How to Encourage Independent Play

Enjoying the Benefits of Unstructured Play Time

Mother watching baby playing with ball
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As a single parent, you already know that structure is important to your child's sense of well-being and that it's a critical element in effectively managing the activities of a busy household. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a clinical report titled The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, reminds parents that regular opportunities for unstructured play are also vital to your child's healthy development.

This might sound like one more thing to add to your "To Do" list; but, really, teaching your children to play independently can be extremely valuable to you personally. First, unstructured play is beneficial to your child's development. Second, it helps you create pockets of time to get other things done!

Take a look at these simple strategies for encouraging unstructured free play:

  • Turn off the TV.
    Think about how hard it is to avoid looking at a TV screen when you're sitting in a restaurant. It's the same way for your kids. They can't not watch it when it's on, so turn it off to encourage more self-directed, independent play.
  • Limit your kids' extra-curricular activities.
    Plan on scheduling no more than one or two extra-curricular activities per season. An over-scheduled life leaves few opportunities for self-directed play.
  • Model how to play.
    Get down on the floor and play with your kids! Try to do this for at least twenty minutes every day.
  • Praise your kids for playing independently.
    Compliment your kids when they demonstrate creativity and imagination in their play. Your words of encouragement will help them take pride in their "work."
  • Store toys within your kids' reach.
    Provide easy access to a variety of age-appropriate toys, including a selection of simple, "old-fashioned" toys that require some imagination.
  • Rotate your kids toys.
    Occasionally store certain toys away in a closet or in plastic bins. You'll be amazed at how "new" the toys feel to your kids when they see them again!
  • Ask questions.
    Ask your kids questions about what they're playing. Let them know that you find their "work" interesting and worthy of your attention.
  • Deal with boredom appropriately.
    Avoid the temptation to "solve" your kids' boredom by providing something to do each time they say "I'm bored." Instead, allow the boredom itself to lead your children to initiate new and creative ways of playing.