On Saturday, October 17, 2020, I was privileged to lead on a part live, part…
I had the privilege last month to speak on The Lisa Show on Brigham Young University’s Radio, a nationally syndicated show for parents, about independent play for kids. As a policy and research organization, ICS does a lot of writing and speaking about what our schools, policymakers and systems can do to better serve children – this conversation was a great chance to translate some of that work directly into practice for parents and other adults in a child’s life!
It was a great conversation with the 20 minutes we had, but there is so much more we could have discussed, especially as parents continue to juggle the “for-now normal” of many families who have children at home. Particularly, for those families who are navigating structured virtual learning, they may find that independent play is all the more important in their lives to let a child’s imagination really flourish – but may have a hard time making it work.
Why Independent Play is Important
First, why does independent play matter? Unstructured and child-directed play allows children to develop a range of skills, including social-emotional skills like self-regulation and executive function. It also gives a chance to kids to exercise their creativity. We won’t always see it this way, but coming up with a wonderful new pretend adventure involves making plans and then following through on them – key skills that will serve children well through education!
It’s also important for parents, both to build in times for us to tend to other children and tasks, and to step back and let our children take the lead. This is particularly true as we continue some degree of stay-at-home orders; many parents have spent the last several months feeling like a combination of teacher and cruise director for their children, juggling paid work and other labor, and need a break!
Independent play is a set of skills that needs to be built, though, and is not a light switch to flip – if you expect your 3-year-old who is used to a constant playmate to suddenly entertain themselves while you’re on an important phone call, you are setting yourself up for stress!
So how do we help children build the skills of independent play? Here’s a few ideas from a combination of child development research and tried-and-true parenting:
Build the Skills of Independent Play
- Start with realistic expectations. Estimates vary, but most child development experts tend around the rules of thumb that children’s attention span is 2 to 3 minutes per year of age – maybe up to 5 minutes per year. For my 3-year-old, this equates to a maximum of 15 minutes I can expect their attention span to last them. Hoping they will play solo for an hour while I multi-task just isn’t realistic, and the more practical we are, the better.
- Set them up for success in terms of accessibility and a safe play space. We have an issue with our 3-year-old climbing to get something he wants – a deck of cards he likes to play with. By keeping the toys and supplies that don’t require close supervision within his reach, we empower him to make his own choices while also hopefully avoiding an injury! For younger children who may be in an enclosed play space or chair, safe toys are great – but sometimes a change of location to see something interesting can also go far. We also have special items in specific places – for example, we limit play-doh only to the kitchen. This is partly to contain mess – but it’s also a special activity for when he is feeling like he needs me around (as is often the case by late afternoon when he’s getting tired), but I need to be cooking dinner. Once I get him set up with the containers open, he’s largely independent, and he knows I’m still in the room.
- Brainstorm ideas for “boredom.” Create a list of ideas for boredom, with your child if possible, and then direct them to this list when they find they are “bored” during independent play time. I know this can feel at-odds with the idea of child-directed play, but it’s really just a strategy to help jump start their thinking while also giving agency over their play time. But be sure to only give choices that can actually work safely and based on your child’s abilities.
- Do this gradually. Consider independent play times where you are still in the room, especially for younger children who are getting used to the idea. You can increase the distance as they get more comfortable. This also works for time as well. Children might not love the idea of playing solo if they are used to having an adult actively engaged. Start with small chunks of time by setting a timer, which can help. Just be sure to come back when you say you will! I’m the first to acknowledge that sometimes, when independent play is going well, I may try to sneak in another 5-minute task for myself – but we want kids to know that we will keep our promises.
- Consider “loose parts” – open-ended play with junk, like carboard boxes, paper towel tubes, and more. We’ve written before about how “loose parts” can be part of a creative, cost-effective at-home playtime – just be sure to keep safety in mind for young children by avoiding safety hazards.
As a parent juggling work and child care in our COVID-19 world, I certainly know the struggles of trying to get our kids to entertain themselves at certain ages. But I also want to stress that children actually might be looking for more playtime with you right now, in response to their own anxiety related to COVID, being out of school, and other changes in routine. Children feel stress and anxiety even if they can’t or won’t tell us, so if you’ve noticed your child being more “clingy” or looking for extra family time, consider what you might be able to do to make that happen or other ways to reassure them that they are safe and cared for.