How to Foster Independent Play
Raising young children during a global pandemic is no picnic. Schools and daycares may be closed, playgroups and playdates might be canceled, and that leaves a lot of one-on-one caregiver time. While spending time with your little one is always a blessing, sometimes you also have to get stuff done. Dishes, laundry, work, and maybe just some you time…the point is, we can’t be all the things to everyone and our kiddos. So how do we help our littles find ways to entertain themselves? The experts say, independent play is the way to go.
Fostering independent play in young children takes time and patience. Some children are naturally more content with their own company, but for others, playing independently can be a struggle, particularly if they have been entertained frequently as infants or had play done for them in the early stage of their toddler life. Here are some ways you can help your kiddo build their imagination while you build in time for other things.
Set up the right type of play space
Passive toys encourage active play. So ditch the battery operated singing-dancing-lights-flashing extravaganza in favor of the tried and true blocks, dolls, kitchen toys, etc. and see what fascinating scenarios your child can create with their own imagination.
Try to separate play from screens
I’m definitely not anti-screens — especially in the day of virtual learning. But passive watching can discourage active play, especially when a TV is on in the background, or a game is available right there. Perhaps having screens available at a separate time or in a separate space than the play area can counterbalance their allure.
Create a space where children can be alone
Make sure their play space is childproof and they are safe to be left alone. If you are constantly hovering and watching that they don’t bump their head or play with a plug, you will be interrupting their play and not allowing them into the flow of play. This will also allow you to go put in a load of laundry or take a shower, once they are immersed in play, without worrying (although best to always be within earshot and to make sure your child knows where to find you).
Use storage that your child can manipulate
If your toy storage is too heavy, too big, or too cumbersome for your children to manage alone, they will inevitably be calling you over for help all the time. Make sure your children “own” their play space so that they can navigate it with mastery, without help.
Treat play as the natural birthright – not a chore or punishment!
Be cautious about your tone of voice and the words that you choose when you discuss play. Instead of making a whole long speech: “Now I’m busy, you need to go play by yourself, don’t disturb me…” try to keep it as light and airy as possible. “You can play now!” Just something that is an easygoing thing, a choice that the child has control over.
Don’t praise, comment or evaluate
Praise inhibits intrinsic satisfaction and meaning. Which means that if you tell your child that they’re “playing so beautifully,” that is actually going to minimize their interest in playing by alone. Do not praise it, do not reward it, certainly don’t punish it. This is not an emotional exchange. This is a birthright that your child has, and you just need to allow it to happen without disrupting it.