Do you spend most of your day entertaining your child? If you are not giving your child time to play independently, you are actually robbing him or her of an important developmental activity. Yet, some children struggle to play independently — especially in today’s media-centric world. Before handing your child the iPad to keep him or her entertained, take the time to learn why independent play is so important, and what you can do to encourage it.
Why Independent Play Is so Important
Independent play gives children a chance to express their creativity, giving them the opportunity to figure out who they are as individuals. Dr. Sheila Anderson, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education at Weber State University, indicates that independent play gives children an outlet for their imagination. She also says, “As they plan and carry out their own ideas, confidence emerges, as well as the ability to sustain attention and persist in problem solving.”
No parent would deny that these are important skills for their children. Yet, too often, children are given highly structured environments and schedules that prevent them from having sustained time to play alone. Other children are so distracted by media that they have forgotten how to play by themselves. That is why parents need a plan for encouraging independent play.
Spur Independent Play With Activity Choices
One of the easiest ways to inspire independent play is by providing your children with activities that support open-ended play. Toys, like dolls and action figures, which do not have electronic components, are great for this. Also, sensory activities, like playing in sand or water, can help foster independent play.
If you are struggling with ideas for open-ended toys, consider these:
- Blocks and building toys
- Pretend food
- Sand and water tables
- Dress-up clothes
- Plastic animals
- Art supplies
The key to making these toys open-ended is giving them to the child without much direction. It’s important to let kids explore and create without cut-and-dried instructions on what they “should” do.
Encourage Your Child to Direct the Play
What is done and how long the play lasts, as well as how quickly the child accomplishes the task, should be the child’s choice. If you are used to directing activities, this can be hard, but take a moment to step back and let your youngster make some of the decisions.
Provide Support From a Distance
Children who are not used to playing independently may be uncomfortable if they are left in the toy room without your presence. You need to provide emotional support without actually directing the play. At the beginning, you can do this by providing your child with some interesting, open-ended toys that are new or have not been played with for a while. Explore the toys together for a moment, then busy yourself with your own activity, while staying in the same room. Your presence provides support and comfort to your child, but engaging in your own activity that is not of interest to your child will encourage him or her to continue playing.
Emotional support is also important. Make sure your son or daughter knows how exciting it is that he or she is playing. Express delight and interest in what your child has created. Allow your kid to explain what he or she created as well, and show enthusiasm for it. This emotional support will add to the joy your child experiences when playing independently.
Be Realistic in Your Expectations
Be realistic in your expectations of how long your child can play in this way. The goal is for your child to learn to love playing, and if you put too much pressure on him or her to play for a set period of time or to perform a set period of activities, your child is not going to experience this. If your child is struggling, encourage just a few minutes of independent play, then gradually add more time until he or she is freely playing without your help. Give your kid the time to learn to play in this way, and reap the rewards later of having a well-rounded child who loves to play.
Independent play is a crucial part of a child’s development. Start encouraging it today, and watch as your child blossoms into a unique, creative and independent individual.
[About the author: David Reeves is Marketing Manager at Superior Playgrounds, a playground manufacturing company. Superior Playgrounds designs outdoor play structures for specific age groups to encourage safe, independent play. The company offers customizable equipment sets with components including bridges, slides and more.]
Image: Raúl Hernández González