The value of child-directed play is universally recognized and one of the few aspects of child-rearing that experts and thought leaders agree on. Independent play makes for highly productive, happily occupied kids, which in turn makes for happier, calmer parents. And it’s natural — the desire and ability to create play is inborn. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Parents often share with me the difficulties they’re having establishing the independent play habit for their kids. They tell me their infants cry when they’re placed down, their toddlers won’t play unless parents play with them, or their preschoolers need constant entertainment and direction.
Most of these problems stem from common misconceptions about independent play (all of which I once had):
Play Myth # 1: Babies can’t do it.
“Infancy is a time of great dependence. Nevertheless babies should be allowed to do things for themselves from the very beginning.” – Magda Gerber
Perhaps the most pivotal difference between Magda Gerber’s approach and other child-rearing methodologies is Gerber’s disagreement with the common perception of infants as helpless. Infants are dependent, but not helpless, corrected Gerber. She and her mentor Dr. Emmi Pikler perceived even the youngest infants as capable self-learners, able to initiate play and exploratory activities, experience mastery, engage directly with their environment and participate in communicative mind-to-mind partnerships with caregivers.
Brain studies recently conducted by psychologists like Alison Gopnik, Elizabeth Spelke and Paul Bloom have confirmed Gerber and Pikler’s views (finally). Infant minds are now proven to be up and running.
But this capable, competent infant is at odds with the more passive infant conceived by Dr. William Sears, influential writer Jean Leidloff and others. In their popular model based on ancestral practices, babies are dependent on their caregivers for entertainment and education and need almost constant physical contact to feel connected. The focus of this approach is carrying the baby as much as possible.
Establishing the habit of free play requires a quite different perception and focus — creating a safe play space that includes open-ended toys or objects that allow the baby to initiate worthwhile independent activities. Of course, infants need lots of attentive holding and cuddling, but in Gerber’s model, they also need play. She noted that infants can clearly indicate when they need to be held, but they can’t enjoy playing independently until we believe they have something to do.
Play Myth #2: If a baby cries when she’s placed down, she must not like playing.
The best way for babies to begin free play is on their backs, because this is the position in which they have the most freedom, autonomy and mobility (try your tummy and then your back to see for yourself). When parents tell me their baby cries as soon as she is placed down on her back, it is usually for one of these reasons:
The baby is placed down abruptly or without a word.
Capable (dependent, rather than helpless) babies are whole people, and they need to be our communication partners. They need to be listened to and also spoken to respectfully about what will happen to them. “Now I will put you down on the blanket to play.” Then let’s say the baby cries. “Oh, you weren’t ready?” The parent might then lie down next to the baby and caress her. “Was that too fast for you? I’m right here for you.” If the crying continues, the baby needs to be picked up but can remain in the parents lap until she feels settled and comfortable enough in her surroundings to try playing again.
The baby is used to being carried, propped or positioned.
Young children are adaptive but usually prefer to do what they are used to doing. In this brand new world, babies understandably crave the familiar, and they develop habits quickly. Habits like being carried or seated in an upright position often seem to become the child’s “needs”, even though these needs were actually created by the parents’ choices.
Developing the free play habit is also a choice. It works best when parents prioritize it by making uninterrupted play the focus of the baby’s “spare time” between naps and attentive feedings and diaper changes.
If parents want to make a transition from carrying or propping babies into independent play, the key is to introduce the new experience gradually and responsively with honest communication (“this is different, isn’t it?”) and patience.
The parent places the baby down and immediately leaves.
No one likes to feel dumped. Parents usually need to begin play by holding the baby while seated on the floor and then stay there for a while after the baby’s placed down. If the parent decides to leave, the baby must be told, or trust in the parent (and in play) can be undermined.
Play Myth #3: Play means “doing” something.
Often the richest, most productive play doesn’t look like much because it’s dawdling, imagining, daydreaming, big picture thinking. To encourage this kind of play we must: first, value it; second, observe it; and lastly, not interrupt. The secret to not interrupting is to refrain from speaking to children until they initiate eye contact.
Side note: Happily occupied babies don’t feel neglected because adults aren’t engaging them (even if several minutes have passed). They know quite well how to ask for attention. Trust your baby.
Play Myth #4: Gated play areas are restrictive “jails”.
A safe space is essential for fostering independent play. Free roaming babies that follow parents around, even in the most baby-proofed home, don’t focus on play as well or feel as truly free as babies in secure areas. Independent play requires a place free of “no’s” and a relaxed, trusting parent who mostly stays put in order to be the “secure base” young explorers need.
Play Myth #5: Independent play means leaving children alone.
One of the many positives about independent play is that once it’s established in a safe space parents can usually leave their content, occupied child alone briefly while they do chores, use the bathroom, check email etc. But the most valuable child-directed play is fostered when we learn a new way to enjoy playing with our kids, one that is mostly about observing and responding, less about actively participating. It’s natural to want to interact, but parent participation has a tendency to take over. The more we are playing, the more our child is following our lead, rather than creating and initiating plans of his or her own.
Parents often ask me what they can do to wean older children off the play “dependencies” they’ve unwittingly created. Generally, the process is to first believe our child capable and accept “not having anything to do” (and our child’s frustration about that) as perfectly okay. Then, relax, stay put and let the child decide to explore and return to you, let go of the need to please, and keep subtly volleying the imaginary ball back to the child.
Play Myth #6: When children get frustrated or ask for help, we should solve the problem for them.
As tempting as it is to fix situations for our children when it takes us all of two seconds, we are far more encouraging when we allow frustration, give verbal support, let go of results (since children often don’t care about them as much as we do) and perhaps help in a very small way, so that the child is doing much more than we are.
When children ask for help, reflect, and then ask questions. “So, you want to draw a dog? What kind of ears do you want the dog to have? Oh, the kind that point up? Show me what you mean.” You might even resort to allowing the child to move your hand while you hold the pencil, but do all you can to give ownership of play to your child, which also means allowing some activities to be left unfinished.
Play Myth #7: It’s our job to entertain and play with our children
There’s definitely some truth to this one. Bonding through fun with our children is one of our jobs, but if we’ve encouraged kids to love playing independently, playtime together seldom feels like a chore, especially once we’ve discovered the joy of taking a back seat and trusting our child to drive.
As my own kids have gotten older, an invitation to play with them is such a rare and precious treat that I’ll gladly drop everything. Come to think of it, I’m often the one asking!
I share much more about child-directed play in my new book:
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
Check out these posts for more inspiration:
My too numerous to mention posts on play