Independent Play Pitfalls: 10 Subtle Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Child’s Solo Playlist

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Little kids have very little control over external circumstances. They depend on us to create the best conditions for their ‘flow state’: solo play.

If you’re reading this, I’ll wager the idea of seeing your toddler or pre-schooler playing on their own, totally immersed in their own little world for a couple of hours a day sounds like parent heaven (yep, that place where you can also eat a meal in peace and sleep in past 6am).

Besides, it’s not just for the sake of parental sanity. Independent play is something our kids are naturally wired for. Just as adults need focused alone time as an outlet for our creative energy, kids need solo play as an outlet for their imaginations. Plus it’s an opportunity for them to ‘work’ on a whole host of skills that are key to their physical, emotional and intellectual development, according to the experts.

Okay, so clearly a win-win. But why does it often seem so darn impossible to get our kids on board and jamming to the solo play hitlist?

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Independent Play is the kids version of ‘flow state’.

If you’ve ever tried to achieve flow in a creative activity, like writing or design, you’ll know there’s a certain set of conditions you need for it to happen. You’ve probably experienced the frustration of distractions, imposter thoughts, or other less than ideal conditions that clog up the juicer and sabotage your creative process.

It’s just the same for kids. After all, independent play is the kiddie version of ‘flow state’.

The one key difference is that kids have very little control over the external factors. They’re depending on us — the supreme rulers of their universe — to create the best possible conditions for their play. If we aren’t mindful of this, we can unknowingly sabotage their ability to get into the solo play zone.

Finding the flow is a learning journey for both parents and kids, but if you want to find the path of least resistance, here are some things to watch out for.

10 Ways You May Be Subtly Sabotaging Independent Play

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I know, I know. We’ve got enough experts laying on the guilt about too much screen time already. I’m not trying to add to the pile on. But it’s important to recognise that our kids’ appetite for active and inventive play will get weaker the more we feed them a diet of passive entertainment.

Should you go cold turkey with screen time? That’s a topic for another article. A gentler approach is to set clear screen time limits you’re prepared to stick to, then be sure to schedule in a session of solo playtime each day before you switch the screens on.

Let’s not point all the fingers at the screen. Passive entertainment habits can form in other ways that are much more subtle. The problem can start very early on, as we naturally try to meet our babies’ needs and desires.

Example: hands up if you gave in to your little one’s demands to be carried around constantly, or sit upright all the time, even though his little jelly muscles weren’t ready for it yet?

Yep, same here.

The point is not that these actions are wrong or harmful, but in truth, they are unnecessary. Over time, as we give in to the path of least resistance to keep our kids happy, they begin to associate their need for stimulation with our involvement — and we make the same association as parents.

The pattern continues as our babies grow into toddlers and pre-schoolers. The more we allow them to ‘depend on’ passive forms of entertainment — whether its screens, ‘performing’ toys or performing adults — the more this becomes habit.

The point is not to beat ourselves up about it, but simply to recognise the difference between habits and needs. Needs remain more or less the same over time. Habits can be changed with the right approach. And this includes changing our own habits —in particular, letting go of our ‘need’ (habit!) to please our children!

I’ve done it myself many times. The frustration’s building, the whining is kicking in, and you’ve heard what you swear will be the last of Dora the Explorer for the rest of eternity. You put your foot down with all the parental force you can muster. “It’s time to entertain yourself now. Go and play!”

I’ve learnt after such futile attempts that independent play simply can’t be forced, especially not out of the blue. Sending your kid to another room to figure out what to do with herself — (especially when she feels like she’s been ‘banished’ — see #5) — is going to feel too overwhelming. She simply won’t know where to start.

If your child is used to having constant playmates, or zoning in to a screen when those playmates aren’t available, it’s going to take a gentle weaning process to start them exercising their solo play muscles.

Instead of throwing them in the deep end, start wherever your child is at. Focus on building on what they’re comfortable with. Maybe for now that’s playing on their own in the same room as you for short periods. Or it might mean helping them get started on something, then slowly pulling away once they’re focused and immersed in the activity.

With a little persistence and initial support you’ll build their confidence to take their solo play to the next level.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering by himself” — Jean Piaget

I’ll be the first to admit I can be a control freak. I have to consciously turn off something inside my head when I’m playing with my pre-schooler so I don’t end up on a mission to build the world’s highest block tower or craft an award-winning milk bottle elephant.

In the times we are playing with our kids, we have to practice taking our hands off, and letting the process, rather than the end product, be the goal. And we have to let them lead. If we’re in the habit of directing the play, our kids will never learn the freedom or confidence to be their own play directors.

This includes giving any commentary — even praise — about what they’re doing. This gets them hooked on wanting our affirmation and guidance, which is the opposite goal of independent play.

So what should we do?

Here’s some advice from Janet Lansbury and Avital of The Parenting Junkie:

  • Sit quietly with your child as an attentive, yet passive observer. (JL)
  • Take cues from your child, trusting them to request your input. (JL)
  • Never say no to a request for help, but assist as minimally as possible. (JL)
  • Do not interrupt. Don’t even make eye-contact. Allow them the space to get into flow, to concentrate fully, without disturbing them. (Avital)

If your child’s room is going to be a place where they enjoy playing on their own, you’ll be sending mixed messages if you regularly send them there for a timeout. There needs to be a clear distinction between play areas and those you use for discipline.

You also want to avoid making solo playtime sound like a punishment. Resist the urge to lecture your child or rant about your need to do work or have some downtime. As Lansbury points out, “No one of any age wants to feel like they’re being dumped or set aside for more important things.”

Your child will respond much more positively if you present this time in a light-hearted way, as a fun opportunity for them to decide what they want to do, rather than it being something you’re trying to make them do.

You would struggle to get into your work flow state if you had no office or desk, or constantly had to borrow someone else’s computer. Neither can we expect our kids to settle into the play zone if there’s no literal play zone.

This doesn’t have to be a dedicated play room, but it needs to be some space in the house that is clearly designed for play, where it’s safe for your child to be left alone without you needing to check in every few minutes (and interrupt their flow!).

It’s best to always be within earshot and to make sure your child knows where to find you. They may still be at the point where they need to be in sight of you to feel secure enough to play. That’s okay — if it helps them get in the flow, it’s a win! As their confidence grows, you can transition them to a more private space when they’re ready. As Avital puts it:

“The idea isn’t for children to be alone. It’s for their play to be left alone.”

We all know it’s pretty impossible to coax ourselves into productive work mode when we’re hungry, overtired or mentally drained. Likewise, we can’t expect our kids to get into deep focus play when they’re running on fumes — whether it’s a bad night’s sleep, or the morning’s three spoonful's of yoghurt. Most importantly, if they’re running low on quality time with mom or dad, your little one is going to need their emotional tank filled before they’re ready to head off on a solo adventure.

So before you set your little one to ‘work’, remember to check that all their other tanks are full — except for the pee tank, of course! You’re gonna want to get that one emptied…

In many of our homes, there’s a war going on. And it’s not just between the floor space and our kids’ toys.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive, playrooms overflowing with toys are the enemy of independent play. When kids are faced with too many options, they get overwhelmed with a kiddie case of choice paralysis .

The kinds of toys matter a lot too. You want to ditch the Toy Dictators — you know, the loud, annoying, power-hungry, narrow-minded types that love squashing creativity and independent thought. Rather limit the toy forces to the ‘open-ended’ variety — willing subjects that your own little play dictator can bend to their will!

Think blocks, Lego or Duplo, dolls, cars, toy figures and animals, playdough, drawing and colouring supplies, and dress up clothes.

Also be sure to keep the toys appropriate to age and ability, to avoid frustration and inevitable calls for help. Not that your child can’t use a challenge — but there’s a time and place. Keep those 100-piece puzzles aside for focused play sessions with mom or dad.

Even though the goal is more unstructured play, kids still need the structure of routine to help them become pro-players, especially if we’re trying to help them build a new habit. We know this for ourselves — random, sloppy work routines make for less reliable results.

Kids are really just mini adults. They prefer things to be predictable, and can be their best selves when they know what to expect.

If you haven’t witnessed your kiddo playing alone much, or all you seem to hear is their whining whenever there’s a lull, you may believe deep down that they’re not really capable of independent play. And you may be subtly communicating this to them in your attitudes, words or the way you actually play with them.

If you recognise this doubt in your attitude, nip it in the bud so you can build on a foundation of trust and true support.

We should also watch out for the tendency to trivialise our kids’ play. Sure, making Unicorn slime boogers may not win your child the next Nobel prize, but for them, in that moment, there’s never been anything more important.

As Einstein famously said, “Play is the highest form of research” —so we should give it the same value and respect we would give any fellow adult’s work.

Don’t Lose Hope

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New habits need time and space (just like your two year old on the potty).

Start slow and think of every minute of solo play as a small victory. However challenging it may seem, you must hold on to the fact that independent play is natural, necessary, and totally possible.

  • Do your best to create the right conditions.
  • Add a little patience (OK, maybe a lot of patience)
  • Have faith in your child’s natural talents to play like a pro!

If you need some help to get your kiddo going, check out these 20 Simple Low-Cost Ideas to Kickstart Independent Play.

Soon, you’ll be able to stand back and watch the magic happen!

Nap deprived semi-working writer mom. Out to help parents embrace the struggle, find the joy and reclaim some sanity.