Play is the vital work of early childhood; we’ve heard that before. But time and time again, it’s sometimes disregarded by parents and caretakers in favor of more structured activities like mommy and me classes, swim lessons or scheduled playdates. As the push for success and competition increases in our communities, so does the pressure to advance our kids quickly through academic-minded goals, even as babies. With that in mind, open-ended and independent play often takes a back seat.
Play, however, is one of the things that can build all the skills and tools necessary for kids to grow into successful and sufficient adults. Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research at the Institute for Child Success, a nonpartisan think tank focused on improving outcomes for young children, agrees. “For children, play is associated with positive cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. The evidence is so strong that in the American Academy of Pediatrics previously published a recommendation for their providers to ‘prescribe’ play for children they see—encouraging parents and other adults in a child’s life to play with them, particularly unstructured play where we can follow a child’s lead,” Carolan said.
Play is one of the things that can build all the skills and tools necessary for kids to grow into successful and sufficient adults.
Unstructured and child-centered play allows kids to develop social-emotional skills like self-regulation and cooperation when they have to take turns at the playground, physical skills when they try out the monkey bars or have room to run at a local park, and cognitive skills when they problem solve in the sandbox, Carolan explains. The benefits of play are endless.
As parents, though, we don’t always have the chance to engage in quality play with our kids all the time. For those moments when we need to cook, get some work done, or have a brief moment alone, how can we encourage our kids to play independently in a quality way?
If you’re curious about independent play, its benefits, and how to get your kid started in playing independently, read on for advice straight from industry experts.
Why is independent play important?
Cindy Bohrer, Director of Early Childhood at The Village School, a Nord Anglia Education School in Houston, has worked in early childhood education for over 25 years. “While quality interactions and playtime are essential for healthy relationships and development, children also benefit from opportunities to develop independence and self-regulation skills,” Bohrer said. 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.
Rachel Giannini, Early Childhood Specialist and Content Creator at Chicago Children’s Museum, explains, “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.” As adults who are often tied to devices for constant entertainment, we find this to be truer than ever—and raising kids who are content with themselves and their own thoughts is a solid parenting goal for any of us.
“Independent play fosters creativity,” Giannini continues. “When children are encouraged to solve problems on their own, they come up with endless possibilities.” And there’s a major plus in it for parents—a child’s ability to play independently can be a sanity-saver when you need a break, Giannini notes.
What skills does playing independently teach young children?
“The self-reliance required to sustain independent play supports a child’s ability to focus and develop problem-solving skills,” says Bohrer. If there’s no one else to reach for the toy or re-build a fallen block tower, she explains, a child needs to figure it out themselves and keep their cool to carry on successfully. This builds the abilities to manage emotions and persevere.
Giannini agrees: “When a child plays, either by themselves or in a group setting, they are developing executive function. Executive function is the ability to self-regulate their emotions, develop patience and impulse control.” These are all skills that are critical to a child’s overall health, development, and future success.
How can parents encourage independent play at all ages?
Encouraging independent play starts with realistic expectations, toys that are engaging and age-appropriate, and a consistent, positive message, Bohrer tells us. “Independent play should be set up as an enjoyable activity—keep in mind that it will likely require some modeling and, eventually, a gradual increase in physical proximity from an adult,” she notes.
Pick times when your child is most likely to be successful, not when they are overtired, hungry, or have just been away from you for a period of time, advises Bohrer. Then, when your baby is content, let them be!
Offer stimulation and step away once in a while. Set up scenarios where she can safely self-soothe and entertain while you are nearby, Bohrer continues. As parents, we tend to want to step in and entertain or often feel guilty about “leaving the baby alone.” But leaving them alone in a safe and healthy way can be really good—an infant playing happily in a bouncy seat or on a blanket is engaging in independent play. “As your child is able to eventually sit up and manipulate objects, activities such as playing on the kitchen floor while you cook dinner nearby is a great foundation for further independent play,” suggests Bohrer.
Start early, recommends Giannini, and keep in mind that playing independently isn’t always playing alone. Toddlers want you in the room, so be there for them. “Not only is your presence providing emotional support, you can encourage their play independence with praise.” So, grab a pile of laundry to fold and settle into the playroom with them. Talk them through their process at first, slowly moving from directions to narration to encouragement to sporadic encouragement or prompting questions.
Don’t feel like you have to go big right away. Having a child play on their own for five minutes is a great start and sets them up for success. Slowly you can add additional time, adds Giannini, and as children grow older, you can pop in and out, encouraging them into solitary play.
Encouraging independent play starts with realistic expectations; toys that are engaging and age-appropriate; and a consistent, positive message.
But I haven’t focused on this yet and, my child’s a toddler—how do I start?
Play is natural for children. They don’t really need to be taught to play as much as they need to be given the opportunity. For older toddlers, having a designated space that is appealing and close enough for appropriate supervision is ideal—this can be a bedroom, playroom, or a corner of a common living area. Play tents can also offer a smaller, cozier alternative in a larger space. “For [older toddlers] children who haven’t yet begun playing on their own, try a gradual approach,” suggest Bohrer. For example, set an expectation that you are going to do a short task and then return to see what they’ve created or to join them in play.
Set your child up for success with age-appropriate, open-ended materials with limitless possibilities that encourage creativity. “Building materials such as magnet tiles or blocks, playsets with figures, or animals, trains, dolls, or art materials for older [toddlers] engage children’s imagination and problem-solving with minimal support or mess,” Bohrer explains.
What else do parents need to know?
Children are chronically over-scheduled. They need time to themselves. A great time to schedule this kind of play is while you are cooking dinner or before bedtime. When children play independently their energy levels quiet, making it a great transition activity.” By setting time aside solely for independent play, you demonstrate its importance,” explains Giannini. Putting emphasis on quiet alone time is vital in raising confident, sufficient kids who don’t always need external validation or input to be happy and content.