We know what you need more in your day: more time for yourself. It can be difficult to do when every time you get up off the play mat, your toddler cries for you or clings to your leg. Hence, children who can play on their own can be heaven sent.
Independent play, however, not only leaves you room to prepare dinner, it also nurtures and develops a handful of skills in your child. According to psychologist Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, solo play builds confidence, critical thinking, and creativity.
“It's the downtime for scribbling, making a car out of a cardboard box, or exploring the backyard that fosters the skills your child needs to be successful and fulfilled,” she tells Redbook.
More so, your child learns that he can enjoy his own company -- he doesn't get bored when he is by himself! -- and that he can trust and rely on his own ability to do things, says Heidi Murkoff, author of the What to Expect When You're Expecting series.
All children have the potential for independent play, says Janet Lansbury, parenting advisor and host of the popular podcast Respectful Parenting. Here's how you can foster your kids’ ability to do so:
1. Take it slow and steady. You don’t have to constantly engage your child in play. You don't have to be your child’s entertainer. “In a reasonably enriching environment, they will naturally seek out what they’re interested in,” says Lansbury. You can start introducing independent play from an early age. You can show your 1-year-old how stacking blocks or winding a jack-in-the-box works. After, take a step back, and let him do it. Babies are easily fascinated and intrigued so let them be. Observe from a distance (and if you can feel yourself meddling, engage in an activity of your own.) This way you avoid creating parent dependence during play at an early age.
2. Avoid influencing how your child will play. Don’t correct or give instructions ("hindi ganyan, anak. Do it this way") when your child plays. Let him figure out what he wants to do on his own. “Parents fill in the blanks too often. Even when they think they know all the right answers, adults need to give their children the permission to have their own ideas,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek told Parents. If he plays with a toy truck like a telephone, so be it.
Don't be a meddler, but stay responsive. Say you’re now browsing a magazine as your child is fully engaged in blocks when he decides to run over to you and hand you a piece. The next step is to respond with a comment and give the toy back. Then, go back to doing your own thing. Being responsive during play lets your child know that you don’t have to do the same things when you’re together. You can enjoy being in each other’s company even when doing separate activities.
If your child loses interest, try to keep the ball rolling by talking to her but not getting directly involved. Keep doing your activity, but say something like, “I see you stacked two blocks there. Can you stack three?”
3. Create a play area. Psychologist Dr. Margaret Paul, co-author of Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by My Kids?, tells Redbook, “The best way to encourage your child to lose herself in independent activities is to create secure, baby-proofed play areas in your home and yard that encourage experimentation.”
Lansbury says to remove items and objects that you don’t want your child getting into. This way there’s nothing to distract her from play and you don’t have to be constantly watching out for her.
4. Keep things interesting. Make sure there’s always something to catch your toddler’s attention. Little things can be enough like crayons, building blocks, costumes, and stacking cups. “Children can derive a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction with simple toys,” Dr. Evelyn Gapuz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Bonifacio Global City, told Smartparenting.com.ph in a separate article. Open-ended ones especially develop imagination and problem-solving skills.
You can be preparing dinner, and she can be in her own corner playing with her own pots and pans. You can even fill a low kitchen drawer with toys, books, and even colorful food plastic containers within easy reach of your child. In bed, when you’re busy with your own book, make sure he has books to keep him busy as well.
5. Be patient. If your 3-year-old already depends on you for play time, the transition to solitary play can take some time. “There's going to be a rocky period of adjustment. It’s not going to be seamless and smooth,” says Lansbury. Your child might already be used to having you as playmate so be patient with his progress. Trust that soon both of you will be enjoying your own “me-time”.