How to encourage independent play
Yesterday Salem (3) found some paint.
I was downstairs. She shouted from the top of the stairs.
“Mom! Come look, I painting.”
Oh no, this can’t be good, I thought.
I told her to bring her paints & her painting downstairs to the table. She had found Amalia’s (5), paint set. I made a split-second decision–take the paints away (they were her sister’s after all), or let her continue on her creative path. I decided most of the paints were dried up anyway, & she was so happy, so I opted for the later approach. I told her to set up shop at the kitchen table. She went to town for another 20 minutes–mixing, remixing, & getting very messy. I was proud.
Another thing happened where Salem showed her independence & I encouraged her.
While cleaning, I found a kid’s Clif bar stuffed under some of the kid’s things. Salem said she wanted it. I said fine. She ran off to the kitchen with her granola bar (still in the wrapper). I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water & saw that Salem had pulled up a chair to one of the countertops. She grabbed the kid scissors out of one of our pen/junk cups on the counter & was now cutting open the granola bar. Instead of reprimanding her for getting & using scissors, I said nothing. I was happy she figured out on her own how to find a solution to her problem. And a quick side note–instead of hiding scissors (impossible to do in a large household), we teach our kids from a very early age how to use scissors & their proper use & role, though this is not to say we haven’t had a few surprise haircuts!
How to encourage independent play in young children
On last week’s post about how to raise independent children, many of you left some great comments. I want to address one in particular.
I really like this philosophy but I am really struggling to implement it. I have 4 and 2 year old boys. When I leave them alone (in another room) they always get into mischief and/or hurt each other. It’s gotten to the point that I have major anxiety when I know I can’t consciously be aware of them 100%. I have small moments where they will be happily playing for 15-30 minutes, but that’s about it. I’m not sure what to do! I definitely teach and encourage kind behavior – how do I transition from this to independent kids?
Fabulous question Katie!
Believe me, I know what it’s like to have crazy little boys who, left to their own devices can create some massive mayhem. It was only a few years ago that my boys were at this stage.
Here are a few things to remember, when striving to encourage independent play & thinking.
How to encourage independent play & a few things to keep in mind:
1. Messes will be made. That’s okay!
As long as they aren’t ruining expensive furniture or destroying things that matter, a little (or even a big mess) is okay. I let my kids get all the pillows & blankets in the house to make one big jumping pile. I let them build forts. I let them take out pots & pans to play with, I let them cut up dozens of pieces of paper into tiny pieces. Anytime they can come up with ways to play & entertain themselves on their own, barring anything dangerous or downright wasteful, I want to encourage it.
2. When kids are little (pre-K & younger), they shouldn’t be left alone (for the reasons you point out).
Encouraging independent play at this age may look something like this: letting them play in an adjacent room where you can still see &/or hear them (intervening as necessary to keep the peace); allowing them to play outside in a back or front yard where you can see them, but aren’t hovering over them or telling them how to play or what to do; taking them to a park & letting them explore by allowing them to go wherever they want (as long as it’s not somewhere where they could get hurt, like a parking lot) while you trail behind to keep an eye, but you let them decide where to go. As your kids get older, the mischief creating will lessen, & it will become easier for them to be left semi-supervised for longer periods of time.
3. Create an environment that encourages play & fosters creativity.
I find that keeping toys organized (not perfectly, but everything does have it’s place) & our home fairly clean, helps my kids know where they can find everything they need to entertain themselves. We have books in every room of the house. They know where to find crayons, pencils, paper, & glue to make crafts or drawings. I have books on how to draw for the older ones, coloring & activity books for the younger ones. We have puzzles of all levels, legos, cars, blocks, dolls. They have the tools, the safe environment, my job is to simply encourage them to find something to do.
4. It’s okay if kids get bored, in fact, it’s important that they do sometimes.
When kids get bored, it gives them an opportunity to exercise critical & creative thinking skills. They get the wheels a’churnin’, & they come up with ways to entertain themselves. My boys have created some fantastic games because of this.
If a child says: “I’m bored!” I reply with, “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s too bad. What are some things that you think you could do so that you’re not bored?”
I let them think it through for a bit. If they can’t come up with anything, I give them two options or ideas. If they continue with the whining, I give them a chore to do. Usually we don’t have to go that far.
5. Teach your child a love of reading.
If your child can learn to love books, they will never be bored, they will always be capable of entertaining themselves.
I’m finally really starting to enjoy the fruits of my labors with this. All four of my older kids (including my three year old Salem) can often be found reading by themselves or to each other. My oldest (8), can read chapter books for hours (thank goodness for Harry Potter!) & the others, though not quite to that level, can sit quietly for large chunks of time reading. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Do you have any advice for Katie, anything to add to the list?