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Independent play:

What is it, why do we want it, and how can we get it?

For a child, independent play is the freedom to fully immerse themselves in an experience of their choosing, totally free from the constraints of adult expectations and interruptions. This is where true learning happens through concrete experiences, the kind of learning that stays with a child, grows with them over time, and allows them to understand their world more fully.

For a parent, independent play is one of your most precious resources- time. Time to do chores, time for a hot cup of tea, time to simply "be" and recharge.

When its happening well in a family home, independent play is invaluable for all parties. As with all good things, it may not come easy, and there may be some experiences and beliefs holding you back from wanting to implement it into your family life. These tips will help you decide if and how to bring this time into your day, whether you're starting with a newborn or a pre-schooler.

A “Yes” space

“No climbing! Stop! You’re not allowed to touch the wires, you know that.” How often do you find yourself policing your child’s play and safety? If the answer is “Too much”, you might find a “Yes” space useful.

 

Popularised by the RIE parenting philosophy, a yes space basically means a safe place for a child to be unsupervised. In recent years there has been a move away from babyproofing, playrooms and baby gates in favour of a parenting style that prioritises children learning what they’re not allowed to touch or do within the family home. While this certainly has its merits, it does make independent play more challenging as it places the adult in the role of supervisor. Depending on the mobility of the child, a portacot, a playpen or a gated off space within a room may be a solution so you feel comfortable leaving the child on their own. This may become especially important as children reach the toddler stage when it is developmentally appropriate that they test boundaries and continually do things that they may in some way know not to do. It is fantastic to have boundaries and rules, yet we must balance this with realistic expectations that are developmentally appropriate, and young children simply don't have the ability to consistently follow rules. It may help to look at a yes space as setting them up for success.

A full love tank

You may have heard this term used to describe how refreshed by social interaction a person is. For young children, what’s especially important is the quality of the connection with their caregiver. You can do this authentically through being attentive and responsive during caregiving times and when you’re present within or next to the “yes” space. Believe it or not, as a parent and as an early childhood teacher, I have always found this thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling for both parties during nappy changes- though perhaps my nose gets the raw end of the deal here. 

 

Regardless of when or how you have these meaningful chats, where your undivided attention is on your child, you may find that they are more able and willing to venture off and play on their own when they feel that they have had some wonderful quality time with you, and feel confident that they will get more when you’re both ready. It can be difficult to separate from you when there is a need unmet, and a need for connection, giggles and touch is very real for a young child.

Be a boring person for the child to be with

This is a phrase that was uttered during a course by educators from the Pikler Institute on children’s play, and its stuck with me ever since. It ties in with what early childhood educators are taught in Australia- that the role of the teacher is as a facilitator or play, not the director. Practically, what this means is that we let the children lead the play, and we provide them with what they need to do so. So often, that simply means backing off and not interrupting. You could sit with your child and let them hand you their animal figurines, making one animal’s noise after the other. Or, you could politely say something like “Thank you!” or "You’re showing me the pig.” and put the animal in front of you. After doing this once or twice, the toddler is likely getting bored of you, and will either complain to you to do something- to which you could say “I’d love to see what you want to do with the animals.”- or ignore you and begin doing their own thing. So often I have thought to myself “I would never have thought to do that!” as a child has been playing.

 

Children's play choices are much better suited to what they’re ready to learn than what we could come up with-even if its not clear to us what they are getting from an experience! Rest assured that children are born ready to seek out learning, and trust them to do this. Try being a boring person sometimes, and see if your children’s imaginations surprise you.

Routine and habit

Being boring for the child leads us into the next important point- habit. If you are always or mostly leading your child’s play, this behaviour from you is what they will grow to expect. The good news is that new habits can be introduced at any time, as our children are remarkably adaptable.

 

Begin by informing your child how things will be different to what they’re used to. Don’t skip this step hoping they’ll go along with it passively, as this can be confusing and confronting- even a six month old baby will notice if your behaviour changes, and a toddler will outright call you out on it! You may also want to incorporate this time for you being present yet boring into the routine of the day- say, after lunch before nap, or some other regular time of day that works for your family. As a bonus, this gives you time to be present with your child for cuddles if they choose, or off doing their own thing, allowing you to observe what they're up to. You may end up amazed at your child's abilities, personality and quirks. For me personally, time spent observing children almost invariably ends with feeling a renewed respect for them.

Start small and build up

Once time for independent play is established, you will likely find it easier to leave the space for increasingly long periods of time- though at first just a few minutes to pop to the toilet may be enough bliss to make it worthwhile! It is important to be honest when you leave, and consistently coming back quickly when you’ve said you’ll be back “In a minute.” will increase your child’s trust in you and this new system. It can be tempting to hover outside of sight when you can hear your child happily playing, not wanting to spoil it, curious to know how long they’ll stay that way. However, if you then wait until they cry out for Daddy or Mummy, you may be unwittingly teaching them that you will come back straight away when called (Which is sometimes totally fine, other times more difficult to maintain- say, if you're putting the baby sibling to sleep or need to take the dinner out of the oven.), and the independent play is interrupted perhaps more thoroughly than if you had quietly come back and sat down unobtrusively.

 

Regardless of how strict or relaxed you choose to be with returning when called, it is a good idea to slowly build up to longer stints out of sight. Remember that protesting is simply children expressing themselves and is healthy, while a meltdown means the child requires more compassion and assistance.

Open ended and developmentally appropriate toys

For there to be independent play, there has to be interesting and inspiring things to play with (although there has been great success in some preschools eliminating nearly ALL of the toys!). Toys with one purpose often lose their appeal, because once they have been mastered, they may be revisited less and less often.

 

Open ended, or “passive” toys are ones that have multiple if not infinite uses, and these are often not really toys at all- in my family's playroom, a lot of the toys present you would not find in a toy aisle or even a toy store! These can be bowls, balls, sticks, tubes, jars and lids, boxes or pieces of fabric. There are also very worthwhile toys that inspire creativity and exploration, such as animal figurines, magnets (if age appropriate), puzzles, dress ups, trucks, baby dolls and pencils for drawing. Having a mix of developmentally appropriate toys will provide endless opportunities for play experiences limited only by your child’s imagination.

Be confident!

Try and have confidence that your kids can do it, that you can help them along the way, and that it is a valuable thing you’re working towards that will make the difficulty worthwhile. Children sense when we aren’t certain on something, and this in turn makes them uncertain. A child who feels uneasy isn’t likely to watch their caregiver leave and begin building a tower of blocks, they’re going to be preoccupied with that feeling of discomfort. One of the best things we can do to help ease our children into being comfortable playing on their own is to be self-assured ourselves. How do we do this? This brings us to our next point-

Be aware of the benefits

Knowing the positives surrounding independent play can help with your confidence- and help you stay on track when you feel like wavering (and you probably will!). You probably know that social interaction is how your baby or toddler learns, and so you can feel guilty for not engaging with them “enough”. Yet it is not realistic, either developmentally or practically, that infants and toddlers achieve all their learning through interactions with adults. Here are some things that independent play fosters in young children:

 

  • Intrinsic motivation

  • Adaptability

  • Problem solving

  • Attention skills

  • Self regulation

  • Desire to explore

  • Creative thinking

  • Memory skills

  • Gross and fine motor development

  • Growth mindset

  • Curiosity

Good luck on your journey to being a home where free, uninterrupted, gleeful play abounds!