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How to Promote Independent Play

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Audrey Woods, Staff Therapist, M.A., NCC, Edmond Family Counseling

Whether your kiddo is a toddler or a teenager, we all need a few minutes to get stuff done throughout the day. Have you ever been trying to cook dinner while your toddler desperately grasps at your shins as though they are being ripped away from you by a tiger? I have. Suffice it to say this experience is less than pleasant. Playing independently is an imperative skill.

Some humans are born with a more innate ability to do their own thing while others enjoy the company of others as they explore. But make no mistake, while temperament may influence your child’s tendency to play independently, it is a skill that must be taught and facilitated by you, the parent. When I say ‘play independently,’ I mean occupy themselves with something in the same room or perhaps a different room for a length of time, maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, during which they do not try to engage you in any way. Sounds wonderful, right? Of course it does. There is zero guilt warranted in wanting your child to be able to manage themselves for stretches of time! This is a healthy, necessary skill they must develop with your help. So how do you help them develop this skill?

Here’s the gist of it: back off. We parents are consistently told how ‘present’ we must be for our children. Set down your phone! Make eye contact! Talk constantly to promote vocabulary! This pressure to be present with our children has unintentionally created some pretty intense helicopter parenting. When you are constantly interacting with your babies, you set a baseline expectation for all experiences involving you. Children become accustomed to a constant presence, physically and emotionally, and never know what it feels like to have some awake alone time. So when all of the sudden (as it does feel sudden for our littles) we expect our toddler to just be able to play for a few minutes while we [insert endless task list here], it does not go well. If this trend continues, we have elementary & middle school kids who don’t know how to entertain themselves without a screen. Many of us have had to face an internet-less world for periods of time or are spending an inordinately greater amount of time with our children lately. I feel for parents of children who don’t have any experience being bored or have the slightest clue as to how manage themselves independently. Here are some more specific tips for how to promote the skill of independent play:

  1. Start early. Like really early. When I see infants surrounded by literal mounds of stuff, I cringe. Keep things simple by limiting the number of toys you offer a baby to say 1-2 at a time and then walk away (to a safe distance; caveat, of course tend to your baby when they need you). Face-time with babies is imperative, but that doesn’t mean 24/7.

  2. For toddlers, consider sensory play! This involves play that offers toddlers very intense physical feedback like sand, water, paint, play dough, etc. This type of play has consistently shown to engage toddler attention for longer. It’s also truly impactful in terms of learning and development. The Parenting Junkie has lots of ideas about how to incorporate safe, minimally messy sensory play.

  3. When you see a child get really into something, stop yourself from offering any feedback. We’ve all seen children become enamored with a random object and we want to encourage their curiosity and say things like “oh look what you found,” “look at you holding that all by yourself.” Stop it. Just watch and don’t say anything. Let your child explore that object in-de-pen-dent-ly!

  4. Make sure your child is getting enough exercise. Don’t underestimate how much toddlers and children need to move!

  5. Start with reasonable expectations. Maybe that’s 2-3 minutes at a time for some kids, eventually reaching higher amounts of time.

There are so many more ideas out there for promoting independent play. I can’t recommend The Parenting Junkie enough as her specialty is just that. These tips are geared toward the younger crowd, but you can always start to promote this skill at any age! I love working with parents who are managing behavior issues or looking for ways to enhance their parenting experience.

Services at Edmond Family Counseling can be obtained by calling 405-341-3554 and learning more! Audrey Woods is a Staff Therapist, M.A., NCC, at Edmond Family Counseling.

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