How to Teach Children to Play Independently
Telling kids to “go play alone” isn’t bad—in fact, it’s a necessary part of emotional development, and will help them become happy, successful adults.
“Mommy, play with me!” It’s hard to refuse this sweet request, and I am actually very grateful for all the memories I have of teacup parties and toy car races with my kids. Years from now, you’ll treasure those everyday bonding moments a lot more than occasional family vacations.
That being said, sometimes you have to say no and let your child play alone. Child psychologists say that independent play is important for a child’s emotional development, and for parents’ own work-life balance. If you’re always at the beck and call of your kids, you’re going to burn out.
The benefits of solitary and independent play
● It allows quiet time. “Many parents believe that they should constantly engage with their children, but that mentality leaves no time for relaxation—and creates stress that your kids pick up on,” says psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, who also wrote the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.
She adds that if you’re very tired or busy, and feel that you’re being forced to play, your kids will also pick up your stress.
● It teaches them to soothe and calm themselves. Even babies need “alone time” in their cribs. Leave a few toys or cloth books in the crib, play music, or stick colorful flashcards on the wall. “If you never leave your baby, he won't learn to settle himself," says early childhood education expert Cynthia Chandler, PhD.
● It increases attention span. Cindy Bohrer, an early childhood education expert, says that learning how to play and learn alone can also help them deal with boredom and frustration when they’re older. “Down the line, a child who is comfortable with independent play is less likely to say they are bored or don’t know what to do when playmates or electronic devices are unavailable.”
● It builds confidence. Some psychologists even say that solitary play is an important part of raising kids to be successful, confident adults. Dr. Laurie Hollman, author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence, says: “They get used to the idea that certain tasks, like homework and reading, are solo endeavors.
Creating without any outside influence can also help boost a child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.”
How to encourage solitary play
● Give suggestions. Younger children may be overwhelmed by choices if they’re just told to “go play by yourself.” Organize the play area into what preschool teacher Anya Gomez calls Busy Boxes: Art Box, Make Believe Box, Reading Box (about 5 to 7 books which you rotate). Add whatever boxes that suit your child’s preferences, like dinosaurs or cars. “You’re not telling him what to do, but you’re giving clear choices,” explains Anya.
● Share a space. If your child is feeling very clingy, he may become more upset if you usher him to another room. Instead, let him stay near you while doing his own thing. For example, he can pick a book or toy and stay in the kitchen with you while you cook.
● Create a cozy, child-friendly space. If you don’t have the space for a dedicated play room, set up a comfortable and child-safe corner. Remove choking hazards and plug electrical outlets, place a rug or big throw pillows, and place toys or books in wicker baskets you can rotate so there’s always something “new” to play with.
● Make it part of a family routine. Show your child that everyone needs Me Time! Set a time (like after dinner, or Sunday mornings) where everyone picks an activity that they enjoy alone. It shows your child that just like Bonding Time or Nap Time, Me Time is part of the daily routine—
you’re not just pushing him away because you’re busy.
● Embrace the mistakes and the mess. Respect your child’s Me Time, and resist the urge to complain when he spills water while doing artwork, or does his craft project “the wrong way.” This is part of the process of experimenting and discovering things alone. Just set simple rules, like cleaning up after a project.
● Show it’s okay to be bored. “But I don’t feel like reading/playing/coloring!” your child says, when you suggest an activity he can do alone. That’s valid, but that doesn’t mean you’re now responsible for finding something fun for him to do. Let him figure out what to do—or even decide not to do anything at all.
● Watch your body language. If you tell him to play alone just because you’re irritated, tired or annoyed, then it sends the message that you’re pushing him away. Independent play should be an invitation for self-discovery, but before kids grasp the concept they first respond to your body language. Your voice and body language reflect your mood and your attitude. Try to sound excited, positive, and warm.
Finding joy in themselves
Early childhood specialist Rachel Giannini says, “It’s important for children to find joy in themselves. A built-in playmate in life is not a guarantee, and children need to learn how to entertain themselves.” So don’t feel guilty when you tell your kids to play alone—or even say, “I need time for myself.” It’s an important life lesson that will help them grow up to be confident and happy adults.
About The Writer
Dedet Reyes-Panabi was editor-in-chief of a parenting magazine for over 10 years, but has been writing for newspapers and magazines much longer than that (hint: back then, people still used film for photo shoots!). Today, she is a content marketing consultant for both local and international companies. She is full-time mom to two kids, three cats, and a stubborn French bulldog.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.