Teaching kids to play independently

Self-directed play is vital for their development – and your sanity. But can you really “teach” independence? The experts say yes! 

With the kids home all day, it’s no wonder that screen-time never looked so good. After all, there are only so many toilet-roll puppets a parent can make before her brain turns to Clagg. 

But there is a third way. As we head into another week of lockdown, why not try teaching them a lifeskill that’s more important for their development – and your sanity – than any other subject of the curriculum? 

Playing independently is a skill many of our digital kids have never fully developed. That’s understandable, and for two reasons.

First, this generation has been more “scheduled” – with sport, activities and planned playdates – than any previous one. Second, and probably even more importantly, they’ve had access to an endless array of screen-based amusements virtually since birth.

But our children’s lack of practice at self-directed play is also unfortunate. Because, as diverting as scheduled activities and digital play can be, experts tell us they are no match for the old-school variety: imaginative, reality-based, tactile and kid-driven. 

When it comes to children’s social, cognitive and emotional development, independent play is hands-down their best medicine.

Many of us are well aware of that in theory. But putting it into practice is a different matter entirely. How can you “teach” kids to play independently? And isn’t that a contradiction in terms anyhow? 

When it comes to children’s social, cognitive and emotional development, independent play is hands-down their best medicine.

With weeks and probably months of home isolation looming ahead of us, now’s the perfect time to pick up some pointers from the experts – who assure us that, yes, there’s plenty that mums and dads can do to encourage this critical skill. 

Their top tip? Start the day with connection. 

To teach your kids to be more independent, start by making sure you’re meeting their security needs. 

During a crisis – and the present moment is a perfect example – it’s natural for children to regress a bit, to become more clingy and need more physical closeness. 

“It’s a bit of a paradox, but independence and exploration are not the opposite of dependence, safety and security. They flow from them,” notes Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting

He advises starting the day with 20 minutes high-quality connected play. Set a time, and tell your child this time is just for them – that you are at their service to be a helper and playmate. 

Don’t tell them what to do. Instead, “narrate” and comment on what they’re doing – without judgement. 

Kids love it when their parents watch them at play. (“Look at me! Look at me!”) Setting aside time to do exactly that, and nothing but that, can prime them to continue playing long after the timer goes off.

shutterstock_256834798And when it does? Tell them “I loved watching you play. I’ll be back again later [or after lunch or in half an hour] to do it again!”

“Strewing” is another technique experts advise. Basically, strewing involves extending invitations to play, by creating prompts for children to discover on their own. 

Parenting coach Avital Schreiber-Levy, who calls strewing “one of the best tricks of the trade,” suggests setting out a scene on a baking tray – say, a group of teddies having a tea party or playing with trains – or putting out a puzzle in an unexpected place, with the pieces flipped over and ready for action.

Setting kids up in a space where they can safely make a mess is another of Schreiber-Levy’s tips – and messy, tactile play, she adds, is especially soothing and engaging for kids. 


She allows her own children, aged two and four, to play in the bathtub with shaving cream, while she sits on the toilet with her laptop to work – an unorthodox but successful strategy that buys her up to 90 minutes of work time.

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