Earlier today, my two-year-old stirred his “meatballs and pasta,” aka the orange pipe cleaners and colorful puffs. He scooped the meatballs into the colander and even “tasted” his meal to make sure all was cooking well. And where was I? I was sitting a few feet away on the couch, alternating between writing notes for this particular blog post and reading a book, purposely avoiding hovering over his task.
I’m a huge fan of independent play. I decided early on that I wanted my kiddo to learn and enjoy how to play on his own in addition to playing with others. Sure, alone time provides me a breath in a normally busy day, but the benefits extend most importantly to my toddler:
- Privacy: Without a watchful eye peering into everything they’re doing, kids are free to play without fear of embarrassment or judgment. My toddler even pushes me away or asks me to go back to where I was so that he can continue playing in private (although sometimes he’ll do so when he’s doing something naughty).
- Problem-solving: Playing alone provides kids the chance to concentrate and focus, particularly when trying to learn a new skill or learn how a toy works. Recently, my toddler kept practicing how to close a particular box by sliding in its plastic cover from the side. I could have easily jumped in each time and solved his problem but preferred that he figure it out on his own and seek help should he decide he needed it.
- Less intrusions: Adults are less likely to jump in and hijack kids’ play and determine a certain direction. Alone time provides them the opportunity to truly create their own world however way they please.
- Ability to self-entertain: Rather than seeking outside stimulation from parents and caregivers, kids who play independently can easily entertain themselves in almost any environment. I don’t know if my toddler has ever been bored since he’s likely to find fun anywhere (Except clothing stores. Is this a guy thing or what?).
Although independent play is at its root played… independently, I still do my best to encourage my toddler by:
- Setting him up with props. For instance, I placed the aforementioned “meatballs and pasta” along with the colander on his little table. He couldn’t have reached up the kitchen cupboard to grab the colander, nor sift through the hallway cabinets to find the pipe cleaners. But once I set him up with his playthings, he’s usually ready to go.
- Answering his questions. I’m usually nearby even if he’s playing by himself, so once in a while he’ll holler a question and knows that I’m nearby to answer.
- Praising him. While I make sure to provide him ample time and space to himself, I also want him to know that his behavior is encouraged. I keep the praise subtle though, and stick to descriptive praise rather than evaluative: “Looks like you’re enjoying your meatballs and pasta.” I won’t even say anything but swing by and run my hand through his head or give him a kiss.
I normally know when my toddler is ready for more interactive play: he’ll either come up to me, call me over or start talking more frequently than when he had been quietly playing. Those are my cues that he’s ready for a play mate.
Playing with others of course has its own benefits as well: the “distractions” of parents, caregivers and other kids are also necessary for kids to develop social skills and handle emotions, for instance. Yet as parents, we feel obligated to play with our kids all the time. I know I’ve felt guilty for washing the dishes while he plays at his little table once in a while.
Independent play isn’t merely “lazy parenting.” Playing alone provides kids so many benefits that we shouldn’t feel guilty when we’re not interacting with our kids all the time. And while independent play takes place for brief pockets throughout the day (sorry, no two-hour blocks of me-time here), I still encourage alone time with my toddler for its many benefits.
How do you encourage independent play with your kids? Is your child able to play by himself or herself or does he or she require more adult interaction? Does your child thrive with independent play or need more interaction?
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