Play is hugely important for your child’s learning and development, especially independent play times. Playing alone, or independent play, is a good time for your child to learn and explore more about themselves and the world around them.
However, living in the digital age has made parenting more difficult than ever.
Advice on raising children is now given across numerous different outlets and platforms and often, this advice is very confusing and conflicting.
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Children’s play is no exception – if you don’t interact with your child, then you’re doing wrong and if you interact and play with them too much, then also you’re doing it wrong!
But, when it comes to independent play, there are plenty of benefits as to why this should be encouraged with your child.
Teaching your children to entertain themselves isn’t just beneficial for them, but it also allows you some space to get other things done whilst your children play by themselves.
Why Is Independent Play Important?
Bonding with your child is crucial and every moment spent together is important for both physical and emotional development. However, when your child is playing, it doesn’t always require you to watch over them.
Independent play has plenty of benefits, for both you as the parent and your child.
1. Encourages Creativity & Imagination
Often, when an adult engages in play with children, the creativity of the play often becomes limited as your child will likely play off your reactions and ideas.
Whilst playtime with parents, siblings or caregivers is vital for other areas of development, independent play can carry a lot more value.
Independent play helps your child to develop their creativity and imagination, as they can create their own stories, roles and characters.
Independent play can come into action anywhere during the day, whether it’s in the car on the way to nursery or in the bath at bedtime (with adult supervision, of course).
Try to find things, which your child can use to develop their creativity and imagination no matter where they are, such as window stickers and toys in the car or fun character baby washcloths for bath time or just loose parts.
Colours, characters, shapes and even letters and numbers can all help develop creativity and imagination.
2. Builds Social Independence
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive, encouraging your child to play independently can actually build on their social independence and will likely teach them to instigate play with other children.
Independent play, away from a parent, can help children to learn how to mimic empathy and conversational skills, especially if, when playing, they are using role playing toys or figures.
Playing independently can also help children to notice social cues, develop listening skills and learn how to consider another person’s perspective.
3. Can Become A Calming Activity
Independent play can bring calmness to a child, especially at times when other activities aren’t appropriate or when quiet time is needed.
Unlike playing with adults or other children, the child is in control of how much stimulus is put into the play activity and they can use their imagination to create a storyline.
Independent play is often introduced to toddlers when they drop naptime and parents choose to replace nap time with quiet, independent play.
After they have gotten used to replacing nap-time with independent play, young children will likely start to choose independent play at times when calm is needed, such as early in the morning or if, as a parent, you’re working and need some quiet time.
As children get older, they tend to take themselves off to play independently, which is a good trait to have as they grow up.
4. Helps With Problem Solving and Critical Thinking
Without the help of an adult or their peers, children are seemingly “forced” into making their own decisions and judgement when playing independently, helping them to think and solve problems on their own.
Figuring out where things go, how to match up a puzzle or even just navigating what to play with and when — can all help children figure out and learn how to navigate through their playtime on their own.
5. Encourages Self Care For Both You And Your Child
Independent play can not only become a form of self care for children, but can also allow self care opportunities for parents.
Being a parent is hard work – both mentally and physically – and constantly setting up activities and engaging in play with your child can take its toll, which then makes it a less than enjoyable experience for the both of you.
By encouraging your child to take part in independent play, you are also getting the chance to sit and enjoy a hot cup of tea, read a chapter or two of a book, make any important phone calls or even just watch an episode of your favourite show.
When it comes to self play, make sure that you set boundaries and ensure your child understands what they are and aren’t allowed to do during this time.
For example, are they allowed to play in the kitchen, or are they best playing in their bedroom or the sitting room? Are they allowed to use craft materials? Can they play independently outside?
Allowing your child to learn, follow rules and understand boundaries helps in holistic development as they grow older, however there are of course some safety guidelines which you should follow whilst encouraging independent play.
Children should always be monitored during times at which water is present, with as little depth of water as possible if your child is playing independently.
If your little one enjoys crafts, then remove scissors from their reach and instead, teach them how to use scissors safely with one-on-one craft time and child-friendly scissors.
In case you allow your little one to play independently in the kitchen, then ensure that this is at a time where there is no food cooking and access to hot elements and sharp objects is removed.
How To Encourage Independent Play
Taking part in age appropriate independent play is possible for most children and is something that you and your child can both get involved in and reap the benefits.
If you’re struggling to encourage independent play with your child and find that they keep drifting back to involve you in their play time, then there are some things you can do:
1. Wait For Engagement
Allow your child to set up their playtime and then just sit next to them and watch them play. When they are focused on their activity, start to move away from them a little and, when they look at you for interaction, interact with them by praising their efforts.
Avoid saying things such as “good job!” and instead say things like “I can see how hard you’ve worked on that”.
2. Don’t Hover
In order to encourage your child to take part in regular independent play and enjoy their own space, you need to allow them to experience this.
Avoid hovering over your child as they are playing on their own or asking questions such as “Are you Ok?”, as this can make them feel as though playing independently isn’t safe without you there, which may put them off from playing independently.
3. Limit Screen Time
Whilst there is no harm in allowing your child screen time, it is easy for them to rely on screens to give them all stimulation, and often too much of it.
By splitting time between screen time and independent play, your child is getting to learn important skills for their development and future, whilst also enjoying the relaxation that screen time can give.
4. Limit Over-The-Top Toys
From a young age, children are introduced to all singing, all dancing toys that light up, make noise and are overly colourful.
Whilst these are great for providing sensory play experiences, when it comes to independent play, you want to give children toys that can encourage their creativity.
Things such as train sets, blocks, playhouses, mud/play kitchens, loose parts and role playing toys, such as dolls, have endless play possibilities and can change every time they are used.
These toys can help encourage independent play and the more basic the toy, the more interactive the play!
5. Be Aware of Overstimulation
Although independent play is important for your child’s development, it’s also important for you to recognise the signs of overstimulation, especially after prolonged periods of independent play or screen time.
In case you notice your child is tired, cranky, restless or is just overly irritable after a long independent play session or after using a screen, then take them into a quiet space where they can decompress and just sit with them.
If you can, dim the light in the room. It might be time for a nap, a quiet lay-down with a drink or even just a story for a few minutes.
When Should I be Encouraging My Child To Play Independently?
It’s important to remember that every child is different and independent play is dependent on personality, temperament and development stage.
Every child’s ability to play independently is going to be different so, as with everything else, it’s best not to compare one child to another, especially with what you read online.
Depending on the age of your child, independent play capabilities will differ. For example, a 1 year old will likely only entertain themselves for between 2 and 5 minutes, whilst a 5 year old will probably enjoy independent play for around 10 and 25 minutes at a time.
Over to You…
One final thing to remember when it comes to encouraging independent play is not to be afraid of boredom! It’s important for children to learn how to be bored and see what solutions they come up with to combat this.