Teaching Our Child the Gift of Independent Play
My partner and I have two children, who are four years apart in age. As anxious and loving new parents, we participated in our oldest child’s play as much as we could, and as early as we could. From infancy, we joined our oldest on the floor to show interest in his world, communicate with him in the language he speaks (play), and demonstrate his importance and value to us. As a Registered Play Therapist, I teach parents daily about the importance of child’s play and how children learn, problem solve, communicate, express, and work through their feelings, all through play. I also educate families about how much love and significance a child feels when parents join in the activities that bring joy to the child; it builds connection! And as we know, when children are more connected, they are generally more cooperative. So much good comes from playing with your children!
When we only had one child, giving him our undivided attention was not very challenging during a typical week. As we neared the birth of our second child, however, we realized a mis-step we had made – in an effort to show love to our child through our constant play with him, we robbed him of gifts that independent play offers. At four years old, he would struggle to find ways to entertain himself and needed our constant involvement with him. When we were unable to play, we noticed he would become upset. With big feelings comes big behaviors, and so when asked to spend a few moments with himself doing independent play, we repeatedly experienced tantrums. With a new baby on the way, my partner and I realized we needed to help him develop the skill of independent play quickly.
Being an introvert, I have no memory of ever having a hard time being by myself, so I had no personal experience to draw from here. As a Play Therapist, however, I worked with kids in the playroom all the time! I decided to develop a “treatment plan” for our child, with the primary goal being for him to be able to participate in independent play for at least 30 minutes at a time. Here’s some reflections I can offer on this process, now that our son will play independently for well over an hour if left to do so.
- We set some boundaries around play time. Research study after study shows us the negative impact all the screens around us have on our physical, mental, and emotional health. You can learn more about Why We Should Limit Screen Time here. For this reason, we decided to limit screens during play time. Screens contribute to a passive entertainment. It shuts down creative thinking, problem solving, and expression. Now don’t get me wrong – we use plenty of screens at our house, but we also have some boundaries around their use so that we are not missing out on connection with one another and time for creative expression.
- We explained why this skill was important to learn. Oftentimes we forget that children value the “why” behind a change to the typical dynamic. We explained the following to our son, “Spending time alone is really helpful for everyone. It lets us calm our minds and our bodies and it lets us be creative and find fun ways to spend time by ourselves. Everyone needs alone time, including Momma and Daddy and YOU. So we are going to practice independent play, which means play by yourself. We are going to practice every day, which will give all of us some time alone to calm our bodies and minds. You get to pick what you do during your independent playtime, except it cannot involve screen-time.”
- Small steps take you in the right direction. Every skill developed needs practice. We started in small increments of play time with our son as he learned how to entertain himself. At first, our goal was simply 3-4 minutes. I would stay nearby, such as in our kitchen, and encourage him to play in the living room with his chosen toys. Once he successfully reached being able to tolerate 5-10 minutes of independent play, I would increase the time of our next day’s goal by a couple of minutes. Since we practiced this over the pandemic, we had plenty of time at home to develop this skill. If you practice less frequently than every day or so, be prepared to have a slower pace toward your target goal time.
- Redirections were necessary. At first our son resisted this plan. He felt alone in his play because we had not given him the gift of space that independent play offers. He had not developed the agency needed to ask oneself, “What do I want to do right now?” When he complained of being bored or did not want to have independent play time, we stuck with kind and firm responses such as, “Yeah, this is hard for you to practice a new skill to entertain yourself (connect with him empathetically), but boredom is actually gift because when you’re bored, your creativity will show you how to spend your time. I know you’ll find something that interests you (firmness).” Or you could simply say, “I’m not in charge of your boredom. I trust you will find something to do in the playroom.”
- Everyone’s play is different. While I may have spent my independent play as child playing pretend with my stuffed animals and barbies, or by creating stinky, muddy concoctions outside, not every child’s play is the same. While teaching this skill, I tried to engage my son with many of the same play experiences that brought me joy as a child. When I would introduce these ideas and then sneak away, he would play for a moment or two and then give up, complaining of boredom. With gentle redirections to let his creativity show him what is fun, he was able to develop his skill over time. I then realized that his playtime is just really different than mine, and that’s okay! Instead of pretend play, his favorite independent play time is using art supplies to create art, or by re-arranging the couch cushions and blankets to make forts or obstacle courses. He now spends large amounts of time doing these types of play and has fun doing it!
- Connection afterward is also important. After everyone has had some alone time, or as we call it at our house, “Quiet Time” (which isn’t really quiet, more so independent) we reconnect. If he has created something, I enjoy looking at it. Or if he has made an obstacle course we will go through it together or I will time him to see how fast he can go through it. This step is important because of all the reasons above about joining our child’s world through play. By reconnecting after disconnected time, we are saying “I value you and what you’ve been creating/doing. You are important.”
With our second child, we’re now trying to balance joining play but also allowing the skill of independent play to develop! Sometimes that means just sitting back and letting them do their thing, waiting for an invitation from them to join us rather than inserting ourselves uninvited. Isn’t parenting all about learning what our kids need and making adjustments in our behavior to help them along the way? Even playtime requires adjustments at times!