10 Strategies to Foster Independent Play
Published Date: 07/17/20
From an early age children desire independence. “I can do it myself!” they say. But it seems that as much as they want to do things themselves, independent play doesn’t come as soon as many parents would like. You keep buying toys hoping they’ll hold your child’s attention span for longer than five minutes so you can get something - anything - done. But no,
your child requires your seemingly presence 24/7.
Fostering independent play has tremendous benefits for your child’s development.
- It enhances your child's creativity and breeds imagination.
- Your child will develop self-sufficiency, as they will learn to attempt something first, before asking for help.
- It will also enhance their problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills.
- Better problem-solving skills boost self-belief. If they keep looking to you for help, their self-confidence will shatter.
- It helps in creating discipline, routine, and improves the sense of security.
Renowned parenting educator Janet Lansbury writes, “In the 20 years I’ve been working with parents and their infants and toddlers, I have yet to meet a child incapable of reaping the joys and benefits of self-directed play. I’ve noticed that the problems with play are primarily ours, not our children’s. And that’s good news, because it means it’s also in our power to remedy the issue.”
So, how do you foster independent play?
Landsbury reminds us that it is our job to keep children busy and entertained and yes, that means playing with your children. It doesn’t mean you have to be on the floor playing pretend all day every day.
1. Set boundaries and expectations
While as a parent it is your job to keep children busy and entertained, it’s also your job to set limits. Let your child know that you will play with them until the game is done and then you will do what it is you need to do. Let them know how long you’ll be doing something else and then return at the time you said, even if you haven’t finished your activity. Following through on what you said not only models good behavior it creates security.
2. Be realistic and start small
As your child gets older, she or he will be able to play alone for longer periods of time. There isn’t a magic number as to how long they’ll be able to do this - a lot depends on your child's temperament. Most two-year olds won't be able to play alone for
an hour. Start with a few minutes at a time and gradually increase the duration.
3. Don’t interfere when your child is playing alone
Some parents have a tendency to jump in when their child is playing alone. Maybe they’re struggling with a puzzle or not using a toy as intended. Resist the urge to jump in. Give them space and only help if specifically asked.
4. Limit the amount of toys you have
This may seem counterintuitive to developing independent play, but too many toys can be overwhelming. In Germany, studies have been done on the impact of eliminating toys in childcare centers. One study showed that after three months of no toys, children had improved social interaction, creativity, communication, and empathy and that children could better
manage their boredom and frustration. While not all child development experts agree on eliminating toys, they do agree that too many toys isn’t a good thing. Be selective and keep them age-appropriate. Rotate toys in and out every few months to keep them fresh and interesting.
5. Use a balance of open- and closed-ended toys.
Open-ended toys, like blocks and clothes for dramatic play, can be played with in a number of different ways. They’re better at fostering independence, creativity, and imagination than closed-ended toys. However, some closed-ended toys, like books and puzzles, are fantastic for a child’s development. With closed-ended toys, skip the plastic ones with bells and whistles. They’re often expensive, have a short shelf life, and do little to hold a child’s attention for an extended period of time.
6. Create parallel play
Parallel play is when children play alongside each other without really interaction. You can do the same with your child to encourage independent play. For example, when you read a
book, have your child sit beside you reading or coloring. You’ll be modeling behavior for your child to imitate.
7. Limit screens
Yes, it’s nearly impossible for your child to avoid all screen time. And sometimes mama just needs a break. But limit the amount of time your child is in front of a TV or iPad. Pay attention to the type of content your child is interacting with. A TV show or movie requires a long attention span whereas YouTube videos and apps do not. The constant jumping between apps or videos can harm your child’s path to independent play.
8. Include independent play in your everyday routine
As Dr. Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” Play is how children learn and they need plenty of time for it daily. During your child’s normal playtime give them plenty of
opportunities for independent play.
9. Be consistent
When you establish boundaries and limits, enforce them and be consistent. Don’t expect that your child will suddenly play alone for an hour when they’ve never played solo for more than a few minutes. The change will come gradually.
10. Praise the desired behavior
Whenever you’re seeking to change a child’s behavior, it’s best done by focusing on the positive. After your child is done playing independently, praise them for it. “You did such a great
job playing alone - you must be very creative and imaginative!” Big hugs and big kisses. Children want to please parents and hearing your praise will motivate them to continue doing it.
In the end, remember that toddlers, babies, and children of every age go through stages where they will desire to be more or less independent. Change happens with you consistently setting limits and as your child ages. Heap praise on children when they’re done playing independently and you’ll encourage your child to continue doing it.
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