There are many factors that contribute to a child’s ability to play independently.
This is something that is important for the child as much as it is important for the parent. Play is a child’s opportunity to process their experiences and It is how they communicate, process, rationalise, problem solve and make sense of their internal worlds.
For us as parents, space from our children is healthy and needed. When our children engage in independent play it allows us to complete tasks or chores without overwhelm or to have space to fill our cups which allows us to parent with renewed sense of calm when our children return to our presence.
SET UP THE PLAYSPACE
Provide your child with passive, open ended toys where the child needs to ‘work’ and activate their imaginations in order for the play to be fulfilling. This is opposed to providing toys that ‘play for the child’ – such as toys that play a song or licensed character toys.
Ensure that the toys in the play space are age appropriate. The child needs to be able to use and manipulate the toys by themselves and not depend on the help of an adult to put something together for them. This breaks the flow of play for the child but also reinforces that they need our help in order to be able to play.
Be mindful of things within your environment that might overwhelm the child. This could include screens within the play space that can be distracting for a child when they are playing. This also means considering the content of the playspace, ensuring it is simple, toys are easily seen and limiting the options available.
A play space that is close to our physical presence works best. It is unlikely that children will willingly play in a room completely separate from the rest of the house. They are biologically wired to want to be within the safety of our physical presence. A play space that is open to the rest of the house, or in a location where we are easily accessible, best supports independent play.
Toy rotations are a great way to reignite play with toys you already own and meet specific interests and developmental schemas as this changes for a child over time.
For more tips on curating a playspace, read this blog.
Be mindful not to initiate the child’s play for them. When we are invited to play with our children, we should follow their instructions and directive for what the play should look like. There are obviously exceptions for unsafe behaviours but for the most part, the child initiates the play and we are passive in this process. This builds autonomy and supports the child to believe that play is their work and a domain in their life in which they have power and creative freedom.
A child plays best without our direct supervision and interruption. When we observe our children in a deep state of flow within their play we must be mindful not to disrupt them but also not to praise their play with words like “that looks so good” or “you are playing so well” – instead remain neutral and if anything, comment on the effort or ask questions such as “oh you built that all by yourself” or “tell me about what you have created” and only if or when the child has approached you to show you their play.
ADJUST OUR EXPECTATIONS
It is developmentally appropriate for children to have a shorter attention span to us as adults. Typically, a child’s attention span will be*:
- 2 years old: four to six minutes
- 4 years old: eight to 12 minutes
- 6 years old: 12 to 18 minutes
- 8 years old: 16 to 24 minutes
- 10 years old: 20 to 30 minutes
- 12 years old: 24 to 36 minutes
- 14 years old: 28 to 42 minutes
- 16 years old: 32 to 48 minutes
We can extend this through mindfully curating a playspace that meets a child’s developmental needs/schemas and interests. But we must be mindful that periods of independent play will most likely be small pockets of time across the course of the day.
Another consideration is how we speak about play in your home. It is important to remain neutral when encouraging our children to play. We don’t want to associate negative of difficult emotions with play such as when we tell our children to “go and play” with a tone that reflects our frustration. When encouraging play, we can do so in a tone that is free from carrying any emotions with it which builds a child’s internal motivation to do what they are intrinsically born to seek anyway.