A few tips on how to teach your children to play by themselves.
“A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” Benjamin Spock, M.D.
One of the best gifts you can give your child is the ability to play on their own. Not only will day to day life with them be easier (both for your children and yourself), but they will learn so much more! Problem-solving and decision-making skills are stalled when there’s always someone to think for them. Imagination and creativity aren’t relied on when games are always made up by someone else!
By now you probably know why it’s important that children play on their own every day, but if you’re like the many mothers who’ve commented or emailed me, you don’t know where to start. If your kids aren’t used to playing on their own then there will be some adjustment and resistance, but take heart.
My kids have had independent play times for as long as they can remember and – most days – they love them. Read the pros of independent play here. So, here’s how you can help your kids learn and enjoy playing on their own.
1. Know the Why
It may take a while for your child to stop fussing or crying when it’s time for them to play on their own, so be sure you know the why’s. Not only is it good for kids to have time alone away from their siblings and others to relax, play time alone also builds self-confidence. They use their imagination, learn cause and effect, and have to problem solve on their own.
Plus, it helps prevent raising children who are easily bored and need others to make decisions for them. That really isn’t so bad when they are small, but as they grow older it can turn into a bad thing.
2. Start early and go slow
I’ve started mine doing independent play from before they could play ;). Infant seats, pack-n-plays, and cribs are great places for babies and pre-toddlers to learn to play with their toys. However, no matter how old your child is, it’s a great time to start!
If they are not used to having to play on their own you’ll want to go slow. 5 minutes might be all they can handle, and even that they might fuss the entire time. Put them wherever you’ve decided play time should be (see #3) and assure them you’ll return. Close the door or pull it to, and then wait outside. If they crying then let them know you are right there and try again. Expect some resistance at first because no one likes change. However, if they get past the initial hurdle they will usually launch right into play.
3. Location, location, location
The location is not important as long as there’s something for the child to do and some type of boundary in place. It’s not really independent play if they roam around the house and you have to follow them to be sure they aren’t getting into trouble. I usually put my kids in their own rooms (none of them currently share) to play. They enjoy this and have their own toys ready for them.
However, if it’s a nice day or one would like to play outside then that’s fine too! Rotating the setting can help children cooperate willingly if they aren’t used to playing on their own initially. Always be within supervision distance, of course, but stay out of sight. They won’t do anything but stare at you and whine if they can see you.
4. Entice if necessary
Our children have independent play in the morning, and one way I get them to willingly go to their rooms is by offering a snack. I’ll choose a non-messy snack that is in no way a choking hazard, and will take them to their rooms. They’ll bring their cup or little bag of gummies and water and pop right into their rooms to play. It’s part of our daily routine so there is usually little resistance because – well – resistance is futile. Mwahaha!
If you are beginning independent play it might be a good idea to get a few new toys so that there is something special to begin this process.
5. Change it up
Some days when fussiness has dominated the morning and I fear that they’ll fight going to independent play (it isn’t often, but it definitely happens) I’ll let the kids switch rooms. It’s a different setting, different toys, and new things to do so that almost always gets them excited.
Also, you can separate your toys into separate areas of the house, and save some toys they are only able to play with during alone play time. This will help keep it fresh and exciting.
5 problems that are solved by rotating toys
6. Be consistent and give it time
Independent play time is something that works best with consistency. Sure you don’t have to do it every day, but I really believe both you and the kids will love doing it every day once you get in the swing of it. Choose a time that works best and try to have play time during that time each day so the kids know what to expect. Knowing what to expect is a huge thing for children, and they are much more likely to participate without a fight if they see it coming.
Start with 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and then work up to 30 minutes or an hour as the child is able to do so and enjoys it. Mine play around 45 minutes to an hour each day. I will walk from room to room and hear one making truck noises, one talking to her dolls, the other singing a song or talking to some stuffed animals.
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” Kay Jamison
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