While children are hard-wired to play, and don’t really need any help, sometimes our kiddos could use a little encouragement in their play to get the ball rolling. Before our day-to-day lives became so busy, children spent most of their waking hours immersed in play – but in modern society there are lots of distractions. Spending a bit of energy supporting your child to build their independent play muscle can be incredibly fruitful for the whole family.

The Importance of Independent Play

Have you ever thought about how crazy long human childhoods are compared to other mammals? Take a zebra for example, their environment requires that they are able to run from predators. So, within minutes of hitting the ground, they stand up and begin wobbling around…

As more cognitively advanced, skilled mammals, we take much longer to develop. A longer childhood allows plenty of time for children to practice their motor, social, emotional, and relational skills. Play is the natural way to learn and allow these skills to unfold. Independent Play is Play on steroids. EMOJI

When Parents get too involved, we often inhibit the play, without even realizing. When Children aren’t in control of their own play, they lose interest and aren’t excited to try new skills. Without the opportunity to get lost in play, play feels less fun, and when someone else is directing your play, it feels a lot more like work.

Play is a state of activated rest, A.K.A. flow.  When kids play, they are naturally headed toward a state of flow, but when they’re interrupted, they quickly give up. You’ve probably experienced the feeling of being in flow, and if someone leans over your shoulder to comment on what you’re doing, you not only lose your train of thought but it’s also incredibly frustrating!

Fostering your child’s independent play muscle helps them not only with building human skills but with acting out life scenarios they don’t have language for yet.

How to Give Independent Play a Tune Up!

If Independent Play is new to your house and relationship with your child, take it slow! Your child will need to have their connection bucket filled in order to feel safe enough to get lost in Independent Play.

Make sure you are spending plenty of time connecting. An easy rule of thumb is to lay the connection on thick when you are tending to their obvious needs. Mealtimes, bath time, bedtime, diaper changes, getting dressed, etc. My point here is when your attention is already taken up with caring for your child, go the extra mile to overflow their connection cup. Be completely present  – make eye contact, hug them, talk to them, let your to-do list fade away. By focusing on this intentional connection time, you will be able to have greater lengthens of independent play time for your child, and whatever time for you!

Taking things slow – after a focused connection, like a meal, offer your attention as they begin to play. You will notice that once your child’s connection cup is full, they will likely wander into play on their own. If your child is used to you being involved or has a hard time getting lost in play, offer your attention to help them get started.

While being careful not to make the play too adult like – simply show interest. Keep what you build or are playing with short and simple. If you engage with the toy in a way that is too advanced for your child, they won’t be inspired, and will lose interest. You will fall into a natural rhythm and your role in modeling the play will become less and less.

Hot Tip – To gradually extend the amount of time your child plays alone, excuse yourself once they start engaging with the play. Just a couple minutes at first. For example, “I’m going to go to the bathroom, I’ll be back in two minutes”. Slowly adding more and more time. Very Important Always return when you say you will! Ambushing them by sneaking away without telling them, or for longer than you said you would, will only make them anxious and focused on your return. Of course, kids don’t really know how long two minutes is, but they know how long it takes to go to the bathroom, and will notice when you have been gone too long! 

Creating an Ideal Play Space

Most people play or work better in a decluttered environment. While decluttering your child’s play space or your home can feel daunting, the reward is worth it X 10!

Less is more! Pay close attention to what your child’s play space invites them to do. Are there blocks, books and markers in the same area? Consider making several small, specific stations for different kinds of play. A station for art, a station for building (legos, blocks, magna tiles), and a station for movement. Avital Schreiber Levy offers incredible station style play solutions on her podcast, The Parenting Junkie and her Membership, Present Play.

By having areas for specific play, you can be very specific with your invitations to play LINK. I mentioned, less is more, this is true because your child is more likely to get lost in play with one open ended activity, as opposed to having many options. This might seem counter intuitive, but too many options is distracting and keeps play at the surface. With lots of options lying around,  your child can feel anxious to get to the next thing, keeping them from getting deep into play.

Trust Your Child

While I’m giving tips to support your child in play, it’s important to remember that they know what they are doing. My suggestions to come alongside them and support them are really more for your sake than theirs. Slowly moving towards independent play can also make things a lot smoother if independent play hasn’t been part of your daily life. Trust that they know what they are doing, and once they are on a roll, let them go!

Everything they pour out, knock over, throw, and create is for a reason. They are building the brain that will support them in their adult life.

Your child came to you fully loaded, they need your connection and your mature brain tremendously, but trust their motivations in play, they are hard-wired to play!