5 Steps to Encourage Independent Play
Design for Independent Play
One of the biggest issues parents are experiencing right now is trying to keep kids entertained and busy while also working from home. But they aren’t sure what steps to take to encourage independent play.
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.”
This shift will allow your kids to develop important skills, while also keeping them engaged for longer stretches of time so you can actually get something done.
Here are 5 Steps to Encourage Independent Play
1. Minimize the amount of toys available
Research shows that the kids with fewer toys have better quality play; often engaging in more creative and imaginative play. When kids are given less 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. Open ended toys
The types of toys you have available for your kids directly impacts the quality of their play. It’s best to have more open ended toys as this will promote more active and engaged play. 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.
That talking Elmo that lights up and dances? Popular for one holiday season (and really obnoxious).
Building blocks. Pretty much popular since the dawn of man in some form or another.
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. Organize 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 will promote 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 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. 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.