Fostering Independent Play
We all love the quiet time that can come when our kids play independently. This gives us a chance to get some housework done without our children hanging off us, or if we are lucky sit with a cuppa. There are days where it seems like our kids may never learn to play independently, but all is not lost. Below we will detail all the ways that you can foster independent play in your home.
The first step to fostering independent play is to provide as many open-ended resources as possible. This provides many opportunities for your children to grow with the toys and use them in many different applications. Learning to use open-ended toys in creative new ways can take some time, so if you are new to having open-ended toys in your house, prepare for a transition period.
When you present open-ended toys, you can start fostering independent play by setting up an idea for play. As an example, you may set out blocks, people and loose parts and talk about setting up houses for the people, and then let the children set up houses of their own for their own people. Let them narrate where the play should go next with some simple questions like what will they do in their house, or what else might they need in this town.
Once a child is engrossed in play, they will quite capably play independently, allowing you to move away slowly.
Allow independence to grow in other areas
Fostering independent play, like all things, is impacted on the way that you approach other areas of life. If you allow independence to naturally develop in other areas, such as allowing children to feed themselves, dress themselves or at least choose what they want to wear you’ll see a surge in their independent play.
If you follow a Montessori or Steiner inspired parenting style you will be more familiar with allowing for independent action, and independent play may be something that develops naturally in your house overtime. If you make all the choices for your child in every aspect of their life, they won’t vocalise their need for independence, instead they’ll most likely show their desire to have independence in ways you don’t want.
To really allow independent play to happen, allow independence to happen in other areas of life.
Follow creative thoughts
When a child plays independently, it can be amazing to hear what play they engage in. There are so many insightful comments, so many creative thoughts and as play progresses the creativity deepens. It can be one of the most amazing things to witness and it can validate a lot of choices, even such as choosing open-ended toys, which can be more expensive. Engaging in creative play has many benefits for later in life and the earlier your child can explore creative play the greater the benefits. When we foster independent play with our children, they feel they can be their most creative, because they don’t feel the pressure to play a particular way, or to follow ideas that will appease others. They can explore new ideas and thoughts that they may not have felt comfortable doing before, which unlocks more creativity. This is such a beneficial cycle that will continue giving. Allowing the space for your children to engage in creative play their own way will allow for their own independent play.
Be aware of how many times you might be interjecting to “correct” your child’s play. If it is happening often, chances are they won’t play independently and instead will wait for you to direct the play.
Create a play set-up and sit for a few minutes
If your child is a bit reluctant to play independently, you can help them by creating a play set-up and sitting with them to help engage in play before you move away.
Play set-ups don’t need to be difficult, if you grab a few open-ended resources and place them in a pile you can start engaging in great play just by making a suggestion. You might suggest creating a town and add to the storyline of why the town is important. Re-creating a favourite book or common idea like pretending to build a farm and using animals is also great. Once there is an idea for play, allow your child to drive the storyline and add what they want. If you sit with them and passively play, you’ll slowly be able to retreat and watch in amazement as your child plays independently, driving their own play and stories.
Choose the right time to allow independent play
Might sound like a no brainer but choosing the right time to encourage open-ended play and independent play is important. Our children look to us to set the routine, and most tantrums can be avoided if the expectation of time is set well in advance.
If I know we need to leave the house to run errands or drop my older child at school in 10 minutes, I don’t encourage my children to start building a ball run or tower. That will only end in disappointment when in the middle of their play I need to ask them to leave. Imagine starting a really engrossing movie and being told halfway through that you need to stop and do a task you don’t want to do at that moment, you would be so frustrated!
Alternatively, it is not the best idea to encourage your children to play independently right before dinner or bedtime, when they’re hungry or tired and may be needing some extra assistance from you until they can eat/go to sleep. They won’t be in the right frame of mind to start playing independently and they won’t have the emotional capacity for engaging in play where they need to drive the story.
Take their play seriously
This one is important. Sometimes we can minimise the impact of play and the learning opportunities for our children. When your child plays independently and creates play scenarios you may notice that they will refuse to pack away their toys. This isn’t because they want to leave the play space a mess, but rather that they are proud of their work, and they want to come back and finish the play at another time.
As much as you can allow, take the play seriously and don’t force your children to pack down unnecessarily. Play is the work of the child as Maria Montessori so correctly identified.
Create a “Yes” space
Have you ever noticed how many times you say no to your child during a day?
Creating a “yes” space doesn’t mean granting every single desire your child has, but it does mean creating a space in your home where they can be “in charge”. Janet Lansbury coined the term “yes” space as a way to encourage families to allow their children some independence in their play and also their learning.
A “yes” space is great for fostering independent play as children learn to engage in meaningful play with the space and the toys within it. This also boosts their confidence for independent play because they know they can keep building on their play within their own little space.
Fostering children to play independently isn’t necessarily about ignoring your children during the day, although it can allow you to have a breather and regain some focus, particularly on the hard days.
Fostering independent play in children allows for creativity to grow and allows for your child to show their play which will be as unique as their personality. It allows so many learning opportunities and the developmental benefits are vast. Independent play is such a great way for your children to grow and develop.