Guilt-free tips for encouraging independent play August 12 2014, 0 Comments

Independent Play with blocksThe following is a guest post from Breanne Hegg  - who co-runs Borealis - a fabulous blog about Northern Life - adventures, motherhood, and so much more...

We all know how awesome independent play is, for you (free time) and your child (essential skill building). But in practice it can be hard because it feels like IGNORING YOUR CHILD, which can quickly lead to the parenting bugaboo GUILT. But watching your child absorbed in some activity of their own invention is one of the best parenting moments -- it's so amazing to see their minds work. So it's worth it to keep nudging your child into developing their own free play skills.

Luckily, encouraging independent is easier than it sounds. Here are a few easy tips for promoting free play. 

1. Create activity stations around your house and rotate their offerings every few weeks. Which is a fancy way of saying after the kids are asleep, run around and put out different toys or art supplies in different combinations in the places they usually gather to play (plus maybe a few unexpected other places).

For me, it might looks like this: upend the bag containing our train set on the living room coffee table. Put out a mix of toys (like blocks with a toy Igloo and a few Little People) on the play table in Blythe’s room. Put a new art supply and paper on the kitchen table next to their place settings. Then stand back and watch them discover the toys over the next few days and find interesting ways to play with them. The surprise and delight of stumbling upon their toys plus the reduced visual toy clutter makes it easier for them to focus and get into one activity. Your 15 minute mad dash pays off in ton of free play time.

2. Force yourself to ignore your child for a few minutes. This is easiest to do guilt-wise when there is a chore you have to do, like unloading the car after a weekend trip or cleaning the house because you're having people over. There might be a transition time where your child whines a bit, but it you give it a few more minutes, they'll likely rise to the occasion and find something to do. Sometimes I have to get mentally tough and remind myself: no, I do not need to prepare dinner with both kids hanging on me and getting into things in the kitchen. I can escort them into the adjourning living room, draw their attention to toys they haven't played with recently, and make dinner in peace (and a lot more safely).

So if you’re trying to encourage more independent play, get tough with yourself, plunge into another activity that needs to be done, and ride out that transition where you child realizes you’re not going to entertain them and shifts gears to doing their thing.

3. Give your child a simple chore to complete. It's novel and distracts them and pretty soon they start playing with whatever is near them or making up games. Scientists would probably say this helps fire a different set of neurons in their brain and get them thinking in new ways, but they're right: something about shaking things up helps them kids move on to finding their own fun.

4. Add another kid to the mix. If you're worried about feeling like you're ignoring your child, up the child ratio. You'd never feel guilty about two kids playing in the same room, even if they aren't playing together, right? And while play dates with kids of like age are the go-to instinct, don't be afraid to mix in a younger or older child. Even if that child is a teeny newborn in a swing, independent play will feel more companionable.

Potential sources of more kids: neighbors, cousins, siblings, children of friends, babysitting/nannying other children. I couldn't believe the difference having second child made in helping us foster more independent play in our oldest (and now, of course, our youngest plays by herself like a dream). And although independent play is awesome, so is playing with your kids. By all means swing on the monkey bars (one of my favs) or get messy with Play-Doh. One of the best parts of having kids is being a part of their magical, playful world.

And when the world isn't so magical and playful (the game Candyland, I'm looking at you. Ugh!) that's a great excuse to kick over into independent play mode.

Breanne lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two girls (ages 1 and 3) and writes at the northern living blog, Borealis.
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