Working from home during the pandemic? Have your hands full running your household? All of the above?
Having kids who can play on their own can help so much, whether you need to get some work done or need some ‘me time.’
I have strategies to help your child play independently!
There are a few things to consider before we dive in:
Your child’s temperament: Some children are naturally better at playing on their own, while others want us to play with them all day every day. If you have a child who fits the latter, playing on their own may be challenging even if you try everything in this post. Try to be patient and keep working on it!
Your child’s age and experience level: The older a child gets, the easier it is for them to play on their own. If they have never played on their own it might be harder at first to adjust.
Time of day: Many parents repost that it is easier for children to play on their own at certain times of day, for example in the morning or after lunch. Try to notice when it happens most easily and plan accordingly.
Here are some big ideas to support your child to play independently:
Start with connection. When our child’s connection cup is filled, they are much more likely to play on their own. You can say to your child, “I’m all yours for the next half an hour! What shall we play?” Special Time is great for this. If you have more than one child and can’t connect with them separately, try some roughhousing and silly games to get everyone laughing.
Keep them close if possible. Most children don’t like playing very far away from their parents. Try to set up a play area near where you will be. Set up your home office and a play area in the same room if you’re working from home. When my kids were little, we had a play area in the kitchen so I could prepare food while they played.
Create the most effective environment for independent play. Declutter, rotate and organize your family’s toys. (Yes, this takes time but i promise it’s worth it.) Think simple, easy to access, and not overwhelming. Less is more here!
Declutter: Go through your kids’ toys and get rid of anything that is outgrown, broken, missing pieces, or that they no longer play with. If your children are resistant to giving up toys, try having a small yard sale or giving the toys to a favourite younger neighbour or relative.
Rotate: Put some toys in storage and rotate them in and out every few weeks. When children haven’t seen something for a while it’s almost as good as getting a brand new toy. They will play with the ‘new’ toys for longer periods of time.
Organize: Toys should be easy to get out and put away. I love open shelving with baskets or bins for each type of toy. My years as a Montessori assistant really influenced me in this area. Google “Montessori style storage” for some ideas and inspiration. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.
Try not to interrupt. If your children are playing, try to let them play uninterrupted if possible. When kids experience being in a ‘flow state’ a powerful feedback loop is created. They want more of that! A flow state is, according to Wikipedia, a “mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Don’t ask questions, get involved or interrupt unless you absolutely have to.
Use a timer. If your children are not used to playing on their own, start small! A visual timer can be useful here so they can see how much time is left.
Use audiobooks or podcasts to keep them company. Many children who don’t like to play alone are happy to do so if they have a story to listen to. Most libraries have an app to borrow books. If you don’t want your children to have a ‘device’ while they play, you can use a bluetooth speaker and play it for them. My daughter’s most common phrase was always, “Who can I play with?” But she would play happily on her own if she had stories to listen to while she played.
Put together some ‘independent play bins.’ You can assemble some lidded bins and rotate them. One might have things like stickers, pipe cleaners, or other sundry items from the dollar store or craft store. Another might have nature materials and a magnifying glass. I found a lot of great ideas at www.littlebinsforlittlehands.com.
Offer sensory play activities. Think Play Doh and beyond! My kids loved homemade slime and ‘goop’ as well as kinetic sand. You can also make an indoor ‘sandbox’ with dried beans or rice in a bin with scoops, funnels and containers. A chair at the sink with a sinkful of soapy bubbles and containers is also usually irresistible. If you Google “sensory activities” you will get a ton of ideas.
Yes it takes some effort and advance planning on your part. You might need to call on your reserves of patience, but if you start small and keep insisting, most kids can learn to love their independent time.
Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and parenting advice columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 13, 16, and 19). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Enjoy your kids again! Find her at sarahrosensweet.com