Independent Play – One of the best opportunities to build skills crucial for children’s future

With lockdowns at home becoming a new regular thing, our children seem to expect us to entertain and play with them all day. Trying to carve time out for a bit of work can feel impossible when they are whining that they are bored and don’t know what to do, want you to play with them or simply beg for more screen time.

Playing should come naturally to kids, but unfortunately, it’s independent play that is a learned skill for some kids.

YOUR CHILD MIGHT BENEFIT FROM INDEPENDENT PLAY MORE THAN YOU THINK!

Helping your child to have the ability to play comfortably on their own is one of the best gifts you can give for your child’s development.

Children need opportunities to play deeply on their own in order to work on many skills critical for their future success, develop confidence in their abilities and to make day-to-day life feel easier for themselves (and yourself).

INDEPENDENT PLAY BREEDS IMAGINATION & CREATIVITY SKILLS: In a world where children are constantly stimulated, children can feel uncomfortable if they don’t have anything to do. As parents, we feel stressed if our children are ‘bored’ because its usually accompanied by whinging and whining. To make it stop, we enrol them in lots of  extracurricular activities, stop our tasks to play with them or give them the iPad. The problem with filling in this boredom is that children lose many opportunities to develop their creativity, problem-solving and decision-making skills when there’s always someone or something to think or make decisions for them. They learn they need our help to play.

Given unstructured time to think freely about whatever naturally comes to mind or follow where their mind wanders will help your child learn who they truly are, what brings them joy and have originality of thought. A child interested in construction might want to flick through a truck-themed book to their own pace, stretch their creativity to build their own take on a conveyor belt out of available materials in their room, or enjoy digging and tipping in their sensory table with their favourite trucks, for example.

INDEPENDENT PLAY ENCOURAGES THEM TO DEVELOP THEIR PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS: 

Like with creativity, your child needs opportunities to rely on themselves and self-initiative to solve their own problems without a parent’s presence there providing an “out” if the problem is too hard. During their free time, they can try new things without fear of failure, test their limits and take risks, which will build their confidence and resilience.

When my son was trying to build a rocketship out of his Magblox, he experimented with what shape tiles would make the 3D cone-shaped top. Being alone without help meant he also had to persevere and do over until he solved his problem. Overcoming his challenges have helped him build confidence in his own decision making and abilities. We have noticed that since he has become capable and content playing on his own, it also translates to other tasks in his life too. 

INDEPENDENT PLAY GIVES THEM A WAY TO UNWIND:

Having peaceful alone time to relax, unwind from the hustle and bustle of their day and allow their brains to be silent is good for children. It has been wonderful for everyone to recharge and have new energy when we are all back together in the afternoon.

Having the opportunity to get comfortable with being alone with their own feelings tend to allow them to become more intuitive to their own feelings, become more critical thinkers and more comfortable with short periods of isolation.

My son finds tinkering in his room (with his own toys and books) in the afternoons quite meditative. It also is a great time for my son to determine his own course of play and work through an idea without another interrupting him, especially his baby brother, who wants to destroy anything he is interested in.

HERE ARE THE TOP TIPS FOR ENCOURAGING INDEPENDENT PLAY!

If your child is used to having their time micromanaged, making the shift to a way of life where they’re responsible for amusing themselves some of the time can be tricky. To ensure success, these are the five most effective tips that have worked for us:

  1. 1. FILL YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL CUP FIRST. 

Children will be more open to playing on their own as long they’re also getting plenty of individual attention and good connection time together with you to feel ‘full’ first.

If your child is only used to playing with you, start gradually getting them to play individually nearby (e.g. while you make dinner) or leave for small moments.

Gradually increase the time as they get more comfortable.

  1. A “YES” SPACE.

Ensure the play space (whether the living room or playroom) is safe for your child to play freely without an adult hovering and saying “no”. 

  1. APPROPRIATE TOYS.

You need to set up an inviting and challenging play environment for them. If your child bounces from toy to toy and gets bored quickly, there are many solutions to try:

  • TOYS NEED TO BE STIMULATING: Observe your child in their play space and what holds their attention (or not). Take out any toys that they have outgrown that are ‘too easy’, which result in boredom, and toys ‘too difficult’, which results in frustration. Limit the amount of “one and done” toys, which are toys meant to entertain (for example, talk to kids, ask questions, sing songs, light up). Those toys don’t teach, they don’t inspire, they don’t grow with our children. The more active the toy, the less active the play.
  • ADD OPEN-ENDED TOYS: Children’s brains are born hardwired to EXPLORE, LEARN, DISCOVER and CREATE. They crave opportunities to let their mind run wild testing ideas again and again until they and find solutions and answers. Try to be intentional about providing children with passive, open ended toys that can be played with in many different ways, allowing children to make choices, express their creativity and support their independence. These type of toys also support them in strengthening their cognitive, language and social skills in the pr

The classics are still the best in our home: Magnetic tiles, Lego, objects from nature, blocks, paints, Playdoh, toy animals, and vehicles.

  • – ADD INVITATIONS TO PLAY OR EXPLORE: If your child finds it to be difficult at first to play independently because they don’t know how to do it, you’ll have to be their imagination coach. An effective trick is to create invitations to play by giving them something to do. Children love to discover something new that they found and can engage with on their own terms. Simply place all the material out to do a project and let them go to town.

Here are some ideas that you can set up and place around their playroom:

  • Leave out some Magblox some challenge cards.
  • Create a small world out of natural materials and things from the pantry. Pair with some toy animals or trucks.
  • Combine cookie cutters and stamps with playdoh on a cookie sheet.
  • Set up a picnic with some favourite teddies.
  • Leave out some paint and paper with different natural materials to use as a paint brush.

(Notice that the play space needs to be orderly for your child even to notice your invitation.)

  • DECLUTTER & ROTATE TOYS: When the play space is too full of toys to play with, studies have suggested children get overwhelmed, feel anxiety and have trouble focusing on their play in a hectic environment. Being bamboozled by choice effects their play because their attention is constantly being diverted to whatever has just caught their eye they don’t get to practise doing an activity for any length of time. Kids get bored of their toys, and having toys that have been out of sight for a few months can make them seem new again. Toy rotation is great as children are primed to notice novelty. By rotating a smaller, more thoughtfully edited selection of toys, children get the chance to focus and play on a deeper level.

Our Maglox and Lego and are always out because they are a favourite and the perfect open-ended toy only limited by my son’s imagination. He always finds new ways to use them in combination with what toys are in rotation.  

  1. ENCOURAGE DEEP PLAY: 

When your child is finally playing, try not to interrupt them. Instead, treat their play as important ‘work’ and protect it as much as possible from interruption, even from yourself. 

Please resist the urge to evaluate, judge, make suggestions, or tell your child what to do or how to do it (properly). It’s kind of like the equivalent of someone telling you the end of a great movie your watching. It takes all the fun and curiosity out of it. Research shows that humans learn things better when they discover things for themselves. Children are natural scientists that love discovery.

This is your child’s project, and they’re in charge of it. If your child gives you a role to play, ask for direction: “What do you want me to do?”. 

Although I don’t interrupt, my son occasionally asks me to “watch this” or “look at the tall tower I built”. So I will admire and comment on how nicely he is playing and ask a question or two. Then he is back to his work, and so am I. He will have to wait now if he has any more requests. 

  1. LIMIT SCREEN TIME:

If we are all being honest, one of the primary reasons parents give their kids screen time is the convenience of keeping our kids preoccupied and entertained.

While a child is engaged in screen time, they are passive; hence, they are sensory-deprived. The figure below shows the brain activity of a normal kids brain (stimulated by the natural environment) compared to a child who passively watches a TV screen, which significantly impacts brain development.

Figure 1 Stimulated Brain vs. Non-Stimulated Brain How TV Affects the Brains of Young Children, D. Christakis (2012) 

Research shows that the more children spending in ‘default mode’ by watching tv, the more significant impact on their emotional health (with increased anxiety and depression) and more the risk of attention-deficit. Screen time can result in short attention spans making real-time events and ordinary life (such as a teacher talking in class) dull, slow or boring. Short attention spans result in the inability to focus during active independent play.

Children under two have zero screen time (other than video chatting) in’ our’ household, as per the national standards. So the TV is off when they are awake. My four-year-old currently gets an hour of screen time every second to the third day, but it must begin with something highly educational before cartoons. Anything extra is as research for homeschooling.

In conclusion, play is the child’s work, and independent play promotes creativity, problem-solving, and self-confidence. Parents can help the child enjoy independent play by first filling up their emotional cup, creating an inviting and challenging play environment, and restricting screen time. Then, give the child opportunities to get lost in their creative world and discoveries without interruption or relying on an adult.

Written By Sally Shilkin from Stem And Play (author of Grey and Gold blog)

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