Encouraging Independent Play – When Your Kids Aren’t Used to It
“Hey mom, wanna play Legos?” your son calls to you one morning. Truthfully, you don’t want to play Legos. You have other things on your to-do list, and even if you didn’t….you don’t want to play Legos! Shouldn’t he be able to play by himself? He’s five years old – are you asking too much of him developmentally? The simple answer is no, but let’s dig a little deeper.
What Does ‘Play’ Really Mean?
‘Play’ can mean many things – experts divide it into three categories:
- Social play – children play with one another or with an adult – throwing a ball, for example
- Independent play – children play by themselves – pretending, doing a puzzle, etc.
- Guided play – children play using props set up by adults, usually with an end goal in mind
How Does Play Help With Child Development?
- influential in healthy brain development
- critical part of fine motor and gross motor development
- necessary for learning to negotiate and solve disagreements
- helps children discovering new interests
- essential for both expressive and receptive language development
- crucial for social-emotional learning
Encouraging independent play is important! The value of solo play specifically is rooted in skills of independence and imagination. A child playing in a self-directed way feels competent and capable – and isn’t this the end goal of raising children?
When Can I Begin Easing My Child Towards Independent Play?
Short answer: sooner than you think!
It’s important, first and foremost, to consider the age and developmental stage of your child. Older children can be expected to play alone for longer periods of time than younger children. A six-month-old child, for example, may be able to play independently for about five minutes, while a one-year-old might play for fifteen minutes.
Obviously, these times refer to children who’ve been ‘trained’ for independent play. If, with no indoctrination, you tell your five-year-old one day to ‘go play’ and you’ll come check on him in an hour, he will likely have a problem meeting your expectations.
Getting Started with Independent Play
There are several variables to consider when guiding your child towards independent play, including environment, toys, routine and monitoring.
Step One: Check Your Environment
To encourage independent play, the environment will be a safe space for children to explore. This area will not include breakable chachkies or pointy-cornered glass tables. It’s difficult to encourage independent play when a parent is hovering and constantly telling the child ‘no’.
The bedroom, living room, family room and even kitchen can be suitable play spaces as long as safety comes first. Think of all those pots and pans in the kitchen just waiting for little hands!
Will I Need to Buy All New Toys?
Not only are fancy toys unnecessary for independent play, they’re actually detrimental to the whole process. Open-ended toys breed success in independent play. Wooden blocks, balls, Legos, magnets, and more are good examples of open-ended toys.
Open-ended-toys can be used in many different ways. A block can be stacked as part of a building, or it can be used like a cell phone or a microphone. There’s no ‘wrong’ way to use a block (as long as you’re being safe).
When considering whether a toy is suited for independent play, consider how your child might use it. If there is only one way to use the toy (an electronic keyboard, for example), save it for a session of guided play.
Although one might say an iPad or smartphone has many uses, and is therefore suitable, electronics are not appropriate for independent play. Electronic devices may encourage boredom in children, as they are an ongoing source of stimulation.
When children become accustomed to blinking lights and lots of activity, it can make it difficult for them to transition to coloring or playing with blocks.
Step Two: Time IN
What is ‘Time In’? It is intentional time spent playing with your child with no distractions. Put away your cell phone or device and set a timer based on the age of your child. For an infant, start with five minutes, and if your child is five years old, set the timer for about twenty minutes.
Tell your five-year-old child, “I’m yours for twenty minutes – what should we do?” Then simply follow their lead. Don’t correct, coach or teach. Go with their ideas, and be present.
When the time is up, tell them what fun you had, and how you need to go do your work now. Tell them you’ll be back a little later. Then, twenty or thirty minutes later, check on them. You may need to stay in the same room initially.
When using this routine with an infant or toddler, you must stay in the same room. That being said, as your child is playing independently, be sure to busy yourself with another task. It’s not ‘independent play’ if you’re still involved.
An Independent Play Routine
Like anything you teach your child, independent play must be practiced over time. Don’t expect to try it once and have your child be an expert right out of the gate.
Additionally, don’t expect a three-year-old to acclimate to this practice immediately. Independent play is a quicker success story the earlier you begin the routine.
You will be observing and checking on your child during independent play. What are you looking for exactly? Flow is the ultimate goal – that state of mind where you’re so involved in something that you forget yourself.
Flow is a wonderfully gratifying state of mind for all ages, and it’s certainly possible for a preschooler to attain.
Final Thoughts on Independent Play
Independent play is a worthwhile goal for you and your family. It may take a while to become comfortable in this routine, and there will undoubtedly be stops and starts along the way.
Give yourself, and your child, lots of grace along the way, and keep in mind that the ability to be alone and entertain one’s self is a lifelong skill. Most of all, enjoy the journey!