Isn’t it funny that on one hand parents are trying their best to spend more time with their kids (and rightly so), yet on the other hand we also try to encourage kids to learn how to do things independently and ‘by themselves’? As a SAHM, it has always been a strange balance for me – I have to admit – there are just times when doing things for them is just SO MUCH EASIER – and there are times when I would give an eye or a tooth for the kids to PLAY ALONE for a while. Sometimes wishing and making my kids play alone does bring out feelings of guilt ( such as – why can’t I morph into Mary Poppins, sing songs, do educational games and teach them Singapore math all day long?!?? Isn’t that why I opted to become a stay at home mom?!?! Anyway, I didn’t set out to write this post to air my (many) psychosis. In time I realized (1) There is a difference between encouraging independent play and neglect, and (2) The kids actually thrive and enjoy being able to play on their own, if they are given ways and means to do so.
Independent Play vs. Neglect (or in other words ‘Let me ignore you till you figure out how to play by yourself’)
Another aha moment for me – was when I realized that in some ways encouraging independent play actually requires more work and actual guidance and planning on the part of the parent. Yes, I’ve read those articles about setting toys on the ground and slowly walking away – but honestly although that is fine and dandy, my kids aren’t wired to sit with a pile of toys and be alone – that method just wasn’t engaging enough. If anything, I think they started associating piles of toys = mommy walking away = not good! By experience I’ve also realized that independent play times varies by age – I’m not going to get hours of alone time – one activity for a 2 year-old might mean a good 5 minutes to at best 20 minutes – this really helped me with my level of expectations.
By the way, in my opinion, TV is not independent play, even if princess or junior can turn on the TV and work the 5 remotes and set up the surround sound themselves. I’m not saying absolutely no TV – we are a moderate TV watching family ourselves – I’m just saying that it doesn’t count ;o). That is what I mean by it is not that simple, the way I see it, my kids day are divided into segments and not every minute will be independent play, just like not every minute should be one of anything, but rather a balance of multiple things. Here is my definition of productive independent play -
- Children can make decisions themselves on what they want to do.
- Interesting activities or projects they can do themselves. Variety (but not overwhelming variety) and simplicity. For young ones it will be more motor skill related and as they get older it becomes more experimental or learning based.
- They should also be able to ‘undo’ or clean-up the activity and return it for the next play time.
- Although I said that we shouldn’t expect kids to spend hours on an activity by themselves, if they DO want to spend a LOT of time on one - encourage it! Do not stop their focus just to have them start another activity. Kids can have an insatiable appetite for a particular activity/toy and when their desire is filled, they will move on to the next thing .
- Nothing that requires electronics or batteries.
Enabling Independent Play
What I’ve started doing is trying to mimic the Montessori or pre-school ‘tray’ system for my toddler and it has worked like a charm! She is so much happier (and so am I). There are tons of blogs out there with hundreds of ideas for ‘toddler trays’ - don’t get overwhelmed just start with 1 to 3. My biggest suggestion which I learned from my older daughter’s wonderful pre-school Montessori guide is not to just hand the child the tray or project. You must start every new tray with a ‘lesson’ – that means setting it up and showing her/him how to use it (you model it yourself – ‘pick up the tray,’ etc.) - emphasize that your child just ‘watch’ you go from taking it out all the way to clean-up and putting it back. It’s not easy for my toddler to control herself, but it is cute to see her try and watch ).
For older kids – it’s all about (unfortunately) organization and access. An area for books, with a place to read, a shelf of neatly arranged toys (this is where toy rotation comes in). A craft or art area (doesn’t have to be elaborate) – my oldest LOVES TV but I find that we almost never struggle with regulating her TV since there is just so much other stuff she would like to do on her own – reading, writing, playing with her dolls etc.
Just like everything else in child rearing, it is a day-by-day learning experience for all of us ;o) and remember, each child is different and family dynamics is also constantly changing. I think part of building independence over-all is giving our children space to grow and allowing them to learn how to learn on their own (and in their own way).
Related Links:- How to Encourage Independent Play - Toddler Tray Activities
- Building a Child’s Independence Part 2 – In the Kitchen (declutterorganizerepurpose.wordpress.com)
- Building a Child’s Independence Part 1 – In the Bedroom (declutterorganizerepurpose.wordpress.com)
- Building a Child’s Independence Part 3 – In the Bathroom (declutterorganizerepurpose.wordpress.com)
- Montessori At Home Roundup (apartmenttherapy.com)