Dr. Elizabeth Adams; Child Psychologist and Parent Coach
A version of this blog was originally posted on Parental Guidance:
How can I get my child to play alone for a little while?!
This is a question I often hear from parents.
Playing with our children can be fun, is critical to their development and self-concept, and is an important part of connecting. That being said, independent play is also important for children (and a welcomed break for parents!). While social play and cooperative play are important skills for children to develop during childhood, solitary play can encourage independence, increase creativity, and promote self-reliance and critical-thinking skills. For many parents, the idea that their child would play independently seems like a unrealistic dream. Below are five tips to help foster independent play in children.
1). Fill the “attention bucket” first. Engaging with your child in play can actually lay the groundwork for teaching children how to play independently. While play and exploration is a skill that naturally develops for many children, engaging with them in play schemas and showing them how to engage with materials can support their independent play when they aren’t with you. Additionally, if you provide some opportunity for child-led play with you where your attention is truly focused on them, the need for them to constantly seek out your attention is diminished. Setting aside one-on-one, protected time (5-minutes of special time daily is sufficient!) can give kids a touch point that they can depend on, and affords them the comforting knowledge that they will have the time with you eventually, which encourages them to feel at ease to engage in play independently.
2). Examine toy set-up and selection. The toys that we have in our homes can have a big impact on the likelihood that children will play independently. Toys that entertain a child with the push of a button, or toys that only have a single use, can lead children to tire of the engagement quickly. Choose toys that encourage open-ended play, and toys that are multi-functional. Toys such as kitchen sets, dolls, dress-up items, and play sets (e.g., a barn set with animals) encourage imaginative and pretend play, and allow children to utilize their creativity. Blocks, building sets and train sets are also great ideas to keep children engaged. An excellent way to initiate independent play is to set-up an invitation to play – you might set-up a tea party with a set and some stuffed animals, assemble part of a train track, or arrange dolls and a doctor’s kit into a “doctor’s office.” Helping your child by initiating a fun and inviting set-up can ease them into independent play and get them excited about the opportunity to play.
Additionally, be sure to tune into your child’s interests, and have toys that encourage and satisfy their natural curiosities.
3). Scale back the number of toys, and provide an organized system. The fact is that many families have too many toys. While this is often the result of well-meaning parents interested in providing their children with lots of opportunities to play, most parents don’t realize that more toys often equals less play. A study from the University of Toledo in Ohio published in the journal of Infant Behavior and Development found that an abundance of toys present reduced quality of toddlers’ play. Having fewer toys can lead a young child to focus and engage in more creative, imaginative play, and fewer toys resulted in healthier play and deeper cognitive development. When given fewer toys, toddlers play with them in more varied ways and for longer periods of time. If you are overwhelmed with the number toys in your home, chances are your child is too. Go through and donate items that are no longer developmentally appropriate, or consider initiating a “toy rotation” to scale back the number of items and increase the sense of novelty. While you are in the process of weaning down, consider a system to organize toys. When the environment is overwhelming and scattered, children have a harder time initiating purposeful and productive play.
4). Start small. If you feel that your child “can’t” play by themselves, start small. When you are engaging with them, make sure you are not directing their play. Engage in child-led play, where you allow your child to take the lead and explore the materials. This will help give them a sense of confidence, and also helps prepare them for play without you. Be careful to not be critical or too corrective when playing with your child, which can make them feel less confident, and can stifle creativity. When you move to promoting independent play, manage your expectations and start small. It would be unrealistic to expect that your child will play independently for hours - encourage short periods of time initially.
5). Circle back. When your child has engaged in independent play, circle back to them and take an interest in what they have been doing, what they have created, and what they are engaged in. This type of interest and positive reinforcement can help encourage more independent play (and may even give you a few moments to enjoy a hot cup of coffee!).
Remember that what each child needs is different. Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues). Email Dr. Adams for more information, or schedule an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at www.personalizedparenting.org.