Independent Play: Five Hints to Get the Ball Rolling

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Our obsessive focus on play and all the books, articles and websites on the subject seems a little ironic. Wasn’t exploring, creating, learning and socializing through independent play once the traditional childhood pastime? And now we seem to be struggling to get play back. Where did it go?

I guess I’ll save that mystery for another day, but I bring this up now as a reminder that play did and still does come naturally to children. Kids don’t need us to teach or show them how to do it (or do it for them while they watch). They do need us to provide a reasonably enriching, welcoming and safe environment and keep distractions (like us) at bay…which is easier said than done.

Here are some hints…

Make time for play part of your daily routine — a big part.

From early infancy on, let the time between meals and sleep belong to play. Create a safe place geared to your child’s mobility so you don’t overwhelm her with space and choices or cramp her style. A small room or cordoned off section of a room usually is enough for the first couple of years. Make the space comfortable for you to sit in or near, and convenient enough for you to be in earshot while you attend to your activities. Outdoor spaces are preferable whenever possible.

The routines we create should be flexible and built to suit our child’s rhythms. Routines become habits, and there is no better habit for children than play.

Present play positively, honestly, gradually.

Playtime is a gift for babies and children…and for parents, too, because we have an occupied child and the opportunity to take a break or get work done. But since children have special radar that detects our agenda a mile away, we can’t get away with trying to dump and go.  No one of any age wants to feel like they’re being dumped or set aside for more important things.

Make the transition to playtime slow and gradual. Hang out for a while, nourish your child with your attention, and then tell her where you will be, what you will be doing, when you’ll be back. Parents who sneak away end up with children who don’t focus well or play for long. They’re looking over their shoulder to see whether we’ve left.

Don’t roll the ball back. Learn to foster independent play while you’re together.

I know, not rolling a ball back when your baby rolls it toward you sounds almost sacrilegious. But when we observe children play, we notice that much of what they do is experimentation. “What happens if I push this ball?” they wonder.  These experiments will continue if we can refrain from interfering.

It’s always super easy for us to do something that engages our children — harder to just quietly watch, or offer a simple reflection like, “you pushed that ball and it rolled away,” which doesn’t alter their inner-directed train of thought but does assure them we’re paying attention.

Our attuned passivity allows our child to be more active, inventive and independent. This is the “art” of fostering independent play

Beware of overstimulation and screens.

Children don’t invent play if they have the option of screens (television, computer, smartphone…). Try not to use screens at all for the first years, and limit their use to late afternoon downtime after you introduce them. If you are hoping to establish the habit of play as self-entertainment, screens will undo you.

Don’t fear the boredom monster.


What appears to be boredom is usually tiredness or the healthy bit of inertia children need just before the next good idea materializes. Boredom, imagination, and the ease with which children once played independently are all one, and they are becoming extinct together. Who can tolerate a moment of inertia when screens are readily available for entertainment and distraction? *Sigh* Don’t get me started.

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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