Supporting Independent Play

By jm_admin

How often do your children play by themselves?

Independent play is not unsupervised play. Independent play is when children play by themselves with a parent nearby. It is an important type of play and parents shouldn’t feel guilt about offering their babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers a chance to play on their own.

Children are born with the capacity and drive to create worlds through play in which they are the masters and in which they can truly find themselves. Often our culture does not truly value this type of play and instead increasingly replaces it with ‘entertainment.’

Many parents often begin to see their role as needing to engage with their children in some stimulating activity throughout the entire day in order for their children to develop and learn. In truth, when our children get used to our constant input and outside direction they too often loose the ability to play independently.

While interaction with adults and other children during play builds important cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills, independent play also has benefits. When children play alone, it can help build persistence and problem-solving skills as they create and execute ideas, test hypotheses, develop patience and resilience. It allows children to dwell in a deep flow, be creative and imaginative and has therapeutic value offering children peaceful time and learning how to enjoy their own company.

Independent play is not just important for children’s sense of agency, it is also valuable for parents, too. Today, when so many of us are busy working parents, we need a few moments to shower, to cook, or to work. Rearing children with a robust inner world is a gift to us, as well. It means they needn’t be always pacified by toys that don’t leave much to the imagination or entertained by a screen.

Starting Independent Play at Home

Supporting Independent play requires conscious effort as for some children playing independently can initially be a struggle, particularly if they have been entertained frequently as infants or had play done for them early on.

  • Manage your own expectations: By age two, a toddler’s attention span is about 5 to 6 minutes. Three-year-olds can pay attention for up to 8 minutes and four-year-olds up to about 10 minutes. If your pre-schooler is new to independent play, begin with 5 minutes and extend as they get used to it.

  • Start with time together before moving to independence. Begin with 15-20 minutes of playtime with your children. Silence your phone and really let your children enjoy your full attention. Then when they are deeply engaged tell them you’ll be in the other room and gradually they will keep going on their own.

  • Children learn and play best when they feel safe and secure and that is what your presence offers. When children can glance up and check in, it allows them to focus their energy on play.

Starting Independent Play at Home

  • Start early: Try not to interrupt infants when they are focused on something whether is it their own hands, a moving mobile. Aim not to place toys or objects directly into their hands, but rather lay few items around the infant on a playmat for them to discover and learn to reach for themselves.

  • Focus on quality over quantity: Too many toys and objects can be overwhelming and actually reduce children’s attention span during play. open ended toys and loose part objects that ignite creativity and imagination – blocks and figurines, or a pile of cardboard boxes of different sizes, dolls house props, dolls/stuffed animals, balls and baskets, toy vehicles, etc.

  • Respect their play: Try not to play ‘for’ them or take over their play as this will break their focus, concentration and often undermines their own efforts.

  • Minimise praise: Overpraising our children while playing interrupts their flow and can have the effect that our children start playing for the external praise or reward instead of their own satisfaction. It may shift their focus from enjoying the process of playing to focusing too heavily on what they produce.

  • Limit screen time: It is tempting (for all of us!) to turn to screens for entertainment at the first sign of boredom. But learning to push through boredom is a critical life skill that builds resilience, persistence, and creativity. Let your children know you trust them: “I wonder what you’ll come up with to play next.” You can also offer choices “Would you like crayons to play with next, or do you want to try the blocks?”

  • Finally, make independent play part of your family’s daily rhythm and routine. While this will feel new when you begin, eventually with time, it will become a familiar part of your lives.

Happy Playing!

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