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If I were to choose one thing that helped me keep my sanity when I went through busy, challenging times as a parent, that would be independent play.
It might seem like an insignificant thing, but having some time to get things done without interruptions or getting some quiet time when I felt exhausted matters so much!
In the last weeks, ever since the quarantine started, this has been more helpful than ever!
I know that as parents, we all have a lot on our plates right now, and keeping kids entertained while stuck at home is not easy!
Encouraging kids to play independently brings a lot of benefits for the whole family!
The children get to develop their creativity, imagination, and focus, and the parents have more time to take care of other tasks or just “recharge” their batteries.
8 ways to encourage kids to play independently
Because I often get questions about the things that helped us encourage our son to happily (and creatively) play on his own, I wanted to share with you today the most important tips that made a difference for us.
1. Build a strong connection and respond to the child’s needs
One of the most surprising things that I learned about independence in children is the fact that it has its roots in the child’s dependence on their parents.
It might seem strange at first, but there is an entire attachment theory behind this conclusion.
When kids receive the love and attention they need, they feel safe and confident, and they are more willing to explore the world on their own.
If kids know that they can count on their parents to offer them support, guidance, and comfort every time they need it, they will shift their focus towards exploring new things and developing new skills.
If they don’t feel this, they become more dependent and clingy because they really need to build a connection with the parent.
This is why many strategies that suggest “pushing” the child towards independence fail.
The best way to encourage kids to be more independent is to make sure that their emotional needs are met.
Offer hugs, let them cuddle in your arms, comfort them when they are upset. Your love is the best foundation for your child’s independence.
2. Don’t let independent play feel like a chore or rejection
Often, without even realizing, we send the wrong message to our kids when it comes to independent play.
When we say things like “Now you need to play alone for a while”, “I can’t play right now, go play on your own”, we make independent play feel like a “chore”, and the kids will be less willing to try it!
Instead, using one of the strategies below can help kids see independent play as a fun, creative time when they get to explore new things on their own!
3. Alternate independent play with time spent together
It’s unrealistic to expect young kids to play on their own all the time! They need our time and attention to feel safe and connected.
The best way to get them to play on their own is to make sure that their emotional needs are met first.
During these weeks of quarantine, we tried to include in our schedule both fun family activities when we connect and have fun together and times when kids play on their own.
And it worked great for keeping the kids happy while also encouraging them to play independently!
4. Start the activity together
Another easy way to connect with the kids before they play on their own is to start a playful activity together.
For example, invite your child to build a house out of Legos together. After the house is done, invite them to build more things on their own (you can either offer a few suggestions or let them use their imagination to come up with new ideas).
Or you can read a book together and then invite the child to draw / build / create something inspired by the book on their own.
5. Invite the kids to play beside you
This is one of the most effective tips to use when you need to work from home!
I usually sit at our dinner table and invite my son to play next to me. Keeping him close to me makes both of us happy, and it allows me to pay attention to what he does.
Making short breaks to talk with the child about what they are doing keeps them engaged in the activity for a longer time, and encourages them to try even more ideas on their own.
6. Create an inviting play space
When it comes to play spaces, many times “less is more”. It might seem counterintuitive, but a busy, crowded play space makes it more difficult for kids to develop their creativity and focus.
Instead, create a space with just a few toys and materials and let the kids find creative ways to play with them.
Here are three ways to do this:
- create a few “play boxes” to offer the kids during their independent playtime (and rotate them, so the kids get something different every day). Here is how we implemented toy rotation when my son was a toddler.
- create small “play kits” with easy activities that kids can do on their own (e.g., an art kit with papers, pencils, and markers, a playdough kit with different play dough colors and tools, etc).
- choose open-ended toys that encourage creativity (e.g., building blocks – these are my son’s favorites right now, pretend play toys, kinetic sand, etc) and make it easy for the child to access and use them.
7. Avoid using screens when kids are bored
Many times, when kids are bored, it feels tempting to keep them busy using screens. And it works in the short run!
But here is the thing: If kids learn that boredom is “cured” by spending time in front of screens, it will be a lot harder to encourage them to try anything else.
This leads to a vicious circle because they will ask for more screen time and find it more difficult to entertain themselves in other ways.
I am not against screen time, but I think it’s very important not to allow it to negatively impact the kids’ ability to find creative ways to play.
Boredom is good for kids. Children don’t need to be constantly entertained. On the contrary, those times when they don’t have anything to do are the ones that boost their creativity and independence!
8. Offer inspiration for independent play
Sometimes kids have a hard time coming up with ideas to try on their own. This is completely normal for young kids, but it can often happen to older kids as well.
When my older son was a toddler, we used a Bored Jar with easy activity ideas for him to try. It worked great, and those ideas became the foundation of many other activities he came up with.
As my son grew up, we didn’t need the Bored Jar anymore because he became really good at finding things to do.
But in the last weeks, when we were stuck at home for so long, I noticed that it was harder for him to find new ideas to try.
I remembered how much the Bored Jar helped us a few years ago, so I created a Play Jar with many activity ideas to try at home. And it brought hours of play!
(If you want to create a Play Jar for your kids, you can download the printable activity ideas here.)
Three important things to consider
When it comes to encouraging kids to play independently, here are 3 important things that I learned in the last years:
- Be realistic about your expectations.
It’s normal for a toddler to not be able to play alone for a long time.
Also, it’s normal for young kids to go through periods when they need more attention from their parents and are less willing to play independently.
Trying to “push” a child to be more independent not only doesn’t not work, but it leads to more disconnection and frustrations for both the child and the parent.
- Resist the temptation to intervene in the child’s play when it’s not necessary.
As parents, we are often tempted to give instructions and show kids what is the “right way” to play with something.
While showing them how things work is helpful, giving too many instructions and trying to “control” how the kids play has negative effects on their ability to play on their own.
The children get the message that they need an adult to guide them every step of the way, and this makes them less open to exploring things on their own.
- Allow time for the child to learn how to play independently.
Being able to play independently is a skill that kids develop over time.
The more chances we offer them to explore independent play in a way that is fun and engaging, the sooner they will learn to play on their own.
If your kids are not playing independently as much as you’d like right now, here is something we often overlook when we have young kids:
There will be a time when our kids will no longer ask for us to join them in their play.
A time when they will no longer share with us everything they do.
A time when playing on the floor, cuddling at story time, or giggling over little things will only be memories.
So don’t forget to cherish these moments when your kids want so much to have you close. Time goes by very quickly, and someday we will miss these days with our kids!