Do you feel pressured to provide activities to constantly entertain your child? Do your kids complain that they’re bored when you try to limit screen time?
Often, we feel that we need to fill our kids’ schedules with activities to entertain and keep them busy. However, this isn’t the case. Independent play is a very important skill that kids need to learn. It will take some practice to make this transformation, especially if your kids are used to someone directing what they should do all the time. But with independent play, your kids will develop important life skills while they have fun playing on their own.
“But my toddler will destroy the house if I allow independent play!” This is where we break down one of the myths surrounding independent play. Especially for young kids, independent play does not mean leaving the child to play alone. Rather, it means giving them age-appropriate ways of directing their own play.
3 Reasons Why Independent Play is Important
Reason #1 – Independent play builds confidence.
Let your child tackle manageable challenges and try to overcome obstacles on their own. With each new accomplishment, they’ll learn to believe in themselves and their abilities.
Reason #2 – Independent play supports learning and inspires creativity.
Kids need to learn the very important “executive function” skills to be successful in life. These include skills like planning and decision-making. The foundation for this starts at a young age, when we allow them to make age-appropriate decisions.
They’ll learn to be more creative too! A very important milestone in early childhood is Imaginative play. We may take this skill for granted, but they need this to help them solve problems, tolerate uncertainty, and collaborate with others. If we schedule every moment of their lives and direct all of their play, we may think we are helping them, but we’re actually getting in the way of developing this vital skill.
Reason #3 – You’ll reduce stress for both you and your child.
We see so many kids who live overscheduled lives. Moms get tired shuttling them from one activity to the other. But kids need downtime too. At the same time, it will relieve our pressure from feeling like we always need to keep our kids entertained.
10 Ways to Encourage Independent Play
1. Progress gradually. Introduce solo play a little at a time. Depending on your child’s age and personality, you might want to start with 10-minute sessions and gradually work your way up.
2. Remain accessible. Your child will probably be more cooperative if you stay close by. Check in on them frequently. Let them know when you’re available for interruptions. For toddlers and younger kids, you should still be able to see and hear them even during their independent playtime.
3. Minimize directions. Let your child take the lead instead of telling him how to play. Maybe your child wants to treat her dolls to backyard barbecues instead of tea parties. She may want to combine pieces of different toys. Or the activity guide you are following says that he is supposed to make a clay representation of an animal farm, but he just wants to pretend to have the animals talk with each other. That’s okay! That’s what play is supposed to be, and your child will learn from that just as much – or maybe even more – than if you had insisted on following the activity guide.
4. Design a safe space. Create a childproof play area for your kids. Make sure that there are no hazards such as electrical wires or containers of hot liquids. Install safety gates on stairs.
5. Provide appropriate toys. To avoid frustration, pick games and toys that are suited to your child’s age and abilities. It’s okay for them to be a little challenging.
6. Avoid overstimulation. Children can feel overwhelmed if they have too many toys to choose from. Rotate the collection to keep things interesting. See what happens when they take a break from electronic toys and make up their own uses for simple things like cardboard boxes.
7. Offer rewards. Give your child credit for making an effort. Praise them for playing on their own. Share a special activity together after they’ve been amusing themselves for a while.
8. Maximize quality time. Pay extra attention to your child and have 1:1 time with her before you leave her on her own. Afterward, praise her for playing on her own. Share a special activity together after he has been amusing himself for a while. You may also read a bedtime story together, and then give the book to look through by himself before he falls asleep. Our free mini e-book, 45 Ideas for Stress-Free Toddler Activities, has a mix of both independent and interactive suggestions for learning through play.
9. Create daily routines. Children thrive on consistency and structure. Make independent play a part of your daily activities. They’ll get used to managing on their own when you’re attending video conference calls or doing the laundry. If you need help with creating a routine for your child, get free access to our resource library. We included a sample visual schedule there and tips on creating a routine.
10. Be flexible. On the other hand, there will be times when you’ll need to adapt. Most children go through stages when they need more attention and comfort temporarily. It often happens during stressful events or major changes. You’ll also need to be alert for when they’re giving cues that they are getting tired or hungry. I notice, for example, that my toddler can happily play independently, but when he is hungry or tired, he’s going to demand attention.
Be kind to yourself too. There are days that everything goes well in the family’s routine, that you get to check off everything in your to-do list and follow all the advice in that course you took on being an intentional parent. There may be days when everything can get chaotic and you question your parenting and homemaking skills. This does not make us bad parents. This is part of the natural ups and downs of family life.
You can balance spending time with your kids and giving them chances to practice relying on themselves. Independent play makes parenting easier and more effective. You gain more time for yourself, and your children learn how to become happy and resilient adults.