Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Art of Playing Independently

On a daily basis I'm sure all parents can be heard telling their children to go play with their toys.  But how many children actually oblige and happily entertain themselves with their toys, puzzles, books, coloring....?  The answer should be ALL, but sadly it's not.  A great majority of children today do not know how to play by themselves.  It can be blamed on any number of things, but watching too much TV, especially from a young age, is right up there at the top of the list with inhibiting a child's ability to play independently.

As a parent, you may experience that your requests for your children to go play are met with whining, tantrums, and begging for TV or other entertainment.  Children respond with "I don't like my toys," "there's nothing to play with," "it's boring, " "I don't know what to do."  And as busy parents trying to deal with meal preparation, household chores, emailing, facebooking and surfing the internet, we give in to the resistance too easily and turn the TV on to stop the whining.  We all do it, but there are good reasons for making sure that as parents we take an active role in helping our children learn to play independently instead of taking the easy way out and letting the TV do the entertaining. 
**Play is important because it helps to develop fine motor and gross motor skills, it reinforces learning and develops cognitive skills, and it promotes problem solving and creativity, as well as social and emotional growth.  Independent play encourages a child to be imaginative and helps to increase self-confidence as children have opportunities to be successful on their own. Read the bottom of the post for some facts on why play is important and how the ability to play independently is negatively impacted by too much television.

How do you define independent play?  Your expectation of your child's ability to play on their own certainly affects how successful you consider your child to be in this skill.  Independent play (or solitary play) is when a child engages in play with toys on their own.  I consider a child playing on their own with toys that have been set up by an adult to be independent play as well, as most young children have difficulty accessing, moving, or setting up certain toys that they are capable of playing with.  In many cases of successful independent play, parents do need to get the toys out for their young child or show them how to play with it first before their child can play on their own.  If your idea of independent play is that your 24 month old go to his room, pick out toys and play without any direction or assistance from you, that may not be realistic; but helping him choose toys to play with, getting him set up to play with them, and then telling him you have to fold laundry for a little while (or whatever else you need to do) may be the key to setting him up for success.  By the time a child is at least 4 years old (younger in some cases), I would expect that they could be independent in choosing, getting out, and starting to play with most age appropriate toys that they have easy access to in the house (minus craft activities and complicated toys/games).
Also, when my kids play together without needing me, I consider this independent play as well.  And - when my kids are playing independently they will often ask me questions, ask for help with something, or need me to mediate a sibling disagreement and then go right back to playing on their own - to me this is fine and still successful independent play.
Watching TV is NOT  independent play!

Realistic Expectations: The average 2 year old should be able to play on his/her own for at least 15 minutes at a time and do this several times a day.  As a child's age increases, so should the amount of time spent in independent play; for example, my 3 1/2 year old daughter can play uninterrupted for 45 min (although during that time she may ask me a question or want to show me something).  Prior to 2 years of age, the time spent playing with toys independently varies and of course involves more adult supervision than older children.  But a child around 18 months can feasibly play on their own for at least 10 minutes while a parent is busy doing something close by.

What disrupts being able to play indpendently:
* Watching TV!  TV does all the thinking for those watching, so when an avid TV-watching child is expected to think creatively on their own, that skill just isn't there, but the desire to be entertained is!  These kids just don't know how to play with toys the way that kids who watch TV infrequently do.
* Missing play skills. Kids, especially young ones, often need instruction on how to play with their toys that are new or difficult.  Play with the toys with your child first before expecting him/her to play with them without you.
* Toys are inaccessible. Make sure that your kids can get to their toys easily, or at least the ones that you want them to get to. 
* Toys are not age appropriate.  When toys are too difficult to play with or too easy kids won't have enough interest to stay engaged with them.  Before expecting your child to play independently, make sure the toys they have access to are appropriate for them to play with and on their skill level.  They will need supervision and assistance toplay with toys that are above their skill level.  Some children with advanced skill levels need toys that are beyond their age limit to keep them challenged enough to be interested.  It's all about finding that "just right" fit when it comes to toys - challenging enough to be motivating to master and not so hard that they can't do it on their own.
* Separation anxiety. Very young children going through separation anxiety and may have a hard time playing on their own.  Young children who spend a lot of time in daycare may also not want to play without mom and dad when they are home.  Starting off playing with your child and then removing yourself to do something else nearby can help to ease your child into playing independently.
* Siblings. Don't be discouraged if your kids have a hard time playing together or side by side without it eventually turning into a battle.  Set clear guidelines for how to play together, consequences for not following those rules, and then be consistent with it.  For example, if my 2 year old hits his sister, he gets a time out; if they are fighting over a toy, even after a warning from me, they lose the toy for a while and have to find something else to play with; I have intervened and given them the tools to resolve conflicts so many times that every once in a while I will say to my 3.5 and 2 year olds to "work it out themselves" (mostly because I've reached the end of my patience with helping them) and incredibly enough, sometimes it actually works!
Playing together is a great opportunity for working on social skills, turn taking, and conflict resolution, even with toddlers.  It can be exhausting, but just remember that they are internalizing everything (even if it doesn't seem like it), so make everything you do and say to them count if you want to see positive results in the future!
* A disability. Children with developmental disabilities that involve delayed skills, problems with attention and focus, or require more supervision may have more difficulty engaging in independent play.  That doesn't mean that as a parent you have the green light to keep the TV on.  Instead, look for strategies to help your child play more indpendently.  Offer toys that are on your child's developmental level and not their age level. Choose activities that play to your child's strengths, not weaknesses, when you want him or her to play independently.  For example, if your child has difficulty with gross motor skills and coordination, but is excellent at fine motor and visual perceptual skills, then get out the puzzles and legos instead of sending him out to play on the swing set.  Also, start by playing with your child and once they are having success, leave briefly (even if it's in the same room and you "appear" to be busy) and come back right before they begin to get discouraged or upset.  Engage in play with your child again, then leave for longer the next time.  Continue this pattern of playing and leaving, gradually increasing the amount of time away from your child until they feel more confident playing alone.  This does not just happen in one play session; use this method every time you play together and over time you will see progress.
If your child struggles with attention and focus, let them be in control of choosing activities as they will be more motivated to do them that way.  However, if your child spends a lot of time on the computer or watching TV, limit this (as it increases poor attention skills) and instead guide your child to choosing non-technology based toys; even provide a few options to choose from if need be.  Activities that are well matched to their ability level can help increase time spent attending to the activity, and especially if there is a motivating end result to the activity, such as making an end product, winning a game, finishing a puzzle, etc. Set up play in a location that has limited distractions (no TV, music, extra people, etc).  Even provide a visual timer and explain that they must play on their own until the timer goes off.

Remember that it's important to give kids opportunities to learn how to play creatively and independently every day because it really is a skill that needs to be developed!

Disclaimer: I know it goes without saying, but I just need to reiterate that independent play does not mean that children play unsupervised!  Even if your child is playing independently in the next room, checking in on her occasionally is a good idea; and babies and toddlers should not be left alone.
Facts to Support the Importance of Independent and Creative Play:
* Creative play, free of all types of media entertainment, promote developmental skills, cognitive skills, social and emotional growth, and creativity. The TV actually hinders all of those things, preventing our children from developing any of those necessary skills. TV does all of the thinking for children; they are just passive observers, which inhibits their ability to initiate play on their own because they are used to being entertained.

* Playing independently improves attention span, whereas TV contributes to a decreased attention span. "Each hour of TV watched daily between the ages of 0 and 7 years equated to a 10% chance of attention problems by age seven years (Christakis D 2004)."

* Viewing TV and playing video games each are associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood (Swing, 2010).

* Exposure to “green space” results in a significant reduction in ADHD, in both areas of impulse control and attention ability. Nature not only has attention restorative benefits, but also activates all the senses to enhance multi-sensory learning ability (Faber-Taylor A 2001, Kuo F 2004).

*"Overuse of TV and video games may result in children lacking essential connection with themselves, others and nature. Children now fear nature, limiting outdoor play which is essential for achieving sensory and motor development (Louv R 2005)."

* Playing with other children and role playing with dolls or other toys is essential for social and emotional development. "The ability of the 21st century child to socialize with both adults and peers is deteriorating at a rapid pace. Sally Ward, a professor of speech and language pathology reported in her book “Baby Talk “ that one in five toddlers demonstrate speech and language delays (Ward S 2004)."

Cited articles are from the Fact Sheet by Cris Rowan,


  1. Thanks for this post. My 2 1/2 year old plays independently just fine with anyone except me (i.e. at nursery, with grandparents, etc.) but insists that I play with her the whole time whenever we're together. It drives me crazy that I have to go on everything with her at soft play places when much younger children are playing on their own and only checking in with their parents occasionally. The things you said about separation anxiety are really interesting as it's probably that.

  2. the best toys ,my favorite is Super wings toys excuse anytime toy

  3. Yes this is an old article but it's wrong. We are "screen free" parents, our 3 year old daughter has no ipads, no screen or TV time. She doesn't even know what amovie or a Disney princess is, much less any characters like Sponge Bob or Dora. She has tons of books and interesting toys, available to her. She is extremely bright (can do a 100 piece puzzle at age 3) and highly verbal. No she doesn't have aspergers or autism, she is very affectionate and loving but she just wants our attention all the time. She is "high needs" and has ALWAYS HAD separation anxiety. She is very friendly to people. She just still always wants mom. Always always always.


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