Well, this is a huge topic. I get asked about it almost daily. I could chat and write about it all day. But I won’t. Because that would be a snooze-fest. So I will stick to my usual bit of chatter and then do five top tips on ways to encourage your little people to play independently. I’m no expert. I’m not a psychologist. I’m a Mum who worked in education, sharing what I do at home to make our lives easier…
Firstly, let me say this. Independent play where they go off and find ways to play, discover and explore by themselves without your support, comment and input is JUST as important as you playing with them. They need this time as much as they need the five minutes where you play with them, five minutes of chat or five minutes of reading throughout the day. It’s a part of the balance.
Why is it important?
Because without being given this space and freedom they can’t truly discover themselves. The boredom is necessary to allow their brains to create. If someone is always directing then they won’t ever realise what they can do alone and build confidence in themselves and their choices. There is loads of research on why this is so vital for children to play freely if you want to search it out online.
MY FIVE TOP TIPS
“I feel so bad for ‘ignoring’ them.”
Here’s my biggest tip. Play a five minute game FIRST. Before you do anything else, do a quick five minute game with them where they get your full undivided attention. Play and chat and get down to their level. If you do this first, when you leave them alone later you can tell yourself they have had your time and attention already, they haven’t been ignored, and the guilt should be kept at bay. Plus if you’ve shown them how to play a game they are more likely to continue alone.
“Mummy is busy, go and play”
After we have played, I explain I have jobs to do and then walk away. If they keep coming up to me I say “Mummy is busy, go and play” ON REPEAT, and I busy myself with whatever jobs needs doing. Eventually they go and play and I watch them from the kitchen with my rubber gloves on, as they invent and create better games than I could EVER think up. You might feel bad for five minutes while you’re saying it, but when you see what they come up with you realise it was worth it and they actually needed the encouragement. Hold tight!
Set it up
To encourage them to play, I often lay out three toys or activities. Nothing big! I find a (slightly less) messy space in the house and I will pop out, for example - a couple of dolls and a blanket, half the Duplo blocks and the animal box. I dig a few toys out of the cupboard and put them where they can see them. I do a mini set up of the happy land figures where they will find them. Spending five minutes doing this is often called ‘an invitation to play’ and will mean they are much more likely to explore the toys themselves. Pointing at a shut cupboard where the toys are will result in cries of ‘but I’m bored’ immediately. Kids are lazy. Make it simple for them. Make it simple for you.
If you’ve never really introduced this idea of independent play before then sand timers are a great idea. I have these ones with multiple times on. I got them off Amazon. So start small. Put out a couple of toys, set the five minute timer on where they can see it, explain how it works and say ‘Mummy is busy while this timer is on” - then over the weeks you can gradually up the time until they get the hang of it. A general rule I tended to stick to was - age two they can do 10 minutes of independent play at a time, age three they can do 20 minutes and age 4 then can go for half an hour. I think I got that off Supernanny years ago!
Curb the Interruptions
Often, we see our child playing and because we are all wonderful, diligent parents we comment on what they are doing. ‘Look at that tower!’ ‘what colour is that car you’ve got?’ ‘aren’t you doing a great job with those bricks?’ We can’t help ourselves! It’s a natural response, of course it is, and talking is SO crucial to child development. However, if you are trying to encourage a bit more independent play perhaps try to ensure that sometimes when they are involved in play you say nothing. Just watch from a distance or even tip-toe back out the room and let them crack on. It doesn’t have to be every time but perhaps every so often if they are totally engrossed, let them stay in that bubble.
So I hope that’s helpful. On instagram I have a story highlight on my profile page where I video chat all about this. What I’m really trying to say is what I am always trying to say with this blog, don’t feel guilty. Five minutes is enough. Independent play is important. You have jobs to do too. Let’s keep it all in balance, five minutes at a time.