality play; often engaging in more creative and imaginative play. When kids are given fewer options (this study had kids getting four toys, and kids getting sixteen toys) they played for significantly longer periods of time. Having too many toys (or anything for that matter!) is a distraction.

Think about how stressed you feel when you see so much “stuff” everywhere–you don’t know where to look, or what to do, it’s totally overwhelming.

It’s the same for kids. You want to focus on providing fewer but more open-ended toys that will encourage more active and imaginative play.

If you're looking for toy recommendations, check out my must-have toys for toddlers.

2. Invest in Open ended toys

The types of toys you have available for your kids directly impact the quality of their play and your day.

What are open-ended toys?  Open-ended toys are toys that can be played with in a variety of ways. They are simple and are typically the toys you have seen stand the test of time, like blocks. A child can create so many different things from one day to the next just by using their imagination. 

Maybe you remember 1996 Tickle me Elmo (this will show my age! ha) in 2016 it was Hatchimals and then there was the 2020 hottest toy of the season, CocoMelon's JJ doll.   All of these toys ended up being Popular for one holiday season and 90% of kids are over them in less than a week!

Toys have a significant influence on how children develop physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills. The key is to stay away from standard plastic toys, especially toys that talk, light up, move, or engage in any other way with your child. Anything with batteries should be cause for a pause.

Keep in mind that the more a toy does, the less your kid has to do. The general rule of thumb is that a toy should do no more than 10 percent of the work. This leaves your child to do 90 percent of the work. If you want your child to play independently they need access to open-ended toys.

3. How to organize toys in a way that makes sense to a child

When organizing your space think about how you can provide easy access to the toys that are likely to promote purposeful play.

For example, we keep things like smaller legos, puzzles, and board games higher up because my kids can’t do the entire process from start to finish by themselves.

However, blocks, trucks, and pretend play items are easily accessible.

Think about how tall your child is and try to keep items at or below that height. That way they do not need you to help them get a toy–which also means they don’t need you to put that toy away.

Also, in terms of storage–open shelving and baskets work best vs closed bins (even labeled!), drawers or toys boxes. You want children to be able to see everything that’s available to them.

4. Make it a “yes” space

One of the best ways to make your life easier is to find a way to create a “yes” space for your kids. Make sure everything in this space is a “yes.” That means there is literally not a single thing that your kid could get into that would be an issue.

Think about safety, but also about the ability to access toys or other needs. Anticipate what they could ask you for, and find a way to make it available to them so they can do things for themselves.

This gives you peace of mind knowing there isn’t anything they can get themselves into that is a huge deal and will allow them to play for longer periods of time without needing you.

5. Set Up Your Childs Play Area Away from adults

Yes. AWAY from adults. Kids need space. They need to be left alone to play and immerse themselves in play.

If your child isn’t used to playing in this way or does not have access to open-ended toys, this might be more difficult. It will take time for them to re-learn how to play independently and they may come to you with a thousand questions or want you to engage in play with them.

Resist the urge to do this–set boundaries and find ways to “push” their questions back to them. I try not to even provide my kids with ideas for play–I just tell them “go play!” and they whine (sometimes because they want to be with me) and I repeat “go play!” You are not responsible for entertaining your child all day. Play is their job.

Encouraging Independent play at home is not only good for you but your child too!

If your goal is to get work done and raise independent, self-reliant adults then encouraging your child to play independently is a great way to build that foundation.

If you deal with the “guilt” of not being accessible to your child 24/7 try and let go. In the end, having your child rely on you as their sole source of amusement is not beneficial for them or for you.

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