How often do your children play quietly by themselves? So many children today are over-scheduled and over-stimulated. They are attached to their electronic devices and play with toys that don’t leave much to the imagination. On top of that, parents are bombarded with so much information about stimulating their children. They start believing that as parents their role is to engage their children in some stimulating activity every second of the day. This is when parents start to believe that their input and direction is needed in order for their children to develop and learn – But this could not be further from the truth.
“Be careful what you teach, it might interfere with what they are learning”– Magda Gerber
See, when we start dictating our children’s every move, usually with our fixed outcome in mind (the blocks should be stacked, the puzzle needs to be finished, the book should be read cover to cover..), we’re unknowingly interfering in a very important, delicate process of individualised learning that no one can navigate with greater precision than our children themselves!
When our children get used to our constant input and outside direction they too often loose the ability to play independently.
Independent play has so many incredible benefits to children, it allows children the freedom to explore and create on their own. During free independent play children create and execute ideas, test hypothesis, learn about them selves and their like’s and dislikes, they learn to focus on tasks, solve their own problems, practice getting into deep flow, be creative and imaginative.
Spending time alone is also deeply therapeutic (to all of us!) and for our children to truly flourish they need plenty of peaceful down time to wind down and get in touch with themselves. It really brings about inner-peace like nothing else. After all, at the core of a healthy self-esteem is the ability to be comfortable with yourself. It is incredibly valuable for our little ones to learn how to enjoy their own company.
Not to mention the peaceful energy independent play brings to our home, creating pockets of time for parents to get things done around the house, make a phone call or just simply enjoy their cup of coffee while it’s still hot!
Fostering independent play takes conscious effort and awareness. And there are many ways we can support children in being more content with their own company during play. For some children playing independently can be a struggle, particularly if they have been entertained frequently as infants or had play done for them early on.
I would say the easiest way to foster independent play is definitely to start early but for those out there with older children there are other ways we can encourage independent play in our children.
Here are 7 ways we can help our children play independently:
We can support independent play in important ways for day one by trying not to interrupt infants when they are focused on something (looking at the shadow on the wall or observing their own hands)
Practice not placing toys or objects in our young children’s hands, but rather lay few items around the infant on a playmat for them to discover and learn to reach for themselves.
Choose toys and play objects well
Choose open ended toys and objects that spar creativity and imagination. “Passive toys make active learners” – Magda Gerber
Less is more: Less toys usually means longer play. Declutter, declutter, declutter – minimalist playroom should be our goal here!
Keep toys organised and don’t rotate them too much. Try putting toys in open baskets for easy access and also in the right shelf height for your little one.
Don’t play FOR them or take over their play:
I always say that the best way to make our children loose interest in an activity is when we take over it. We so often start playing FOR our kids, making the tower bigger for them, helping too much with the puzzle, drawing for them, dressing the dolls, you get the idea.
Not only does it usually act as an unnecessary interruption for them and keeps them form getting lost in their own, deep, independent play they also get dependent on us playing the role of the “entertainer” and helping them whenever they get a bit stuck or frustrated during their play.
Overpraising our kids 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.
For independent play to last long it needs to be fuelled by our children’s intrinsic motivation.
So praising the outcome: “Amazing tower!” “Wow beautiful picture!!” etc. can stifle creativity when children become too heavily focused on the end results of their play or projects. It may shift their focus from enjoying the process (their natural state) to focusing too heavily on what they produce which can then result in them becoming more afraid of making mistakes and not as willing to, explore and try new things.
Give your child plenty of undivided attention during playtime
For our kids to be able to play well independently we need to prioritise regularly filling up their cup by giving them our undivided attention and full presence during their play.
What this looks like is we regularly sit in their playspace with no distractions and focus on sensitively observing and enjoying them. It is truly therapeutic both for us and our kids.
When we are present for their play we don’t do much actually; we don’t even comment or say much to them unless they glance up at us in the first place. That is when we show them that they have our full attention and we gently comment on what they are dong with curiosity and genuine interest:
“I see you put all the blocks inside the big truck!:)” – (simply describing what we see is what we do instead of over-praising)
Magda Gerber called this time “Wants Nothing Quality Time”. Sometimes this is how an independent play session starts in my home, I’m there with them and enjoying watching them play, then when they are deeply engaged I’ll tell them that I’ll be in the other room and they will keep going no problem.
Allow for boredom
It’s important to allow for and give space for boredom! Allowing our children to be bored without worrying or feeling responsible for fixing it is actually a great gift, but why?
Because to be inert, without ideas – feeling bored often leads to the most creative places!
Boredom is a healthy part of life and it happens for a reason.
“Playing doesn’t always need to look like we might envision it – drumming one’s finger on the arm of the couch or doing nothing at all, just “being” is enough.” – Janet Lansbury
Limit screen time
My view is that we should limit screen time as much as possible in the early years. If you do offer screens try to do so at the end of the day, or late afternoon. Morning time is when children have the most energy, physical and mental, for creating play.
Research definitely shows the passive entertainment negatively affects kids’ concentration and focus; they become more dazed throughout the day and have a harder time starting themselves in creative play and stay focused.
Hope this was helpful, happy playing!