Supporting your Child’s Independent Play

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by Janet Lansbury

For the first three months of my daughter’s life, it didn’t occur to me she could be happily occupied, independent of my hovering. I assumed it my duty to occupy her every waking moment with activity, which left me exhausted, confused and overwhelmed. Then I took a parent-infant guidance class at Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) and followed my instructor’s first and most basic suggestion: place my baby on her back on a blanket on the floor and step back, relax and observe. To my astonishment, she lay there perfectly at peace for the two hour duration of the class.

Taking that giant step back to observe my baby was the ticket to an exciting adventure, because I was then able to begin to know and enjoy my daughter, while also witnessing the physical, cognitive, creative and therapeutic benefits of her personal, uninterrupted play.

For parents with children ages 3-6, encouraging a child’s independence follows the same philosophy – parents must learn to trust their children are capable and active learners. This isn’t always easy, of course, because your 3-6 year olds are sending a mixed message that might be interpreted as “I can’t.” They are in the process of gaining independence, discovering and flexing their power, which often means pushing until they find our limits – testing what it takes to make us jump (and how high). Whining and crying are sometimes their preferred method of communication. This is not being “bad” — they’re just doing their job.

Taken at face value, these age appropriate tests and requests for our entertainment (“can you play, can you draw for me?”) might lead us to conclude, “My child obviously needs me desperately and can’t possibly play alone!” As parents, we may also be reticent to assert our own needs and wishes, because we want to avoid confronting our child’s strong emotions. Either way, we can end up causing our children to “unlearn” to play and decrease their tolerance for boredom.

Here are some key steps to freeing children (and ourselves) from play and entertainment dependencies:

1. Let go of any guilt about not being a “playmate.”

Own completely that “entertainer” is not part of your job description. In fact, regularly entertaining our kids isn’t healthy for them, because they can easily become dependent on us for fun. When parents project guilt, children pick up on our discomfort, sense us vacillating and are then inclined to keep working at us until our message is clear. Our ambivalence can become a bit torturous for both of us.  So it’s actually kinder to take the high-road and do what is best for our kids – rather than what will please them in the moment. A child’s push-back is (always) a positive, developmentally-appropriate assertion of will. Our kids have a right to their opinion and we should encourage them to express it.

By accepting their frustration, anger or other “differences of opinion” readily, we teach our children that they are safe to share all their feelings with us.  These feelings need to be acknowledged, but not be decision-changers. We accept and proceed confidently, “I’m busy right now but will play with you after dinner… I hear how badly you want me to play. That’s upsetting, I know.” This is healthy limit-setting.

2. Less is more when it comes to play.

Of course it’s always wonderful to play with our children, but it’s more valuable to the children to do so as an observer and assistant, rather than as a director. When an obstacle comes up (like the ball gets stuck in a tree), staying in a supporting role might mean asking lots of leading questions rather than offering a solution. The word to live by is ‘wait’. We wait to see how our child might solve the problem. We calmly wait and let it be okay if he or she decides to leave it unsolved and move on.

We want our kids to be the idea people, the lead actors, directors and writers of their play, while we remain in the audience. We trust them to be creators, initiators, problem-solvers. Through this way of “playing together”, children transition readily to playing alone because they learn to enjoy it and know they are capable.

While you play, keep checking in with yourself – are you following or leading? Remind yourself that whatever your child is choosing to do is the most invaluable thing. Be okay with your child’s process exactly as it is. For example, when putting a puzzle together, a child might feel stuck. Allow it. If help is requested, ask your child what she would like you to do. Remain unstressed and un-invested in “finishing” and your child might decide to return to this challenge later.

Another example: let’s say our child is stacking blocks and the blocks tumble. If she doesn’t look towards you, it’s probably best not to say anything or even assume that this is a problem. If she does look toward you, or perhaps you hear her groan, you might then narrate: “I saw that. When you tried to put the red block on the top, the green and blue ones fell down.”

Never say no to a request for help, but ask lots of questions and assist as minimally as possible. Using the block tower example, you might go close to your child and ask, “What are you trying to do?”

“I want to make a tower.”

“You have the blue and yellow blocks stacked here, what block will you use next?”

“That one.”

“Okay, so let’s see how you’ll place that green one on top of the yellow one…”

Usually, this type of support is all the help children need.

3. Discomfort is okay.

If your child comes to you saying she’s bored, allow her to have that feeling without worrying or feeling responsible for changing this dynamic. Let it be okay to be inert, without ideas – that place of discomfort often leads to the most creative places. Remind yourself this discomfort is a healthy part of life and happening for a reason.

Playing doesn’t need to look like we might envision it – drumming one’s fingers on the arm of the couch or doing nothing at all, just “being” is enough.

4.  Remember your role

Be clear — project confidence: “I am going to do some things in the kitchen” (Remember, our children can’t possibly feel comfortable separating unless we are.)

Offer a choice, if possible: “Would you like to help me shuck the corn or will you play in your room?”

Acknowledge feelings and desires: “Oh, I know you want me to keep playing with you. I see how upset you are. We can do that again after dinner. “

Develop routine times for independent play: This makes separation easier for your child to accept.

Provide your child with a 100% safe space and open-ended toys or objects: Her ability to create without limitations will support and encourage her imagination, help her to commune more deeply with her curiosity, her unique process and personal interests.

5. Set limits when it comes to screen-time and passive-receptive toys

If you offer your 3-6 year olds periods of passive entertainment (like video games and TV shows), do this only at the end of the day, or in the late afternoon. Morning time is when children have the most energy, physical and mental, for creating play. Research definitively shows that passive entertainment negatively affects kids’ concentration and focus; they seem more dazed throughout the day.

6. Patterns of dependency can be fixed at any age

If you’ve unwittingly become your child’s entertainer, make this transition honestly. In response to a request for you to do the playing, you might say to your child, “I know I used to do that, but I don’t do that anymore. I’m going to let you be in charge.”

For example, if you and your child are drawing together and your child is asking you to draw a horse, you might say, “Okay, what kind of a mane should the horse have, short or long? What color should the mane be? Can you show me how the mane should look? Cool! Now, where should the ears go?” Intervene as minimally as possible and continue to lob the ball back to your child. Practice this pattern of communication during the transition, and your child (and you!) will adapt.

Remember these golden rules of parenting:

The more we do (or toys do):

  • the less our child does
  • the more our child thinks he needs us (or toys) to do for him
  • the less confident, capable, creative and fulfilled she feels

Janet Lansbury was mentored by world renown infant specialist Magda Gerber (beginning in 1993), transformed from a clueless new mom to a passionate parent educator. She’s been guiding and supporting parents ever since. Now a mother of three, Janet facilitates weekly Parent/Infant Guidance Classes and is a member of the board of directors of Resources for Infant Educarers, commonly known as RIE (rye), the international, non-profit organization Magda Gerber founded in 1978.

Please share your thoughts/anecdotes/musings about this topic below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Happiness, Modern Parenting