Wait, Stop. Are you saying that my child can independently play?
Yes, dear friends, we are! Independent playtime, here we come!
This is the dream, right? Enjoying a cup of coffee or finishing up an email while your kiddos play independently!! Let’s bask in that a minute… sigh
Now, let’s talk reality. Kiddos are not spending time in the playroom, they are under your feet, and this is the 14th time you have reheated your cup of coffee.
They're Kids. Why Won't They Just Play?
Let’s talk about this reality, and steps you can take to work toward building independence!
So, why is this happening?????
Well, as parents, I feel like we ask ourselves this a lot (about many things) and that’s ok. It's good to be reflective!
Good news, in the case of why your kiddos are not successfully playing independently , we have an answer.
It’s because they don’t yet have the skills. Yes, playing independently is a skill. Just like the skills (cooking, running, etc.) we want to cultivate as adults need coaching, focus, and practice, the skills we want to build in our kids need the same things! This includes play.
How Do I Teach Them To Be Independent?
Thinking of play as a skill will help you develop a plan to coach your kiddos toward beautiful playtime!
Step 1: Coach And Model Creative Play
The first thing that you have to do is coach. Get down on the floor and model creative play. This means inventing your own play story and bringing it to life. You can use costumes and toys, or not! Every time you engage with your kiddos and guide them in playing, they get new ideas from you about how to use the toys in their play spaces. The more you play with them, the more ideas they will have to pull from, the more they can expand on those ideas, the more they will play independently… you get the picture.
Step 2: Help Them Focus + Give Positive Feedback For Focusing!
Next, there needs to be focus. To build the independent play muscle, there needs to be a whole-family focus on rich play. TV off and focused play time for the kiddos with one or more adults. This could be challenging for young ones or for those new to this idea. Start with only a couple of minutes and celebrate loudly any success! “We played together for 2 minutes! I love how you had the idea to make the train go to grandma’s house! Wow, we could pretend that again next time!”
Step 3: Practice
Slowly build up the focus and stamina for this type of guided playtime. Guided play simply means that adults offer up ideas and children have the option of following along or not.
At the beginning, you can reasonably expect children to be focused for 1 minute +their age. This is your first goal and add on time from there. If children already have this stamina, just see how long they can play with you! Bare in mind that, just like with adults, kiddos can have bad moments. They’re moody, tired, hungry, or just aren’t feeling it. Don’t sweat it. Just try again later!
Step 4: Hand Over Reigns + Practice Independence!
Once children build their guided play time stamina, you can slowly hand over the reins.
1. Sit close to your kiddo during playtime, but be an observer unless/until your kiddo invites you into the play.
2. Over several play times, start them off with a play story and begin to create some physical distance between you and your child. Take a few scoots away every couple of minutes. Move closer if your child says something.
3. Once s/he is comfortable with the distance, tell your child that you will be right back. Go do a lap around the kitchen and return. Celebrate, notice and remark at their success to keep playing until you come back. Keep these ‘step away’ times very short at the beginning. 30s, 1m etc. and build on time slowly.
Key things to keep in mind.
* If kiddos are playing independently, LET THEM DO IT! Even if you see an opportunity to offer up a new idea or toy, DON’T. Let them flex their muscles and feel successful.
* Build independent time into your routine. If it’s part of the routine, children will expect it and become more proficient at independent play time! (e.g. every day after they wake up, they play independently.)
* Name it. Say "This is independent play time. I am going to be busy making dinner. I will check in on you in 8 minutes"
* When you are playing with them - be as present as you can! Our phones will buzz, and a lot of times, duty calls. But if you can, give yourself at least a couple of minutes to really play!
* Start independent play early! Even babies can explore independently if we let them! Be there to support when they need it. Guide and model how to play just like with big kids. Sit back and marvel at what the littlest humans are capable of!
* Remember to continue getting on the floor! Coaches don't stop once an athlete has made a basket, they keep teaching and coaching. Not only will you build a strong relationship with your kiddo, but you will continue to give them ideas and build their play muscles when you are with them.
* The right toys help A LOT! Open ended toys* leave room for creative play that can easily morph from day to day or minute to minute. This way the toy will not tell children they are finished (as compared to a one and done toy that has a distinct ‘end’ of the play) kiddos decide they are finished.
Independent play does not magically happen. It takes time and work, but it is a TRULY beneficial investment in your kiddos, for both them and for you. They build life skills like creativity, story telling, and problem solving. You get to finish a cup of coffee while pridefully watching your kiddos enjoy childhood!
Drink up mama!
Follow us on IG @grohplayrooms and DM us with your favorite time of day for independent play!
*Open ended toys encourage problem solving and creativity because there are infinite ways to play with or stories to tell about the toys. To read more about them, click here.