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How to Encourage Independent Play in Kids

How to Encourage Independent Play in Kids

With social distancing still top of mind, we spoke to experts about how to encourage and facilitate independent play in little ones.

Playdates are a great opportunity for children to learn social skills and build healthy relationships. But with social distancing remaining a priority and with many quintessential summer experiences still uncertainties, independent play has perhaps never been so important. Jefra Rees is an Early Childhood Educator at Pono—New York City’s only democratic, outdoor, urban, educational program—and a staunch advocate of how independent play helps to build autonomy, self-reliance, and problem-solving skills, increases focus, attention span, and creativity, and allows you and your child to discover their natural interests.

“In our fast-paced world surrounded by screens and technology, we sometimes need to take a step back and understand that many of the things we do for our children may hinder them from developing these important skills,” says Daniel Sinyor, MD, pediatrician at Crystal Run Healthcare.

In addition to the major developmental pluses of a child who engages in independent play is the obvious relief of not having to constantly entertain your kiddo. Think of it as a good thing that you can take yourself out of the driver’s seat and let your little one take the lead. So how can it be done? We asked four experts for their input on encouraging independent play.

The Benefits of Independent Play

Sylvia Boyle and Tsion Teckle, founders of KidOvation Stage, tout independent play for its benefits when it comes to developing executive function, which affects a child’s ability to self-regulate and control impulses. What’s more, independent play helps a child build their confidence and independence. What greater satisfaction is there than completing a puzzle all by yourself? Or building a block tower that you can later show Mommy and Daddy?

“While group play is extremely important to a child’s social and emotional development, independent play creates a space for children to be self-reliant, imaginative, and, most importantly, assists in bringing out a sense of creativity and curiosity that children naturally have,” say Boyle and Teckle. According to Boyle and Teckle, these skills are critical to a child’s overall health, development, and future success. 

How to Encourage Independent Play

“Play is natural for children. They don’t really need to be taught to play as much as they need to be given the opportunity,” say Boyle and Teckle. The key to fostering seamless independent play is creating a safe, open space for children to be free to explore and make a mess and let their imaginations take off. There should be few, if any, limits in their play space. And parents should also be careful not to overfill the space with too many toys, which can distract a child from getting deeply, wonderfully involved in any one toy or activity. Make sure the space is tidy and well-organized when the child enters so they can easily access everything. 

Research shows independent play can begin as early as 6 months, say Boyle and Teckle. So you can start small with a play mat and a few baby-safe toys situated in a secure part of your home. Rees says to avoid baby containers like swings, bouncy seats, jumpers, etc. “Not only do they restrict an infant’s natural movement, they can have negative side effects on their development,” she says.

As your baby becomes a toddler, make sure their play space remains a “yes” space, a term coined by parent educator Janet Lansbury. Use babyproofing measures as much as possible, including gates, shelves bolted to the wall, electrical outlet covers, and scan the room for small choking hazards or sharp objects, Sinyor says. 

“A toddler that has access to every room in the house is not going to play independently for very long,” Rees advises. You can introduce or swap out new toys and materials that embrace their natural creativity or interests. Once your kiddo is clearly gravitating towards specific types of play, you can provide new objects to encourage those passions, while adding in a diversity of playthings to maybe spark new interests.

Don’t forget that having a child who plays well independently means you are also providing them with their undivided attention sometimes. Give your child at least 15 minutes of your total presence each day where you engage them with songs and books and describe their environment. “A child who feels secure and receives healthy doses of attention throughout the day will more likely engage in independent play,” says Sinyor.

And then just remember to step away so they can run with the fun. At this point completely remove yourself from play either physically (if safe) or psychologically by not engaging in what’s going on. It may be tempting to ask thought-provoking questions and engage in your child’s free play but that can have the opposite of the intended effect and actually interrupt a child’s thought process, Boyle and Teckle add.

Best Toys for Independent Play

There’s the old joke that kids enjoy playing with big boxes more than the gifts that came inside of them. And there’s lots of truth to that. Rees recommends having a few quality and open-ended play objects—they don’t even have to be toys. A collection of oversized cardboard boxes can make for some amazing building materials. Boyle and Teckle also recommend building sets, gears, blocks, and Magnatiles for mini architecture enthusiasts. Plain wooden figurines, stuffed animals, action figures, dolls, and animal figurines all help inspire some make believe. While a basket of various hats or props are perfect for dramatic play.

Boyle and Teckle also encourage some artsy materials like Playdough and creating a designated area for water coloring or paint exploration that is accessible (and acceptable!) without support from a caregiver. It could even mean "painting" rocks with just water and some brushes. And don’t underestimate the thrill of playing outside with water. Simply fill a plastic storage container with water and add animal figurines, droppers, funnels, measuring cups, and more. Kids will know what to do! Just be sure to “carefully curate your toy selection and avoid clutter,” Rees adds. What’s more, look for things that can be used in myriad ways not just in one specific manner. Sinyor says objects kids can twist, move, and manipulate will keep them more engaged than toys with an on/off button or overstimulating activities that involve screens and other electronics

Remember to be Patient

If your child doesn’t make immediate progress with independent play, try to be patient. It can be a major challenge for some children in the beginning. But all children are capable of doing it, Rees says.

“This is why introducing this skill as early as you possibly can could be life changing for your child and the whole family,” say Boyle and Teckle. So remember to start with realistic expectations: 5 minutes at first, gradually building up to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and then more. Sinyor says an 18-month-old may play independently for 15 minutes while a 2-year-old will spend 30 minutes or more.

“You can help to build up their tolerance level by letting them know you’ll be leaving for a few minutes and then coming back,” Rees says. And try to find the time of day where your child is most amenable to solo play. For many families this is right after a meal or any time your kiddo isn’t going to be hungry or tired, Boyle and Teckle recommend. Then just make sure the activities and toys you offer are age-appropriate and engaging, and be consistent about presenting opportunities for your child to enter that “playing happily by herself” zone. 

It’s a good idea to build independent play time into your family routine. Kids will even start to anticipate the designated time and will be more likely to engage the behavior, says Sinyor. Additionally, parents should become adept at recognizing when their children are self engaged outside of scheduled independent play time. “Play doesn’t always mean sitting down playing with toys. It can be daydreaming and thinking,” Rees says. So try not to disrupt a child who is content being alone in the moment. 

Free play is like a muscle that has to be exercised. So be sure to make time and space for it each and every day. Then, just sit back and let the play magic unfold.

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Whitney C. Harris

Author: Whitney C. Harris is a freelance writer and NYMetroParents' Manhattan and Westchester calendar editor. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, NY, with her husband, a toddler, and a dog. See More

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