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The Importance of Independent Play: Why independent play is critical for young children

David stacks wooden blocks, throws them down, only to rebuild them. Sally feeds snacks to her imaginary friends and talks to them at her pretend picnic spot. Chen colors with crayons by himself, and Nina makes amazing shapes at her desk with playdoh. At the Montgomery childcare center, these children are engaged in a very important part of early childhood education. It’s called independent play, and it’s part of a well-rounded childhood learning curriculum.

It’s More than Just Spending Time Alone

You’ve probably heard parents and child caregivers encouraging “time alone” for the children they care for. In some situations, seeing a child playing alone, independent from others, might even connotate a lack of adult’s desire for supervision – hence conveniently (for the adults) forcing the child into “alone time”. Well, independent play isn’t just about “killing time” or ignoring a child. If done right, it’s much more than that.

As part of their childcare curriculums, many pre-schools and school age programs steer children into independent play. The reason for doing so isn’t that caregivers wish to take a break from their supervisory roles. In fact, where necessary, varying degrees of professional supervision does occur, even during solitary play.

But the reason that children are encouraged to explore independent play is due to the numerous benefits solo play offers:

  • It’s a normal part of growing up

A child’s need for independent play isn’t something to be concerned about or frowned upon. In fact, child psychologists and researchers have developed proven theories about how children play – “Parten’s 6 Stages of Play Theory[i]” – that includes solitary play. This is the type of play one observes when a child just plays with toys or other objects by themselves, seemingly oblivious to the environment or others around him/her. That’s normal behavior!

  • It brings forth imagination and creativity

Typically, when a child engages in many forms of group play, such as field games, board games, or other multi-player rules-based games, there’s a limited aspect of creativity. The same is true when adults play with kids so they can bond with them. Kids often feel some obligation to play within those parameters (rules) because everyone else is doing the same.

When kids are steered to independent play, there’s a greater license for creativity and imagination. Because no one else judges them on the rules, and no one else can define the parameters of the play, it fosters greater degree of imagination. They can make up the rules, characters, situations – and even the outcomes of the game.

  • It builds socially-independent children

Here’s a rather counterintuitive concept: Independent play helps a child develop better social skills! Let’s explore that thought. During adult-supervised play, children tend to “cling” to, and depend upon, the adults in and around them. Consequently, they tend to shy away from other forms of social ties – such as playing with other kids who are more independent in how they play.

independent children

Preschool age programs that encourage independent play help kids break out of that social barrier, and let them know that it’s okay to play with other children, even if an adult isn’t present to supervise that interaction. Independent play is oftentimes used as a prelude to children joining a broader group for team activities. Kids who play solo soccer for instance, will eventually see how much more fun playing a game of soccer is when played with others, rather than just playing alone!

  • It restores peace and tranquility in a child’s world

How often have we, as adults, taken a break from our busy lives, and taken some time for ourselves. It calms and recharges us! It’s the same in a child’s world. Because a child finds independent play a peaceful and soothing activity, it can calm them when they’re feeling stressed.

  • It boosts problem-solving abilities

When adults are supervising children – it’s often the case that grownups quickly step in to “assist” when there’s a problem. For instance, parents quickly help a child who encounters a challenging jigsaw puzzle. The result: It stymes the kids’ natural ability to solve the issue themselves. During independent playtime, the child is forced to come up with a solution to any challenges they might encounter, thus honing their problem-solving skills.

  • It makes kids more persistent

With no one else to turn to during an independent play session, a child relies on their own determination to move things along in their games. For instance, kids in school age programs might need help with a video game. But, since there’s no one else to turn to, the child might try repeatedly to resolve the situation themselves, making them more persistent in dealing with other life’s situations (beyond play).

And while these are just a few benefits of independent play, for your child, there’s also one very significant benefit for adults and child carers. Typically, when overseeing children play, adults constantly monitor every activity closely…just in case! This often leaves the parent or caregiver exhausted, both mentally and physically. Supervising playtime can sometimes be emotionally draining – and there lies an often-forgotten benefit of independent play for adults.

Once children are accustomed to playing alone – safely – it gives adults the opportunity to destress and take time for themselves. This, by no means suggests a totally “hands off” approach to supervising children during play time. However, since there’s no need to “helicopter parent” a child when they’re playing alone, it does give caregivers an opportunity for some much needed respite during the day – however brief that might be.

letting kids have solo play

Make it Happen

While some children naturally gravitate towards independent play, others might need some time before they take to solitary play. Regardless of what your child’s personality is, it’s important for parents and caregivers to actively participate in making independent play a reality. Here are some ways to do just that:

  • Avoid initiating engagement

Even if you are in proximity of the child, who is playing independently, don’t leap to engage with them at the first sign that they’re craving such engagement. Instead, watch patiently and wait for the child to engage with you – if they wish to. At Montgomery Child Care centers, professionals tend to encourage a child’s autonomous playtime, even if that means simply handing them toys or games that they cannot reach. These experts refrain from interrupting, directing or interfering with the child’s self-directed play activities.

  • Keep a low profile

Many parents and caregivers are concerned about leaving young children – say, under 18-months of age – alone for any length of time when they’re playing. That’s understandable. However, even while you are nearby, watching for any signs of trouble or distress, it’s possible for you to stay out of a child’s immediate play area. Today’s technology, such as baby cameras and child monitoring apps, make it even easier for caregivers to keep a low profile, and yet remain vigilant when children play independently.

  • Resist the urge to interrupt

After watching a child’s unsuccessful attempt at stacking a wooden block for the umpteenth time, the natural inclination of most adults is to step in and give them a “helping hand”. Don’t! You (adults) have a significant amount of time during the rest of the day to correct, counsel, and instruct your kids on how to do certain things. However, independent play time shouldn’t be a time when you exercise those responsibilities. Interrupting a child during solo play can distract them, and it could also undermine their confidence.

kids playing independently

  • Foster independent responsibilities

One way to stimulate the love for independent play, and thus let children benefit from it, is to make independent play fun. For instance, give your child a stack of clothes on the bed, and ask them to start folding and sorting them, or putting away the groceries – just like they’ve seen mom or dad doing. Alternatively, set up a play house or play garage, and get kids to independently clean or organize it by themselves.

This approach not only encourages kids to “play” while doing simulated tasks; but it also gives them an opportunity to build the skills they’ll need to master critical responsibilities later in life.

  • Reduce opportunity for disengagement

Often, when kids are on their own and find themselves uninterested in typical play activities, they’ll gravitate towards the nearest screen – be it a television, a computer, a smartphone, or a gaming console. Where possible, to nudge kids into individual play, try limiting screen time so they won’t have a refuge to disengage into.

Leading preschool age programs have found that another great way to stimulate engagement, especially during solitary play, is to avoid giving kids “fully automated” toys that do not require much interaction. For instance, avoid giving them toys and devices where they don’t need to do much other than just push a button. If a child’s toy (or play device) requires continued interaction, it’s more likely that they’ll benefit from everything that independent play has to offer.

Cutting to The Chase

Playing is as natural to children as fitness training is to a professional athlete. However, when it comes to child’s play, not all forms of it must always involve groups and teams. Independent play is vital for all children as part of a healthy growing-up process. This activity, of solitary play, stimulates creativity and builds persistence in youngsters. It also sows the seeds of independence, and gives children the confidence they need to act independently later in life – free of adult supervision.

[i] https://www.parentingforbrain.com/stages-of-play/

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