9 Tips for Teaching Kids to Play Independently

Dr. Laura….I have free play time on our schedule every morning after their schoolwork, just like you recommend. But when I tell my kids to go play, they beg for screens, they whine that they don’t know what to do, they don’t have any good toys, they need me to play with them. This is the only chance I have to get any work done, and I need that time. Why can’t they play by themselves?!”

Why indeed? Consider these scenarios.

  • The baby mouths her rattle happily. Dad coos at her, takes the rattle and shakes it loudly so she can see how it works.
  • The two year old has a new classic toy: spools and a cord to string them on. He piles them into a column, then tries to drop the cord down through the holes. “Like this,” says Mom, deftly threading the spools onto the cord.
  • The three year old turns the handle on the jack in the box so that it pops up. “Good job!” says Dad.
  • The four year old is painting, swirling all the colors together. “When you mix them all, everything turns brown and all the pretty colors go away,” says Mom.
  • The five year old is constructing a marble run. “Why don’t you make it higher at the start, so it goes for longer?” asks Dad.

As parents, we love to teach our children. But any educator can tell you that humans learn best when they discover for themselves. And since children learn through play, interrupting our child’s play to teach them not only reduces their curiosity and excitement about learning, it lessens the joy that the child experiences from independent play.

That’s because we’re teaching our children a lesson that we never intended: We’re the experts on play, just as on everything else. We have the good ideas. To play the “right” way, they need us to play with them. We, the adults, are in charge of play. (Ridiculous, right?)

So from their earliest experiences, children learn that they need our help to play. We compound this problem by over-scheduling our children, so they’re always en route from one activity to another, which doesn’t leave much time for independent play. Then, when our children do have a few minutes without anything to occupy them, we respond to pleas of boredom by entertaining our kids with screens, which keeps them from developing their “play muscles.”

And then, suddenly, we’re confined to our homes and our children expect us to entertain them and play with them!

So if you’ve found yourself wishing that your child would play by him or herself more often, and for longer periods of time, you don’t need to feel guilty about that. Sure, it would be good for you, so you can get something done without having to put your child in front of a screen. But independent play is also good for your child, as long as they’re also getting plenty of connection time with you.

Research shows that children who regularly lose themselves in play develop qualities that will help them master whatever they pursue for the rest of their lives, including increased capacities to problem-solve, persevere, focus, manage frustration, and use their imaginations to create.

Play is how children learn, explore, and process big emotions.  Play is how children experience their environment and who they are in various situations, which means that play is how children discover who they are. So play is children’s work, how they “become” themselves. And simply from the perspective of enjoying life with children, play is what keeps children happy and absorbed, so they aren’t whining or fighting.

9 Tips for Teaching Kids to Play Independently

1. Respect Your Child’s Play.

Research shows that children play more deeply when they have longer periods of time in which to immerse themselves without interruption.

What’s deep play? Think of it as the experience you have when you lose yourself in creativity or work — you’re in “the zone,” fully engaged, exploring, discovering, applying yourself fully, creating. The inner monologue is suspended — that’s the “losing yourself” part — and you’re fully present and alive.  That’s play, and it revitalizes and refreshes the brain and our very sense of self.

Children can play with others, or by themselves. They can pretend, build, explore how things feel in their hands, move their bodies, watch others playing, even watch the dust motes in a shaft of light.

That’s the kid’s job. Our job is to respect our child’s play as their “job,” something of value, so that we support their play, just like we would support our partner’s work.

2. Create an inviting place and time in the schedule.

Children do best with a schedule, which helps them know what to expect and lessens anxiety. It they know that every day after breakfast (for instance), they’ll have a chance to play, they’ll look forward to that time and get into play more quickly.

A safe place for play gives your child the experience of autonomy, so they don’t need the constant, distracting hovering of an adult. Set up clear places for kids to do messy play like art versus a construction zone for building things and a cozy quiet corner to read or dream. Use washable art supplies, make sure kids know to keep messes on a tray or cookie sheet, and expect some mess.

3. Fill your child’s cup first.

If your child resists independent play, make sure they’re routinely getting enough of your attention to feel “full,” and that they’ve had a chance to work through any upsets or anxiety they feel so they can more easily settle into play.

  • Every day, include 20 minutes of Special Time in the schedule, where you actively play with each child individually — and enjoy it!
  • Use roughhousing to give your child a good session of laughter a couple of times a day, which lessens anxiety.
  • Connect with your child emotionally and physically throughout your day, by being empathic and responsive when they need you.
  • While you’re moving your child through the schedule (dressing, brushing teeth, changing diapers, having meals), try to be fully present and warmly engaged with your child, so that they experience you as emotionally responsive.

4. Get your child started on something.

Some children will get right into play. Others will need your help to get started. And it won’t help to tell them “Go play!” which just makes them feel like you don’t want to be with them. Those children need a transition.

Set aside ten minutes to admire your child as you watch them play.  Say “Soon we will have free play time, while you play whatever you want and I do a little work. But before we do that, let’s take ten minutes so I can watch you play. I LOVE to watch you play.”

Then, turn off your phone. Set a timer. Sit and admire your child while he or she plays. Comment judiciously so your child knows you are really paying attention: “You’re adding a bridge to your train track…. That engine is going so fast!” Empathize with your child’s excitement and interest, but keep your comments minimal. Your admiration is filling your child’s cup and validating your child’s play as something your child knows how to do that is of value. Just pour your full warm, loving attention into your child.

What if your child can’t get started on something? Ask your child how to use a toy or to show you how they do something. The key is to follow your child’s lead. They’re the expert. Resist the urge to evaluate, judge, make suggestions, or tell your child what to do or how to do it. This is your child’s project and they’re in charge of it. If your child gives you a role to play, ask for direction: “Do you want this train to go fast or slow?” 

Then, gradually extract yourself. Tell your child you’re going to check on something in the kitchen, and you’ll be right back. Do come back, hover and attend for a few minutes, then extract yourself again. Once your child is lost in play, he won’t need you there.

5. Encourage deep play. 

When we interrupt play, the child has to start over, so it keeps the child from playing deeply.  So try not to interrupt a playing child and protect your child’s playtime as much as possible, including from yourself. Treat play as important work that you try not to interrupt, and make that attitude clear to everyone in your family. For instance, if your older child is building something and needs to concentrate, try to keep your younger child otherwise occupied. Simple classical music can facilitate concentration and lift moods, but keep TV and radio voices off. (Listening to NPR while you cook? Great! Wear headphones. Young children shouldn’t listen to the news anyway.)  If your child is happily playing, let the schedule go for now.

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