5 Tips to Encourage Independent Play

Realistic, practical tips for working at home with little kids.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

Caleb Woods/Unsplash
Source: Caleb Woods/Unsplash

Many parents are struggling to get work done with their kids at home. I've been working from home with my child present since she was born. She's now 4. Here are some strategies, based on both child development and experience, for how to encourage independent play.

1. Don't expect your child to play in a room by themselves.

Kids feel safe when they can access their parent. They're wired to monitor where their parent is at all times.

If you are doing a noisy task in a nearby room and they can hear you, that may be enough to satisfy them that you're close by. If you're working on your computer, you may need to be within their line of sight. Why is this important? When they get the urge to look or listen for you, it will take them out of whatever play they're doing. It'll break their concentration

I tend to work sitting up in bed on my laptop. Some days my child will sit next to me on the bed, usually coloring or making items out of modeling clay. She often wants to have a part of her body physically touching mine. This might seem really disruptive but it's not.

2. Support your child's passions and let them play their way.

If you want your child to play independently, help them find a type of play they're passionate about.

My child is obsessed with modeling clay. At first, all she could make by herself was water bowls for miniature dogs (guess who made the dogs?). Fast forward a few months and now she makes all sorts of things with clay, all day, every day. She even adds clay elements to storebought toys, like adding clay hair to plastic toys. She then colors in her clay creations with washable markers, rather than baking and painting them like you're supposed to. She gets a lot of her inspiration from this YouTube channel, which she loves and I don't.

Make sure your little one can access the toys and supplies they most like to play with, without having to ask you. Don't restrict them to toys. Allow them to play with (safe) kitchen tools, dress up in real adult clothes, and the like.

3. Allow your child to interrupt you.

This point harks back to the idea that your children need to know you're accessible to them. I generally do two-hour sessions of deep work. My child will interrupt me about four times during that period. However, I find I'm pretty easily able to snap back to focusing. The interruptions are only her wanting to connect with me. For example, tell me a story she forgot to tell me yesterday, ask me to look at what she has made, or tell me how many times she has used the bathroom that morning. If I pay her attention when she interrupts, she goes back to what she was doing after about a minute.

If your attitude is of shooing them away, they'll pick up on that. And, they'll then become more demanding of your attention. It's an evolutionary thing. They will become quite desperate to know you'll be responsive to them. In evolutionary terms, it's dangerous to them if you're not. Instead of feeling annoyed to be interrupted, show that you're happy to see their little face. 

Try to avoid shushing them if their voice gets loud while they're immersed in a game or if they start singing loudly. Pick your battles. Sure, that can disrupt your concentration but if you want to get work done, it's still better you don't disrupt theirs. 

4. Keep consistent routines and do a special activity afterward.

Since I also do work sessions of the same length, my child now intuitively knows how long that is. When I finish my morning work session, I take her for a swim or bake with her, and she gets my undivided attention for about 40 minutes. She knows to expect that. Kids love routines. They need to know their needs for attention will be met. If you're consistent in delivering that, they'll trust you. They'll know they don't have to fight for your attention.

5. Be adaptable.

In my experience, the idea you need completely uninterrupted focus to be productive is a myth. Find what works for you. One place my child will play independently is in the bath. Obviously, I can't leave her in there alone. There are plenty of times I use our toilet as a seat and work while she is playing with bath toys. This was especially true when she was younger and bath toys were the first sustained independent play she did.

Occasionally, my daughter will call her grandparents on Skype while I'm working.

Some strategies haven't worked for me. For example, I'd like to be able to sit outside and work while my daughter plays in the backyard. In reality, she comes to interrupt me every few minutes. We'll try this again in a few months. 

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Working at home with kids can be tough, especially if you didn't choose it, and you and your children are unaccustomed to it. Practical strategies that are based on understanding children's attachment processes can help.