Why is independent play important?
Does your child turn to you needing direction on what to do next? Are they constantly nagging you about being bored? Or, do they constantly need positive validation on their latest creation? Sometimes, the best gift you can give your child is not more toys, but rather the ability to play independently.
How teaching independent play today will help your kid in the future
Independent play is one of those really awesome things both you and your child can benefit immensely from. If you are just starting, be encouraged.
“Children freely express feelings and ideas, exercise imagination, and feel the joy of self-discovery,” that’s how Dr. Sheila Anderson, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education at Weber State University describes independent play. She goes on to explain that, “This fosters creativity. As they plan and carry out their own ideas, confidence emerges, as well as the ability to sustain attention, and persist in problem solving.”
Raising children is hard; you don't want to miss a single minute, development, or milestone. However being with them 24/7 and creating a situation in which they need your guidance constantly can be exhausting. Sometimes, mom just needs a break.
By teaching your child the ability to play independently:
First, you won't have to resort to technology just so you can sit for a minute – allowing you to unwind from a long day of making slime and forts and snacks.
Second,you will have a few minutes each day to breathe and relax (and forget about the dishes for a minute!).
Third, the life skills your child will learn by encouraging them to learn to play independently can be the best gift you will ever give them. As we mentioned above, independent play improves your child’s creativity, confidence, patience, attention span, and much more.
I assure you, you will thank yourself, when your child’s teachers comment that he/she is such a focused, self-confident, independent learner.
You’ll save tons of time when your child only ever wants minimal help with homework.
So, how to start?
It is important to have some strategies to teach your child how to be comfortable playing on his own.
5 Strategies for encouraging independent play
Here are five strategies from Today's Parent on encouraging independence in your children:
1. Start gradually
Warm your child up to the idea of independent play with just a few minutes in the beginning, and assure them you will be back. Then be sure to return when you said you would. Slowly increase the time you are gone, and soon you will find that your child is able to happily play independently.
2. Swap out their toys
Put some toys in a box, and bring them out next month, instantly you will have seemingly new-to-them toys. Sometimes our kids can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of toys available to them, by swapping out their toys in this manner you might find your child more willing to play independently with her toys.
3. Parallel play
Children learn best by modeling your behavior. Sitting next to each other on the couch, each quietly reading your own books shows your child how you unwind after a long day. Very young children might play next to each other without actually playing with each other; this is good for their development as well. Independent play does not always mean solitary play, it just means that your child should not need you to show them how to entertain themselves constantly; they will still be comforted by your presence in the room.
4. Plan a playdate
Planning time for children to play together can actually improve their independent play. Learning how to wait to play with a particular toy teaches your child patience and taking turns. Parents might allow themselves to be bossed around during pretend play time, but another child won’t, this provides a great learning opportunity for your son or daughter to learn about thinking of the other’s feelings when picking the game and making the rules.
5. Get them involved
If you need to get a specific job or chore done around the house, involve your child. Sitting next to each other at the kitchen table, while you pay bills and they are coloring, shows them how to imitate working independently even if you are not alone. Have your child help you put the silverware away while you do the rest of the dishes, or get them their own pint-sized rake so they can help rake the leaves in the yard. Your efficiency might will go down in doing your chores, but the life skills you are modeling for your child are invaluable.
Must-have items and opportunities for your kid’s independent play
Luckily children are naturally curious and constantly learning about their surroundings. So setting them up with some toys or dolls can usually buy you about 5 minutes; other days you might break out the coloring books and crayons, giving you a few more minutes of quality downtime.
Providing safe and educational toys gives you not only quiet time but also peace of mind that your child is learning and developing, while also reaching important milestones, all at the same time. In my e-guide “Clean Home, Time for you” I explain that the best toys for developing your kid’s imagination are those that are versatile, creative, and don’t have strict rules of how to play with them.
These important critical thinking skills will serve them well throughout their entire lives. Teaching your toddler to play by themselves builds this important creativity and ability for exploring their surroundings without needing to be constantly guided by an adult.
Fun and unique examples of play spaces and discovery toys
If you have a larger space to dedicate to your child's play this can be a fun space to allow for creativity and messes. Otherwise, even a small corner can be an ideal quiet space for books and small toys. If you don't want to allow messy art projects in their room, having alternatives like giant blocks can allow for creative building and fun creations.
Toys such as GIGI Bloks allow children's imaginations to run wild in creating a playhouse forts, castles and play stores. These blocks are safe for children of all ages and a great alternative to Legos or Duplos. According to parent reports and experts such as Liga Berzina, founder of The Autism Society of Latvia (ASL), GIGI Bloks, because of its size can greatly improve attention span up to three times. Imagine your kid playing by themselves not 15 min, but 45 min.
If you are stuck trying to figure out which kinds of discovery toys your child might enjoy playing with, simply watch and observe what makes them light up or what they are naturally drawn to. Sometimes your child might not need more toys; they actually might need to have their toy room pared down on a regular basis. Having a box of toys in the garage that you can swap out with the toys in their room allows for your child to have supposedly new toys to keep them engaged. Typically, having too many choices can be overwhelming for your child so instead of playing independently in their room, they come to find you for direction on what to do.
Surprising benefits of associative play for your child’s independent play time
Experts agree that it is important for children, developmentally, to be exposed to forms of play that are unstructured and without formal organization from adults. This form of play is called an associative play and helps children to learn to communicate with their peers and gives opportunities for them to work together without direction from adults.
Usually, around the ages of two to five, children become ready to move on from solitary play or simply observing their surroundings to being able to participate in both parallel play as well as associative play. Parallel play is when two children might be both playing with blocks and also playing next to each other but not necessarily with each other. Moving on to associative play is an important development in your child's growth both socially and cognitively.
An example of this might be getting together with friends who have children of similar ages, allowing them to ride tricycles together while you simply observe or watch over them without being directly involved. Your children might talk and interact but there is no one singular goal or direction, this allows your children the ability to find for themselves how they will interact and communicate with their peers.
Every year on January 21st, parents all over the world have created their own holiday - International Playdate day - celebrating the need for children to play together and spend as much time as possible away from screens for an entire day. So plan a playdate with your friends next January 21st and stock on some. Be sure to tag your Instagram photos with #playdateday #independentplaydateday so moms everywhere can celebrate your choices to prioritize the importance of your child's development.
Hang in there. It takes extreme patience and a dedicated strategy to teach your child to play independently. It won't happen overnight, but the effort will be well worth it when your child is able to entertain themselves independently. This will improve your child’s creativity, confidence, patience, attention span, and much more.
What are your thoughts on teaching a child to play independently? I’d love to hear from you.