How to Empower Kids to Play on Their Own
As an introverted parent, I know the importance of downtime and solitary time… because my sanity depends on it.
From the time my kids were young (read: not walking yet), I was always sneaking off when they were pre-occupied with a toy — to make myself a cup of coffee, or even for a quick shower. I knew instinctively that training them to be alone with themselves was a good skill, but apart from needing some space for myself, I never really knew why.
So I was delighted to discover psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s work, and this quote resonated with me! “Many parents believe that they should constantly engage with their children, but that mentality leaves no time for relaxation — and creates stress that your kids pick up on.”
She strongly espouses providing children ample opportunities to occupy themselves, which helps them develop the skills of creativity, critical thinking, and confidence — 3Cs that are essential to growing up and maturing well.
Many parents believe that they should constantly engage with their children, but that mentality leaves no time for relaxation — and creates stress that your kids pick up on.
While this is a great skill to cultivate, how exactly do we encourage its development? Here are some ideas to get you thinking.
Place open-ended toys in their play area
One way to work towards hours of self-entertaining play is to invest in quality open-ended toys. These can be used in many ways, depending on your child’s preference and imagination for the day. Consider building blocks, drawing and art materials, puzzles and play-imagine materials (such as cooking sets or dress-up props). Card games like Uno or Spot It! are good family activities that can be used for individual play.
Get your child started
Merely availing these toys to your child does not guarantee that they’ll play with them independently. To build this skill, you’ll need to invest some time to help them get used to the idea. Remember that it is only natural for your child to want your presence and attention as they play.
As with new concepts, scaffold the learning: For day one, start by playing with your child. Accept and affirm their ideas, give them new vocabulary by describing what they are doing, and help them express themselves by asking questions.
On day two or three, prepare them to expect that you‘ll step away for a while to prepare their snack (or some other reason). If necessary, use a timer to help them understand the concept of time.
Assure them that you’ll be back to check on them shortly. Chances are they will come running after you in about 30 seconds, but that’s okay — remember that they need time too.
Once they get used to you leaving the room, you can stretch the duration of alone-time to 15, 20 minutes depending on your child’s age. Remember to praise your child for playing on their own and reconnect with them by giving them undivided attention afterwards.
Remember to praise your child for playing on their own and reconnect with them by giving them undivided attention afterwards.
I remember introducing my three children to a board game called Outfoxed — a team-building game that pits players against a wily fox. When we first played the game, I walked them through the rules and we had a lot of fun trying to solve the mystery and catch the culprit as a team. The next day, I found my kids huddled together in my oldest child’s room and playing the game on their own. Needless to say, I backed out of the room quietly and didn’t intrude on their cosy session, smiling to myself as I made a cup of coffee!
Model how to be bored for them
Children learn from what they see. What do you do when you have some minutes to spare? Does your child see you reaching for the phone each time? Or do they see you making notes on a piece of paper, or organising things in the home?
If you want them to know that it’s okay to be bored, model your desired behaviour. When you have some downtime, share your thoughts with them. You could say within your child’s earshot, “Oh I have 15 minutes before I need to prepare dinner, maybe I should do some doodling or check out a new recipe.”
Explain why you need your own time too
When your child is still young (2 to 3 years old), talk to them about the things you enjoy doing alone — from having a cup of coffee at the café to relishing a good book or crafting and journalling — and how refreshed or happy you feel after that.
This helps to change their mindset that being alone is something scary and to be avoided, to something that is necessary and beneficial.
With these tips, your child will hopefully begin to enjoy independent play and exploration. And don’t be surprised if they regale you with stories of their new discoveries and creations.
By June Yong, Focus on the Family Singapore
Focus on the Family Singapore Limited is a local charity with Institution of a Public Character (IPC) status dedicated to helping families thrive by being a voice for Family. We partner individuals and organizations to nurture families at different life stages through transformational family life education, trusted resources, content placements and counseling.