Fostering Independent Play
Leading Emotional Dynamics expert, Erik Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…, has been changing the lives of children, teens and adults for two decades. As a psychologist, media consultant and author, his unique and creative approach to his work has earned him the respect and accolades of his clientele, his colleagues, and the media. On the radio, he has been providing interviews for more than 15 years on stations across North America and has been interviewed for countless print articles in magazines, from Parents to Cosmopolitan, and newspapers across the country from The Atlanta Constitution to the Chicago Tribune the the L.A. Times. Dr. E… has two published books, The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With and The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict: Understanding Emotions and Power Struggles and proposals for three book concepts. As he says, "Life happens for us, not to us, and understanding that is the key to our own empowerment."
Learning how to play independently can be challenging for some kids.
- Be patient and take your time when introducing new tactics.
- Give your kids some of your own time before they play alone.
- Start with short intervals of solo play, like 5-10 minutes, and build from there.
- Be aware of your voice tone and words and keep calm during this training and transition process.
Mommy? Daddy? Mommy? Daddy? Will you play with me? Play with me. Please play with me. I’m bored. There’s nothing to do… It’s been some time since I have heard those words, since my daughter is 15. How many hours of dolls, tea parties, playground, blocks, computer games and so many more activities have we spent with our kids? Certainly, those are times to be cherished. However, how often have we have fostered independent play?
From very early ages we are building our child’s view of the world. Do we pick them up every time they fall? Do we respond to every cry and request? Do we play with them every time they ask us to play? I think the answer is no. And if we did, would that be healthy?
Some children love to entertain themselves. They have great imaginations. They can build stories in their mind and with their toys, and even in some situations, you may feel like you are intruding on their play when you try to join in. On the other hand, it may feel like other kids need guidance, direction, and companionship for almost everything they may do. In both situations, balance is an important piece of that equation. It is important for kids who do play independently to also learn to play with others. It’s helpful to learn sharing, cooperation, gain social skills, express their emotions, share their ideas, and allow others into the creative process.
The other side of this is that sometimes kids who play alone are wishing someone would play with them and may not know how to, nor feel comfortable asking others to play. They may see the world going on without them, while they watch and wish to feel included. So, be conscious of asking them if they want company, and or just go ahead and join in and ask what you can do to be a part of their play, not apart from it. Also keep in mind to vary the type of activities they do games, crafts, outdoor play, doll play, regardless of their gender.
But what about those kids who can’t seem to do anything on their own? How can you encourage their independent play? Often when kids are asking people to play with them all the time, they may be looking for comfort, companionship, security, structure, entertainment… the reasons may be different, and sometimes it can be just as easy to ask them what they are needing.
For kids that need comfort and security, consider ways to build their confidence and self-comfort. They may not feel comfortable with alone time. As they grow up, they may always feel that they need someone around, and dependency can be an issue. Sometimes helping them feel ok is a matter of your voice tone, and other times, it’s the use of words. When we feel that our kids may want us all the time, at times, our tone can sound irritated, critical and/or judging, and sometimes our words can sound hurtful.
Be aware of how you encourage more independent play, from a place of love and support or a place of guilt and shame.
- Come from a place of sounding soothing.
- Call on past times of their success.
- Give them some ideas and help them develop other ideas.
Let them know that you will be close by and be careful to not always come to their rescue.
Sometimes the hardest job I have in my work as a psychologist is helping parents to let their kids “fail” and feel failure. The purpose of failure is that it tells us when it’s time to learn.
Some kids just need structure. They may not have the skills of organized thought or may not have developed the process of stopping to consider options. It is as much an opportunity to help them realize all the ways that the world of play is their oyster, as it is to help them learn organizational skills through play. Help them to see through the process of play. That means the different things they can do.
Help them learn to create stories. Ask them questions about their thoughts and ideas. Sometimes kids don’t like to feel failure and/or can feel overwhelmed easily and so they would rather not play alone and feel lost. While for some creativity and structure is their strength, for others, it is important to foster that. Along these lines, sometimes kids like to play with structured toys, that provide definition for what can be done with them, i.e., kits, crafts, games…
In helping them to find balance:
- Encourage time and activities to build creativity,
- Ask them what else they might do with the kit or craft after they are done,
- Make sure that they have some things to play with that are open ended, like a box of building blocks, crayons and paints, a sandbox…
Thinking out of the box is a valuable tool, especially in the workforce. Help them learn flexibility and adaptability with structure.
Let You Entertain Me
How about those kids who just seem to want to be entertained??? They often look to others to have someone play with them, to be told or shown what to do, to fill their time… They may seem to lack their own creativity. They claim that they are bored… Kids who may behave like this can benefit from being stretched and challenged.
Like the child with security issues, you will want to consider their underlying emotions and actions:
- lack of confidence,
- low risk-taking,
- higher egocentrism and self-importance…
What you don’t want to do is to raise a child who believes that the world should entertain them, and other people become their object of play to do their bidding. Once again, balance is an issue, and helping them to find their own ability to entertain themselves means is okay.
Encourage them to start to play by…
- Creating a story with dolls that they may share with you when they are done,
- Coloring by themselves,
- Suggesting an idea of something to build or make…
It’s okay for them to struggle. It builds resilience, confidence, flexibility…
An activity that I have taught parents for years that encourages independent play, is to make a list with your child of all the different things they can do by themselves. You can write it down if they are old enough to read, and even then, I still suggest using pictures that they can refer to remind them of the activity. You can ask them to pick one, you can have them roll some dice to see which number activity comes up. You can organize them by type of activity and spin a wheel to help them pick. However you may set it up, have them be a part of the list generation. Be careful with them to not go back to the same activity again and again. You might even want to set a timer for time for them to play by themselves so that they are relying on the timer and not you to tell them when time is up. Hopefully, they will come to the place where they will not care about time.
Most importantly, enjoy the journey.