Simple Ways to Encourage Independent Play to children
When adults take a step back and encourage children to play independently, children learn that they are not helpless. They learn that they are not just little people to whom the world happens. Independent play gives them the opportunity to develop their own sense of agency, problem-solving skills, and autonomy.
Independent play is a skill and it can be challenging, particularly for younger children. It’s important that caregivers have patience and set realistic expectations as their children practice playing on their own. With time and with support, children can build their capacity to engage in independent play that is creative, complex, and empowering.
A few recent studies highlight simple strategies that caregivers can try at home.
Rotate Toys to Limit Distractions
Imagine a toddler in a playroom with 50 toys bouncing from toy to toy. After observing their play, it would make sense to conclude that their attention capacity was terrible. However, results of a study conducted by researchers from the University of Toledo suggest that toddlers are more capable of engaging deeply with toys than previously thought.
The researchers tested how having fewer toys around changes toddlers’ play patterns. They invited families with toddlers to their research lab and either presented the children with 4 or 16 toys. The toys were randomly selected to represent a wide range of types.
After presenting the toys to the toddlers, the researchers sat back and observed for about 20 minutes. When the toddlers were presented with 16 toys, they moved from toy to toy. On average, they played with 8 of the 16 toys in those 20 minutes. None of the toddlers played with just one toy.
When the toddlers were only presented with 4 toys, they spent more time playing with one single toy. They were more focused as they played and used the toy in a variety of ways showing greater curiosity and creativity.
As toddlers, children are beginning to develop their attention skills. It can be difficult for them to hold their attention on any given toy or activity. However, the results from this study suggest that toddlers are capable of focusing on one toy if there aren’t too many toys around to distract them.
Toy rotation, popular among Montessori educators and caregivers, is an effective strategy to limit distractions in a child’s play environment. The idea of toy rotation is to have a few toys accessible to the child and to keep the rest in storage until, after a period of time, the caregiver rotates them. The timing of the rotations and which toys get rotated in and out are flexible. If a child always asks for a certain toy, then that toy can stay in rotation for several rounds (or indefinitely!).
Having fewer toys in a child’s environment promotes deeper, more creative play. They spend more time with each toy, manipulating it, and figuring out all sorts of ways to play with it.
Give Children Clearly Defined Tasks
Researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology recently found that giving a child a clearly defined task may be more effective at promoting independent play than giving broad directions. For example, instead of saying, “I need to finish reading this. Please go play with your toys,” caregivers can try saying, “Here are some puzzles. Do two of them while I finish reading this.”article continues after advertisement
This subtle change in communication can encourage children to play independently for longer.
It’s worth noting that although this might be a handy strategy for when a caregiver needs 10 to 20 minutes to get something urgent done, it might not be effective if it’s used too much. Most of the time, play that is child-led is more conducive to extended periods of independent play.
The Benefits of Independent Play for Caregivers
When kids play independently, it gives caregivers space to recharge and get things done. Taking a child-directed approach at home can help sustain children’s motivation to learn and supports parents’ ability to manage their feelings of emotional burnout.
In a study of homeschooling conducted by Jen Lois of Western Washington University, the most common piece of advice from seasoned homeschool parents was to “embrace more flexibility in their teaching styles and curricula.” Past research has shown that too much structure for homeschooling families tends to lead to emotional burnout. Rather than attempt to recreate a school environment at home, research suggests following children’s interests and allowing them to learn through play.
For some caregivers, this unstructured approach can trigger anxiety. To alleviate this anxiety, they may create highly structured routines. Control over family routines is a normal manifestation of anxiety, and mothers with controlling, perfectionist tendencies are particularly vulnerable to anxiety in the transition to motherhood, as researchers from the University of Stockton recently found.article continues after advertisement
The link between caregiver anxiety and control can work as a cycle. Although highly structured home learning environments can alleviate caregiver anxiety in the short term, it has been shown to dampen children’s motivation to learn. When children don’t feel motivated, they struggle to absorb and retain information. This then can leave caregivers feeling doubtful about their abilities in their role as teachers, leaving them with even more anxiety.
Independent play has become a necessity for families during the pandemic as caregivers balance the competing demands of working from home, parenting, and at-home learning. With practice and support, children can become more skilled in creating elaborate independent play scenarios that absorb their attention for days on end.