How to Encourage Your Child to Play Independently (Whilst Avoiding Parental Guilt!)

Do you struggle to find a balance between spending time with your children versus focusing on your own activities?

Serious parental guilt can ensue if you feel you can’t spend as much one-to-one time with your children as you would like — playing with them, helping them with homework, encouraging them, listening to their worries and helping them reflect on how life is going.

BUT… did you know that it’s also important to teach your children how to play independently?

Some of the benefits of independent play can be:

  • Fostering imagination and creative play. Children can sometimes be more creative when there isn’t an adult around directing things – there is less need to conform to particular rules or to explain their play to another person, they can just go wherever their imagination takes them;
  • Having some quiet time. With TV, computer games and all the hustle and bustle of life, children don’t get as many opportunities to just allow their brains to be silent. Independent play (like drawing or playing with lego) can be peaceful and even somewhat meditative for children, allowing them unwind from the day ;
  • Building persistence and problem-solving skills. Without an adult there to help or step in with suggestions, children can experiment with their own ways of problem-solving and are more likely to continue trying different things until they arrive at a solution.
  • Teaching patience and resilience. At some point, children need to learn that their parents cannot be at their beck-and-call whenever they need. Knowing how to play independently and wait until someone is available to help them can teach children patience and give them the confidence to know that they can do things on their own.

Of course, there are benefits for parents as well!

Many parents need to work at home from time-to-time. And it’s important to make sure your children know not to disturb you when you are working (emergencies excepted!).

Parents also need time to relax, chat to a friend on the phone, have a bubble bath, watch their favourite TV show, or talk to their partner. They may also need one-to-one time with another child and siblings should learn to respect that.

So, how can you encourage your child to play independently?

Here are some tips that might help:

  • Explain to your child what the expectations are. For example, they are expected to play by themselves for 10-30 minutes (depending on age) every day. Ensure that your child knows that this is NOT a punishment but explain to them all the reasons why it is important.
  • Set a clock. Set a timer or show your child the clock so they know when they are allowed to stop playing by themselves and to come and show you what they have done (although they are free to keep playing if they prefer!)
  • Brainstorm activities. Sit down together and write a list of all the activities they can do by themselves. It could include lego, puzzles, word finds, drawing, playing with dolls or action figures. And it could also include longer projects that can be done in parts, like making a comic book, designing a city, or making birthday cards or books.
  • Set the boundaries. Make sure your child understands what they are NOT allowed to do while playing independently. For example, are they allowed to use scissors or glue? Are they allowed to go outside or use the kitchen? If their activity involves something that they are NOT allowed to do independently, either encourage them to choose a different activity or help them with parts of it before they start.
  • Praise. When the time limit is up, make sure you turn your full attention back to your child and show some genuine interest in what they have done. Provide lots of positive feedback for playing independently and for the specific activity they have done.

Independent play is especially important as children go back to school, parents go back to work and everyone in the family needs a bit of space to themselves from time-to-time. It can make the start of the school year a little less stressful for everybody too!

If you are struggling to maintain boundaries with your child, it can be useful to talk to a child psychologist to get some advice specific for your family.

And if you are in Melbourne and would like some some extra help with this issue?

Click the button below to book your initial parent consultation and get the right advice for your child’s needs.

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