Supporting Your Child to Play Independently

Part 2: Play is children's work. It's how they "become" themselves.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

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This post is part 2 of a series. Click here for Part 1: Supporting Your Child to Play Independently Part 1

4. Get your child started on something.

Some children will get right into play. Others will need your help to get started. And it won't help to tell them, "go play!" which just makes them feel like you don't want to be with them. Those children need a transition.

Set aside 10 minutes to admire your child as you watch them play. Say, "Soon we will have free play time, while you play whatever you want and I do a little work. But before we do that, let's take 10 minutes so I can watch you play. I LOVE to watch you play."

Then, turn off your phone. Set a timer. Sit and admire your child while he or she plays. Comment judiciously so your child knows you are really paying attention: "You're adding a bridge to your train track... That engine is going so fast!" Empathize with your child's excitement and interest, but keep your comments minimal. Your admiration is filling your child's cup and validating your child's play as something your child knows how to do that is of value. Just pour your full warm, loving attention into your child

What if your child can't get started on something? Ask your child how to use a toy or to show you how they do something. The key is to follow your child's lead. They're the expert. Resist the urge to evaluate, judge, make suggestions, or tell your child what to do or how to do it. This is your child's project and they're in charge of it. If your child gives you a role to play, ask for direction: "Do you want this train to go fast or slow?" 

Then, gradually extract yourself. Tell your child you're going to check on something in the kitchen, and you'll be right back. Do come back, hover, and attend for a few minutes, then extract yourself again. Once your child is lost in play, he won't need you there.

5. Encourage deep play. 

When we interrupt play, the child has to start over, so it keeps the child from playing deeply. So try not to interrupt a playing child and protect your child's playtime as much as possible, including from yourself. 

Treat play as important work that you try not to interrupt, and make that attitude clear to everyone in your family. For instance, if your older child is building something and needs to concentrate, try to keep your younger child otherwise occupied. Simple classical music can facilitate concentration and lift moods, but keep TV and radio voices off. (Listening to NPR while you cook? Great! Wear headphones. Young children shouldn't listen to the news anyway.) If your child is happily playing, let the schedule go for now. 

6. Declutter and rotate toys.

When your child's space is too full of toys, they get overwhelmed, and they stop seeing the toys as opportunities. Humans, especially small humans, are primed to notice novelty. So regularly clear out some of the toys that your child hasn't been playing with. Put them in the attic or the back of your closet, and leave them for a few weeks. When you bring them out, a few at a time, your child will greet them with renewed interest. 

7. Choose toys that facilitate deep play.

To facilitate play, keep screens to a minimum. Studies show that kids who watch TV are more prone to adopt "scripts" of what they've seen; kids who don't get much screen time engage in more flexible, creative play.

Even structured toys predispose children to use them as prescribed, which limits creativity, so offer toys that can be used creatively in many ways. The classics are still the best: blocks, paints, clay, puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, vehicles.

8. Strew.

I learned the term "strewing" from the Goddess of Play, Avital Schreiber, who hosts the year-long play resource Present Play, which is an online community that supports parents to become play gurus.  

Here's how you strew. Every day, pick a few toys, books, or projects and "strew" them (neatly) around your child's play area. Your child doesn't want to be told what to do but will experience these "found" objects as an invitation to play. For instance:

  • Add some dried beans to a baking pan with a small dump truck and shovel.
  • Put some old magazines, safe scissors, glue, and paper on a cookie sheet.
  • Leave a box of colorful scarves in the middle of the floor, maybe with two of them knotted together.
  • Prop up a book your child likes, with a stuffed animal ready to read it.
  • Combine cookie cutters with clay (in an airtight container) on a cookie sheet.
  • Group paper towel tubes, tape, and marbles in a box.
  • Gather a few art supplies (pipe cleaners, googley eyes, corks, glue) on a cookie sheet, ready to be assembled.
  • Set up a tea party with stuffed animals.

Notice that for your child to even notice your invitation, the play space needs to be orderly (see #6 above.) 

What if your child ignores your strewn invitation and instead digs into something else? Great! Something else was already captivating their interest!

What if they ignore your strewing invitation and whine for you to play with them? See #1 and #4 above. You'll probably find that after you spend some connection time, your child is ready to explore the opportunities you've presented. 

9. Be patient.

If your child has been playing independently since babyhood, you didn't need this post. If your child hasn't had much opportunity to play independently, this will be a gradual transition. So if your child is begging you to play, go ahead. Enjoy her. Then, try all of the tips above, and keep delighting in your child's emerging play mastery. Over time, you'll notice that your child no longer needs you to play deeply, because she's her own play muse. Don't you wish we all could have learned that in childhood?