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How to encourage independent play in children


How to encourage independent play in children

“How to get children to play on their own?” is one of the many things that most parents wonder about. But it is unreasonable to expect a year old to play on their own for long stretches of time. Teaching kids to play solo is not just so you can get some work done, or maintain your sanity, but crucial for them to learn independence, creativity, and critical-thinking skills. They become much more confident and self-reliant. These are valuable skills to take on into adulthood.

The benefits of Independent Play

There are several reasons why children must learn to play alone. Independent play sharpens their problem-solving skills. You are not the one in charge of calling the shots, it's the child. When they are left to their own devices, they learn new things, discover so much, come up with new ideas and ways to have fun and entertain themselves.

Kids are just beginning to form their own identities. When they begin to be on their own, engage themselves and think of ways to have fun, it can boost their sense of identity.

Kids look to their peers, parents or siblings to engage them or entertain them. But they need to learn to play on their own sometimes because you or other children may not always be around. When kids learn to play solo, they will learn how to self-soothe. They will come to understand that you cannot always be at their beck and call, and there are some things that you must get done and love doing without them. Eventually, they will learn to do certain things on their own too!

Just 15 minutes of solo play can promote positive self-esteem and make us more joyful. Why, even in adults, it can reduce the intensity of anger and nervousness. Solitude helps us to connect deep within ourselves.

A child’s world is full of curiosity and imagination. Just take a step back and watch their creativity unfold!

When you encourage your toddler or preschooler to play on their own, you are also, in a way, preparing them for school because there, he may have to do some stuff on his own. Playing alone will help children develop independence, to be comfortable in their own skin and in any situation. When they play alone for even a few minutes, it prepares them nicely for everything their day holds: school, peer time with friends in the evening, maybe even an evening sleepover.

When they accomplish something on their own - whether it is a drawing, building a tower or putting together all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they will feel a sense of self-esteem.

Ways to encourage independent play in children

When you get kids to be comfortable playing on their own, you don’t have to rush to their side with ideas and suggestions every time they feel bored. Here are some strategies you can try out to encourage solo play in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Take it gradually

If your child is not used to independent play, take it slowly. Start by making them comfortable, and once they are immersed in play, let them know that you are about to leave them for a few minutes before you do so. Never tiptoe away when the child is not looking and come back from your work when you tell them you will.

Create a safe space for your kid

One of the first things to do is to set up a safe play space. The play area should be spacious enough, and you should also be within the child’s eyesight and earshot. Once the child is well engrossed in their play, you can go cook, do your laundry, or take a shower even.

If you are constantly worried that your kid will bump into something, will fall off the furniture and get hurt or will put his hands inside the plug, then you are not setting up a space where they can play freely. Also, playing when there are lots of rules or being told not to do this or that can take the fun out of play and disrupt the deep flow of play.

Children can play on their own only if they feel secure enough. When they look up and see that you are around, or when they call out for you, and you are within their earshot, they will get back to their play without any qualms. Remember, you are not leaving the kid alone; you are letting them play on their own. The play space should not only be safe, but it should also be close to wherever you are as well.

Plug down on screen time during playtime

While some screen time is okay or even much needed in this technology-driven world, it's best to avoid them during playtime. It's best if your child’s play area is separate from the place where the television is blaring, otherwise, they may get distracted.

When they passively sit in front of the couch to watch television, it curbs their interest to play actively and independently. Perhaps, you can separate playtime and screen time, so they get the best out of both worlds!

Limit toys that are over-stimulating

There is one thing that is counterproductive to having kids play on their own. Avoid toys that are overstimulating. This means most-battery operated, flashy toys that dance, sing and make plenty of noise are a big no-no! Children just become passive receptors to these toys, so you are taking them away from toys that bring out their creative side and make their imagination flow.

Remember, passive toys make for active play! These are toys that children can explore.

When toddlers and even older children get too much sensory overload from blinking, flashing, dancing and moving toys - basically any toy that is too extravagant, they will develop a shorter attention span and show less interest and ability to concentrate in active and independent play.
Wooden kitchen set from Bumpy Rides

Limit the number of toys you expose them to

Another important thing when you are promoting independent play is to not have too many toys. Less is good. When there are too many choices, the children will completely be overwhelmed and be turned off.

Keep age-appropriate toys on offer

It’s important to hand them or keep within their reach age-appropriate toys which they can manipulate on their own. If the toys are something beyond their ability to manipulate, then they will seek your guidance and help to play with them. That's perfectly fine, but if you are looking to encourage long stretches of independent play and offer them toys that are beyond their ability, and you will have to give constant help, it will reinforce the idea that you must help them out.

Give them toys and activities that require your support and intervention only every now and then. Kids will become bored if the toys are too easy and frustrated when they are too difficult. Toys that are the right level of challenge should do.

A set of rainbow arches, a ball, a book, a jigsaw puzzle or even a kitchen set is ideal. When you are in the kitchen, you could give them some spoons, a glass, some plastic containers and keep an eye on them as you prepare something.

Keep it fresh

If there are some toys which they haven’t played with for a while, take them out from the closet. Reintroduce them after a few weeks and you will see that their interest in the toy is rekindled.

Play in parallel with them

You can even encourage parallel play by doing something similar to what you expect of your child. For instance, you can do your bills while they play with their crayons. You could read up on something while they read their book. When you do something similar alongside children, they will mirror you and model the behaviour you exhibit.

Manage your expectations

A 2-year-old has only a 5-minute attention span, a 3-year-old around 9 minutes, and a 4-year-old can pay attention for up to 15 minutes. If your baby, toddler or preschooler is new to independent play, then start with 5 minutes before you extend it.

If your child is not too keen on playing solo or doesn’t know how to play independently yet, you may be communicating it with them (inadvertently) by the way you talk, your tone, body language, and the way you set up the space and toys for independent play. Learn to trust your child and his abilities. This is true for solo play and anything else you may want to instill in them.

Don’t offer praise, comments, directions, ideas or evaluations of play

Never entertain the child when they are playing. This means no commenting, no praising, no giving directions - remain passive as much as possible! Studies show that constantly hovering, commenting, evaluating or monitoring inhibit intrinsic interest and motivation for independent play.

While such comments may be well-intended, they will divert their focus. When they are immersed in their play, just let them be in their flow. It may sound a little extreme, but avoid even eye contact if possible! Even interrupting to tell them something positive, like how well they have stacked their building blocks is not a great idea as they will be distracted from their flow of play.

If your kid plays on his own for a while, don’t praise or tell them how good they have been. Or if they don’t play on their own and allow you to do something that needs to be done, then don’t punish them either. They are just doing what they are supposed to do!

Play is a big part of childhood and the most important work they can be doing. Allow them to explore and play in the way they want! Even if you are sitting down with them, avoid fixing or correcting them.

Watch your tone and body language

Play should be about fun times. Don’t make a chore out of it. If you ask them to go play with their toys so you can get some work done, then they may not see playtime as a fun activity. Keep your tone light and cheery. “Why don’t you go play now, we are back from school”. “You are done with snacks. Why don’t you play for a while now?” are good enough.

Allow them to take the lead

Never override or interrupt your child’s play with ideas and directions. This will tell them that what they are doing is wrong and yours is the only right way to do it. Never tell them that their ideas are no good. You may think that a certain way of playing is more fun, more entertaining and more educational. But your child has his own way of playing, which is fun and interesting, according to them.

What you need to do is get down on the floor and show them how it's done without getting too involved or engrossed. Otherwise, it will be about the child watching you play with their toy as opposed to them playing with it. For example, if the child has an ambulance and you want them to play with it, get down on the floor. We say plonk yourself on the floor without squatting or bending over. Otherwise, they will just know that you will leave them to their own devices and flee.

Then imitate the sound of the ambulance, roll the vehicle back and forth to show how it's done and then back off! Some parents will find themselves so excited to play that they may end up paying for more time. The kid will end up playing spectator the whole time! What you want to do is show kids how to play with a toy and back off when they start to play with it and you can get some stuff done.

Be passive, but without being detached or disconnected and follow the child’s way of playing. This way, they will learn even more and you send across the message that their values, ideas and ways of exploring/playing are wonderful.

Make it a routine

Children thrive on routine. Make independent play part of their everyday routine. This could be in the morning, afternoon post-lunch, when they get back home from school in the evening, or sometimes before bed. Whatever works for you and your kid!

When you set up a routine, it helps them ease into the rhythm and they will know what to expect. This way, they will look forward to their “me time” even more!

It is impossible to play with your kid the entire day! A one-year-old can play up to 20 minutes by himself! There are some days when your little one will be super happy to play on their own. But on other days, they will stick by your side and never leave.

Solo play is more than just fun and games. It fosters creativity, boosts their self-esteem, makes them self-reliant no matter if they are alone, in a small group or in a large social set-up, and makes them more confident and independent.

Be patient, be consistent and soon you will realize how nice and peaceful that much-deserved downtime can be. That’s a win-win for both you and your child!

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