Five tips for encouraging children to play independently

Even though we seem a little obsessed with our children’s development these days, we may have lost the one thing that really helps children and that is PLAYING! Playing is so important for all children. Play allows them to be creative all the while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is also really important for healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them.

Play comes naturally to children. They don’t need us to teach them or show them how to do it. And more importantly they don’t need us to do it for them! What they do need is for us to provide a safe environment that will encourage them to play, to use their imagination, and to explore without distractions (like TV and iPads).

It can be hard if your child doesn’t like being on their own, or is particularly clingy to you, but with some encouragement, they can learn to play happily on their own.

Here are five tips that can help your child play independently from you:

  1. Make play part of your daily routine

Having some play time in every “awake” period is a great thing to do. Keep the play space contained so it is not too big, and don’t overwhelm them with too many toys. Just a few things at a time which you can rotate when needed. Make sure the space can fit you but can also allow you to be “around” and within your child’s vision or at least earshot so you can get on with doing your things while your child plays.

  1. Don’t dump and run

If you have a child that is particularly clingy or doesn’t like you not being close to them, then you need to introduce the idea of them playing on their own gently. Children will always know when you are rushing them so you can get on and do other things! Make the transition slow and gradual. Hang out with them for a while, give them your attention, and then tell them where you will be, what you will be doing, when you’ll be back. Don’t sneak away! Parents who sneak away end up with a child who is hypervigilant and can’t focus well or play for long. They’re always looking over their shoulder to see whether we’ve left.

  1. Don’t roll the ball back.

By this I mean, try not to step in and do it for your child, even if they are struggling. Much of what children do is experimentation. These experiments will continue if we can resist interfering and helping them solve the problem. It’s always a bit easier for us to do it for them or with them, and much harder to just quietly watch and encourage. So rather than step in perhaps just reflect on what they are doing, like, “You rolled the ball away”. This allows them to invent different ways of getting what they want, and ultimately encourages them to play independently.

  1. Beware of screens

Children just won’t want to play if they have the option of screens (television, computer, smartphone etc.). Try not to use screens at all for the first few years and really try to limit their use to late afternoon downtime after you do introduce them. Introducing screens too early and as a method of play can really derail the idea of your child happily playing independently.

  1. Don’t fear the boredom monster

What appears to be boredom can often just be tiredness. It is also okay for them to have that moment of downtime or disinterest in what they are doing. This can encourage them to seek out something new to play. Don’t feel like you have to be always entertaining your child so they won’t be bored. Out of boredom comes the most imaginative ideas so letting them be bored for a bit can be a great way to foster creativity.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.