Last week I wrote a post Why Playing With Your Child is so Important but this week I want to talk about the importance of Independent Play. Both forms of play are very important to your child’s development, so I am not saying one type of play is more important than the other. Independent play and a healthy mix in of playing together can have huge benefits for building a strong relationship, building stronger skills, and helping your child find their independence and sense of self.
When your child is able to play independently they are given the opportunities to express their feelings and ideas freely, exercise their imagination, and experience self-discovery. Independent play also builds confidence within our children because they are fostering creativity and carrying out their own ideas and plans with sustained attention and persistence.
I told you last week that I get major mom guilt if M is on the floor playing and I have to do other things (cook, clean, work, etc.) And even though I get mom guilt, I still want to encourage independent play and its benefits. So I went through some of my teaching resources, asked other mom friends, looked around the internet and compiled a list of ways for all of us moms to encourage independent play.
Screen Time Does NOT Count:
Screen time doesn’t count because children who have too much screen time are missing out on crucial brain development opportunities that they would be getting through social interaction and multi-sensory experiences of everyday life. I shared in last week’s post that all types of play help young kids learn and practice new skills and any activity can be playful. This means playing outside, helping make or clean up dinner, drawing and having conversations shouldn’t be underestimated as learning experiences for children. I know technology isn’t going anywhere and I don’t want to ignore it, but I don’t want it to be the sole focus of our lives. Even Steve Jobs was a Low-Tech Parent you can check that out here.
Prepare Your Environment:
You want to create an environment that will spark their imagination. You want to look at the number of toys that are available. Are there too many toys? Children can get overwhelmed with too many choices or in a cluttered environment. Surprisingly fewer toys equal more play in most cases. To help keep clutter to a minimum you could have a major clean out, or try a toy rotation system.
When I was a teacher we would change out the free choice toys monthly. This helped the kids learn to play with new toys, but also kept their interest in independent play. Another reason we switched out the free choice toys monthly was to adapt the classroom to what the kids were into right now. Which can work at home too.
Having toys out for your children that reflect their current interests can take the independent play from a chore, or something they have to do instead of something they want to do.
You also want to think about the quality of the toys you provide. The toys you provide will be more enticing if they can be used for independent and collaborative play, provide opportunities for quiet play, and/or active play. Having open-ended toys allows children to explore and stay engaged longer.
Here is a list of toy ideas:
The goal of independent play is for your child to experience the joy of playing. Independent play encourages them to be independent thinkers and learners while also allowing them time to have creative exploration and self-expression. We want our children to enjoy the play itself but also the process it takes. You want to make sure that your child doesn’t think independent play is a punishment. They don’t have to play by themselves because mommy just needs a minute of peace and quiet.
If your child doesn’t like independent play you could try explaining to them what they are learning when they play by themselves. You can share how playing independently grows their brains bigger and stronger and helps them learn (growth mindset). You can also share with them how long you expect them to play independently and what you’ll be doing if they need you. (I’m going to be in the kitchen cooking dinner while you play by yourself for 30 minutes. Once I’m done cooking dinner I will come get you and we will have dinner (from the 5 Tricks to Get Your Kids To Do What You Want… post).
When you saw the list of independent toys and you thought to yourself, I wouldn’t want my child to do that on their own, that’s ok. Set some boundaries about what they are allowed to play with independently and what they need you to be able to play with. Glue and scissors, for example. You want to make sure you have a nice balance between what they can play with and what you’d prefer them not to play with. If they really want to cut and glue but you say that is only a with mommy activity, make sure you honor that and next time you play together you cut and glue together. But also, make sure you are firm with your boundaries and expectations. If you said no cutting a gluing, but they chose not to listen, follow through. (If you need a refresher on 5 Tricks to Get Your Kids To Do What You Want… visit this post.)
Ease Into It & Reward them:
Some children just don’t want to play by themselves. They have a hard time separating from you and entertaining themselves. It might take some time for your child to learn how to play without you. Independent play is a skill that has to be learned.
Here are a few ideas to help them learn to play independently:
- Start slow, try 5 minutes of independent play then slowly increase the time every day/week until it is just part of the routine.
- Stay in the room but work on your own tasks (fold laundry, read, clean up the room, etc.) This allows you to not directly be involved in the independent play, but you are still there to provide comfort.
- Give your child a starting point for their imaginative play.
- Give them a basket filled with special toys and items they like, but that they can only play with independently
- Start by playing with your child, then slowly disengage and allow them to play on their own, as soon as they’ve found something to hold their interest.
Once your child has completed independent play praise them. Children thrive on positive reinforcement. When they are praised they will be more likely to repeat the behavior you are praising them for. When their independent playtime is over, be sure to give them some positive reinforcement. For example: “You did such a great job playing by yourself while I was making dinner.” Or “you worked really hard while you were playing by yourself because I saw you _________________ (building a block tower, having a tea party with all your dolls, drawing that picture for daddy).
Independent play offers so many wonderful benefits to children as they grow. One thing I want you to remember before I finish this post: don’t let your child spend too much time playing alone. You’ll need to find a happy balance between playing independently and getting plenty of your attention and socializing with other family members and friends. Independent play has so many benefits for children and their development, but so does interacting and playing together with others. To create a cohesive, happy family there has to be a balance and there has to be fun.