Encouraging Your Kids to Play Independently
Play. It’s at the
root of everything your child is.
I know—powerful statement!
But consider that play has the power to teach your child everything from social emotional skills, to cognitive skills, language skills, and even how to regulate their emotions. Life as they know it (and will know it) is all learned through play.
The entire point of play is to learn and to thrive!
Needless to say play is important.
More than that, independent play for kids is necessary for their development! So even though the burden falls on us as parents to allow that to happen naturally, oftentimes through allowing boredom to creep in, it’s something that you have to do! Learn more in my award-winning book, The Yelling Cure.
Different play types
You might think that all types of play are created equal—but this isn’t true at all!
What your kid needs in order to fully develop is called, purposeful play. This is the type of play in which you let your child lead the activity. Let them be, let them get into the zone using their imagination. It’s this kind of play that encourages imagination—they make up their own games for themselves or with friends or siblings...or even with you! It’s a totally unstructured form of play.
However, as parents, we equate play to doing something—engagement. It’s why we sign our kids up for karate or create a project that they can do—both of which are led by an adult, not a child.
In addition to pushing extracurriculars on our kids, we also stress the importance of academics as they age. But as a result, we’re taking away a piece of their childhood—a vital piece. The piece where they learn skills like intrinsic motivation or negotiation or even how to take a risk. And if you’re unable to work through these things as a child, you have a much harder time facing them as an adult. Things as simple as raising your hand and risking a “silly” or “dumb” answer in class become huge obstacles for middle schoolers and high schoolers.
So purposeful play can help your child develop into a life-long learner as opposed to someone simply looking to achieve the next thing.
Boredom versus creativity
It’s easy to put your child in front of a screen when they’re bored. I know! And it’s okay to do this sometimes. I talk about it in my award-winning book, The Yelling Cure.
At other times, though, I want you to step back and think—is this really what is best for my kid?
Because here’s a simple truth: Boredom breeds creativity.
If your child is bored, that’s great! That's where they're finding themselves. That's where they're finding what makes them tick and what can bring them happiness and joy. Consider that when there's nothing external that's bringing that stimulation, then your child has to sit in that, own it, and ultimately figure it out. And again, if this isn’t an opportunity you give them when they’re younger, then they’ll constantly seek stimulus as they’re older because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of boredom.
And if you’re one of those parents wishing your child would play more independently, then you simply have to invite the idea of “boredom” into your home. The next time the boredom beast rears his head, don’t try to fix it!
Step back. Let your kid be in a different room. Let them think of what they want to do. Don't interrupt them or make suggestions or set something up.
Open toys versus closed toys
As parents, you may feel the need to keep up with the latest toys and trends. Oftentimes, these toys are what are referred to as “closed” toys, meaning they do 90% of the work for your child—they don’t require much in terms of imagination. Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean good!
But imagine instead of handing your child a drum or a pretend drill—closed toys—you gave them a handkerchief—an “open-ended” toy.
Why is it called this?
Because they have to use their imagination to play with it! It’s not a “done for them” toy. Your kid can turn it into a cape, a hat, a skirt, a tent, a pond that you place figurines on top of—it’s very open ended. This gives your child a lot more opportunities to come up with something to do with it as opposed to taking that imaginative opportunity away.
So the next time you consider buying your kid a new toy, think about what you have at home, instead. Give them a pot or a spoon. Keep the cardboard box your shoes came in. Wooden blocks or Legos. Dress up. Even bubble wrap are all excellent open-ended toys that you likely already have in your home.
Set up a quiet space
Consider the room in which your child plays. So many parents are totally overwhelmed by the sheer amount of STUFF in the playroom—are you one of them?
And if YOU feel overwhelmed, parents, just imagine how your kid must feel walking in there!
So declutter, or even take a weekend to do a purge. Get the play space(s) down to the bare bones and make it easier for them to get into that imaginative play. Having a space to do that where someone else—adults specifically—aren’t constantly overseeing or jumping in or adding narration is critical to purposeful play.
Remember that there is a lot of joy in simplicity! Give a kid an open space and watch them truly blossom.
Window of insights
Now, here’s the really cool thing about unstructured play, parents: It can tell you SO much about your child.
Okay, okay, I get it. Playing with dolls or figurines day after day might be totally mind-numbing for you as a parent. But when you consider that by doing this with your child, and letting them lead the activity, you’re helping them process the world around them. And more than that, if your child is struggling with something or they’re having trouble expressing an emotion, you can use play to help figure it out!
Of course, most parents dream of the day their child doesn’t need to play with them. But did you know that you’re in control of this narrative?
If you want your child to start playing alone, you have to let them do so. Start small with five or ten minute increments of time by themselves in their quiet play room or area. Give your child some space.
I know it can be tough—especially when they’re little! I’m not saying you neglect your kids, you need to ensure the environment they’re in is safe and that you can easily access them—and vice versa. However, giving our kids that time away from us generates trust in our children. It puts them in charge and allows them to make decisions, building a strong foundation for them to be able to do so in the future.
About the Author
Robbin is a global parenting expert. In her work as a Certified Parent Coach, she’s helped thousands of families all over the world, find more joy and connection with their kids so they can have the cooperation and relationship they always wanted.
Robbin’s award winning book, The Yelling Cure, is Mompreneur approved, and has sold over 300,000 copies all over the globe. Robbin hosts the podcast, Parenting our Future, where she helps parents navigate the complicated world of raising kids so they thrive! She has brilliant guests who share their expertise in areas such as, Co-Parenting, sleep solutions, raising boys, managing screen time, keeping your family safe, mental health and so much more.
To find out more about Robbin and her work, visit her here: www.parentingforconnection.com