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life + work + parenthood + COMMUNITY

  • Writer's pictureJill Devine Media

Letting your child play alone

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

Child playing alone
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Lu recently transitioned into a new room at school and we like to ask her questions about her new room, teachers, and friends.  She may tell us she played with a certain toy or read a certain book and I will ask if any of her friends joined her.  Sometimes she will say yes and sometimes she says no.  I will then ask if she played alone and sometimes she says yes.  My next question, "do you like playing alone?" and she says yes.

For some reason it pains me to hear her say she plays alone.  WHY?  I'm guessing it's the Mama Bear in me and I want my child to be included in everything, BUT then I think back to my childhood and some of my fondest memories are playing alone.  I loved going in the basement and turning a section into my "classroom" where I was the teacher.  I loved playing with my Barbies.  I loved playing with my Hot Wheel cars. I loved roller skating in the basement.

For some reason, I am having a hard time thinking Lu is playing by herself at school and even at home.  Again, WHY?

Thank goodness I stumbled across this article.  If you are having some of the same thoughts as me, read some highlights I have copied and pasted for you:

Stop the Mom Guilt—It’s OK for Your Child to Play Alone

Play is the vital work of early childhood; we’ve heard that before.

But time and time again, it’s sometimes disregarded by parents and caretakers in favor of structured activities, extracurriculars, and plenty of after-school plans. As the push for success and competition increases in our communities, so does the pressure to advance our kids quickly through academic goals.

Open-ended and independent play often takes a back seat.

Play, however, is one of the things that can build all the skills and tools necessary for kids to grow into successful and sufficient adults. Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research at the Institute for Child Success, a nonpartisan think tank focused on improving outcomes for young children, agrees. “For children, play is associated with positive cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. The evidence is so strong that in August, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a recommendation for their providers to ‘prescribe’ play for children they see – encouraging parents and other adults in a child’s life to play with them, particularly unstructured play where we can follow a child’s lead,” Carolan said.

Play is one of the things that can build all the skills and tools necessary for kids to grow into successful and sufficient adults.

Unstructured and child-centered play allows kids to develop social-emotional skills like self-regulation and cooperation when they have to take turns at the playground, physical skills when they try out the monkey bars or have room to run at a local park, and cognitive skills when they problem solve in the sandbox, Carolan explains. The benefits of play are endless.

As parents, though, we don’t always have the chance to engage in quality play with our kids all the time. For those moments when we need to cook, get some work done, or have a brief moment alone, how can we encourage our kids to play independently in a quality way?

Why is independent play important?

Rachel Giannini, Early Childhood Specialist and Content Creator at Chicago Children’s Museum, explains, “It’s important for children to find joy in themselves. A built-in playmate in life is not a guarantee, and children need to learn how to entertain themselves.” As adults who are often tied to devices for constant entertainment, we find this to be truer than ever – and raising kids who are content with themselves and their own thoughts is a solid parenting goal for any of us.

How can parents encourage independent play at all ages?

Start early, recommends Giannini, and keep in mind that playing independently isn’t always playing alone. Toddlers want you in the room, so be there for them. “Not only is your presence providing emotional support, you can encourage their play independence with praise.” So, grab a pile of laundry to fold and settle into the playroom with them. Talk them through their process at first, slowly moving from directions to narration to encouragement to sporadic encouragement or prompting questions.

Don’t feel like you have to go big right away. Having a child play on their own for five minutes is a great start and sets them up for success. Slowly you can add additional time, adds Giannini, and as children grow older, you can pop in and out, encouraging them into solitary play.

But I haven’t focused on this yet and, my child’s a toddler – how do I start?

Play is natural for children. They don’t really need to be taught to play as much as they need to be given the opportunity.

What else do parents need to know?

Children are chronically over-scheduled. They need time to themselves. A great time to schedule this kind of play is while you are cooking dinner or before bedtime. When children play independently their energy levels quiet, making it a great transition activity.

“By setting time aside solely for independent play, you demonstrate its importance,” explains Giannini. Putting emphasis on quiet alone time is vital in raising confident, sufficient kids who don’t always need external validation or input to be happy and content.

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