10 Easy ways to encourage your child to play alone and happy
Why is independent play important?
The importance of play for children is one of the few things experts across the world agree on. It is shown time and again, that play helps to shape healthy relationships and encourage development.
Scientists also suggest play is just as important for adults. We all thrive with more fun and laughter in our lives!
Yet, as we know, it is impossible to play with your kids ALL the time.
It is good for your kids to play alone. This is not just so you can get things done, although that is a wonderful, and often necessary, result, particularly at the moment!
Rachel Giannini, Early Childhood Specialist and Content Creator at Chicago Children’s Museum, explains, “It’s important for children to find joy in themselves. A built-in playmate in life is not a guarantee, and children need to learn how to entertain themselves.” Independent play fosters creativity, independence and curiosity.
Dr. Emmi Pikler believed children could do this from birth that even the youngest infants are capable self-learners, able to initiate play and exploratory activities.
Is it ever too late to encourage independent play?
A recurring complaint from frustrated parents is that their kids “can’t play on their own” or their children, “need constant attention” or “have to have someone with them.”
I sympathise enormously, I was that parent, I couldn’t go to the loo by myself! I wanted my son to be content being alone, to happily create his own entertainment, to let his imagination run wild! And yet, I couldn’t do the simplest task without him pulling on my sleeve.
As I discovered, fostering independent play takes time and patience. Some children are naturally more content with their own company but for others, playing independently can be a struggle. The more I understood, the more I realised it was ME who had inadvertently stopped him from being able or interested in playing alone. I had made my son reliant on me for entertainment, I had constantly played ‘for’ him in the early stages of his life.
It is never too late to encourage your children to play independently. We all want to raise self-reliant, confident and curious children and it is easier than you think!
10 Top Tips for independent play
1) Yes Space. Create an area that is dedicated entirely to the child. This does not need to be a dedicated playroom, as many do not have the luxury of space. It is was an idea created by early childhood educator, Magda Gerber. The "yes space" can be in the sitting room or their bedroom. Create an area in which the child is completely safe to be left and nothing they can touch, do you have to say “no” too, so they don’t need supervision.
2) Routine. Play comes so naturally to kids that this shouldn’t be a task! Janet Lansbury suggests introducing it into your routine, at a similar time, so kids come to expect it. Morning, after breakfast, is usually the best time, as children are alert and ready for the day. Before supper is harder when everyone is tired and hungry!
3) Total Focus. Let your child know you have things to do but before you do it, give your child total focus and attention for 10-15 minutes or so, so they will be more content to be left alone
4) Offer Inspiration. You can create an invitation to play by laying out toys or objects, to help inspire play, so the child is already engaged when you leave.
5) Let the child explore. Kids can play independently with you there, observe and be mindful of their play without directing it or leading it. You can reflect without intervening. This is a wonderful step towards your child playing alone without you being there.
A) Open-Ended. Choose more open-ended toys to leave out. So toys that don’t “do” just one thing for example, building blocks, tea sets, dressing up, train sets, climbing triangle or Pikler triangle, wobble board. Try and avoid battery operated flashy toys, as it captures the attention in the immediate time but doesn't sustain it. More open-ended toys helps to stimulate the imagination.
B) Toy Rotation. Only leave out a few toys and put the others away to be “found” on another day. It is amazing how exciting the train set is again once it’s been put away for a week.
7) Be honest. Don’t sneak off, tell your child where you are going. Sound confident in your decision, “I need to go and do X” – as if you are not comfortable, how can your child be?
8) Go slow. The first few times you leave, don’t go far, come back and check in. It will take time if your child is used to being dependent on you. Your child may only play for a few minutes the first few times. If you need to set a timer – 5 minutes the first day, 7 minutes the next etc, age dependent, and be realistic in your goals.
9) Don’t interrupt. I will say it again, don’t interrupt. Kids don’t need praise to play. If they call out to you, of course don’t ignore them, but be confident that you are busy and explain you will come when you are finished.
10) Parallel Play. Encouraging your child to play independently doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. Your child might be drawing, building, dressing up while you work, pay bills or complete household chores in the same room.
The bonus point:
Chores. If you are doing household chores and your child wants to join in, let them or indeed, actively encourage them. Offer the choice. Slow your tasks down to suit their speed, engage them in the activity and then they will likely help. Your incompetent but engaged toddler will turn into a independently helpful 7 year old and here is how!
Tell us your ideas on how to encourage independent play. We would love to hear how you get on!