Best Ways to Encourage Independent Play

Janet addresses a parent’s concerns about her daughter’s unwillingness to play independently. She seems to need constant stimulation and entertainment.

Transcript of “Best Ways to Encourage Independent Play”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’ll be responding to a parent whose child seems to be having a hard time playing more independently, can’t seem to be without the parent when it comes to play, needs that stimulation.

Before I begin, a little holiday reminder: Have I mentioned my books lately? 🙂 I’m told that No Bad Kids:Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting make great stocking stuffers in paperback! So please check them out on Amazon.

Here’s the note I received:

Hi. I follow your posts and do a lot of reading, but I’m still struggling with my three-year-old. She’s been this way since she was younger and I can’t seem to change it or improve it. She just won’t play by herself. She always needs my guidance or stimulation to play. It is driving me crazy as I have a 10-month-old to attend to, along with a myriad of household things to do. So I’m finding it hard. How do I encourage self play?

I’ve tried setting up activities and it never works. Help.

Okay, so there are a couple things here I think I can help with.

First of all, what can happen is we can sort of create a cycle when we believe that it’s our job… and I know I certainly did before learning about Magda Gerber’s approach to parenting… I believed it was my job to keep my child entertained and stimulated. And what this does is begins a cycle of our child believing that they need us to do those things with them, that they can’t do them themselves. That’s not the message that we intend, but that can be the message that they get.

Also, they just don’t have that practice being the one to think of things to do. So it’s difficult for them.

And then if we continue to stimulate them and give them direction in terms of play, even setting up play for them, if they get used to that, then they’re going to continue to receive those same messages from us, of course.

It’s a cycle that only we can change. The way that we do that is, first, to believe and know that play is the most positive thing our child could be doing, especially self-directed play because of all that they learn. They are engaging their creativity, they’re exploring “self
and getting to follow their own intuition about things, and they’re developing a longer attention span and focus because they’re choosing the interests that they want to follow. They’re initiating.

It’s very therapeutic for children as well because only they have that connection to what feelings, what experiences that they’ve had that they maybe need to play out and explore further. Our child might be exposed to something that’s puzzling for them or just a little too stimulating, too exciting or scary, and you can actually see how children sometimes — they’re playing out those experiences to process them. This is obviously a very healthy thing for children to do.

Of course, it’s also hugely beneficial for them to play with other children, whether those are siblings or peers. Those experiences offer profound opportunities for learning as well.

Certainly there are tons of articles and books about play and the value of it. So this is such a positive gift we can give our child.

And oftentimes with parenting, doing the best by our child, giving them these gifts are not things that they will necessarily agree to in the moment and say, “Yeah, right! This is really great! You’re making me really happy, saying no to playing with me,” especially if we haven’t fostered this habit…

We don’t have to create the habit because children are born with this desire, but we do have to cultivate it. This is easiest to do from the very beginning with our infant by not interrupting them when they’re not looking at us or not wanting anything from us and trusting that they right there are having a thought. They might be figuring out something. What’s this over here? What am I doing here on this planet? We don’t know. We can only imagine what their thoughts are, which is for me always been a very interesting, fun thing to try to do.

And so if we realize that children are able to do this right from the beginning, they don’t need us to show them things to interest them, it’s not that it’s a terrible thing to do ever, but they will naturally be attracted to their own types of play. Which is often with an infant just what their eyes are directed towards, what they’re looking at, what they’re taking in.

So even from the beginning, children don’t need us to be the ones to keep them busy, keep them on board, keep them occupied. As long as we have a reasonably enriching environment, we don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, children will naturally seek out what they’re interested in.

Trusting that our children can do this and that it’s the healthiest thing for them, that’s really important if we’re going to be trying to change a pattern that we’ve created. Because we want to have conviction in what we’re doing always, especially when we’re making changes as parents.

Also it’s important to understand how we’ve helped to create this. When I read this, it reminded me of what can happen sometimes with kids and homework. I know there are a lot of people that that don’t believe children should have homework at all. And I definitely wouldn’t have a kindergartner doing homework or a first grader, but I think it’s okay for older children. But what happens is that, right from the beginning, we might consider this our job. We’re getting our child to sit down to do the homework with us and we’re involving ourselves in it and then it becomes our responsibility along with our child’s. We’re taking responsibility to make that happen. And then so often I talk to parents who’ve gotten themselves into something where now their child won’t do the homework unless the parent maybe nags them or unless the parent’s helping and doing it with them. And the child starts to believe maybe that they can’t do this without their parent’s help.

But if we don’t do that, if we consider that responsibility as our child’s and really between our child and their teachers, then we never have to be the ones making them do it. That’s between them and their teacher. And what happens then is they do it. We might have to remind them, “oh, I can’t let you do such and such until you’ve gotten that done.” But it doesn’t become our job because we haven’t created that dependency.

So the same thing happens with play. We’ve created dependency with all our wonderful intentions, and there’s nothing wrong with us for doing that, but it is something that we’ve had a hand in. So we want to understand that and then realize that when any kind of transition is made with something like this, there probably will be a rocky transitional period of adjustment. It’s seldom going to be seamless and smooth. So we want to go into this realizing that as well, but still knowing that this is a gift to give our child to enjoy just being with ourselves, learning about ourselves, being in tune with what we want to do with our interests, how long we want to take doing something or nothing, exploring something in particular. This is a gift.

This parent says she feels her child always needs her guidance or stimulation to play. So sometimes that can begin when our child is going through a a period like they’re teething or something and they’re uncomfortable, or maybe there’s something else going on. As a parent, we see that and we say, oh gosh, I need to distract my child. Let me stimulate them because they’re unhappy. Instead of recognizing that whatever it is is just a phase that our child is in, they’re uncomfortable right now. We just want to get through that period and not start to create a habit or a belief in ourselves that we need to entertain or stimulate. That’s just one way that this can can happen.

Like I said, for children, play is an inborn ability. All children have this. They might kind of lose touch with it or get out of the habit of it, but it’s always going to be there. So we need to believe in children as capable of inventing their play. Without that, a shift is not going to work.

Then, with all this confidence in our children and with all this confidence in this being a really positive transition that we’re going to help our child make, we can do this. And there are two ways to do it. Two things that we need to work on.

One is that when we are available to our child for play, and this doesn’t have to be every time, but we start practicing a different way of being together during play, which is a more responsive, supportive mode rather than leading the play ourselves or getting so involved that without meaning to, we’re starting to make a lot of the decisions and influencing the direction of our child’s play.

Now, removing ourselves from being actively involved in play, that can be difficult if our child is used to us being more involved, but if we’re really there, if we’re really still able to be present, children will experience how much they love this kind of attention. It’s very freeing when children don’t have to perform for us, and they’re not going to need to draw us into their play to hold our attention, which is what so often happens.

So we’re putting those phones or other distractions away for this period of time. Two minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, however much time we have, we want to try to practice being fully there so our child doesn’t have to work or get us to work to get our attention. It’s changing the messaging. This is what Magda Gerber called “wants nothing quality time,” where it’s just: I’m with you. You don’t have to do anything fancy. We don’t have to be doing an activity together. I’m just with you. I’m here. You have all my attention. Even if we’re just sitting together, we’re not even talking or we’re not even looking at each other and you’re not even doing anything special. I’m here for you.

Children feel so comforted and nurtured by that. It’s such a validating experience. And that’s the kind of experience during playtime together that really helps children to feel the thrill and the joy of directing their play so that they want to be able to do this on their own. They don’t need us to be there all the time. And once they realize that their ideas are enough, their ideas are better than enough, they’re perfect, and what they choose to do is cool and doesn’t have to be anything fancy, it frees them to own their play.

And that ownership is obviously what we want when we do the other part that I’m going to recommend, which is: to find a way to get comfortable about our personal boundaries and our plans for the day and what we want to do. And we don’t see that part of that is that we have to keep our child occupied so that we can do these things. What our child chooses to do when we’ve made the decision that we need to do something else other than give them attention, has to be up to them, within reason.

Now, one thing that this parent mentions is that she tries setting up activities and that doesn’t work. What I’m suggesting is to not even set up activities because that’s still giving the message that it’s our job to get our child playing, that we need to make this happen. That message isn’t going to help us. It keeps us involved, it keeps it our responsibility and continues that feeling of dependency.

So just have a play area. This parent has a younger child who’s 10 months, and I would see if she could set up some kind of safe gated area, could be a small room or a hallway or just a part of a room that could be gated off where that child can be completely safe and not have all the distractions of having to test the environment and getting into things that we don’t want them to get into — I call this a “yes space” — and therefore they can lose themselves in play and get more deeply involved.  It’s so much easier for them when they don’t have all those distractions.

But with a three-year-old, again, that’s going to be hard to establish if we haven’t already established it. But what we can do and what we still need to do to make this work is to have our strong personal boundary where we say, sometimes I’m able to sit with you and have this wants nothing time together. And it will help a lot if this is predictable in in terms of there are certain times that we sit with our child while they play and hang out with them. And there are other times of day generally when our child knows this is when my mother goes and does her thing and she isn’t playing with me. So that routine, that predictability will help quite a bit for children to get used to this idea.

Children love predictability so much that they can even sort of look forward to: okay, now here’s my time and this is what she’s going to do. Then she’s going to leave and maybe I get mad for a minute or for a while I try to coax her back, but then she always still holds her ground and does her thing and then I get into my own stuff. Oftentimes young children, they just want to know what’s going on. They just want to know what to expect in their day. And if their days are completely different every day, it’s really hard for them to settle into a routine. It doesn’t give them that sense of control, knowing what to expect in their day and their schedule. So that helps a lot to have the predictability.

Then when we do go, and even if this is just, “I need to go to the bathroom now,” feel really positive about making that boundary. We have to feel good about this and really every boundary that we set, that we’re standing up for ourselves and we’re also doing something really good for our child, which is being confident enough for them to be able to release us. And if our child decides to follow us around whining and “I can’t play, I need you. I can’t play by myself,” you know, even if they’re asking us 50 times, find a way in yourself to let go of that and know that yes, it may very well be a part of the process.

But if we can’t let go, then they get stuck there. So turn to her, nod your head, “Ah, you’re having such a hard time letting go of me today. You don’t want me to do my thing, you keep following me around.” And even if they’re holding onto us, “Ah, I’ve got to move these arms off my legs because I need to go over here.”

We can say all of that without it becoming our problem to fix, which is what makes us uncomfortable with it. I would expect this is part of a process, the messy part of a transition to a very positive change. If we can stand tall and not let this drain us or bring us down, if we’re expecting it, then children will let go of it faster. It’s a kind of relief for them when they don’t have all this power to control the adults. So feeling really comfortable with our personal boundary, that is the only way that this can work. Because if there’s something there for a child to hold onto, she’s bothering you, she’s getting to you, it keeps her hooked in. And it may feel like it’s more loving for us to have our heart go out to her and, oh gosh, or feel guilty or whatever that is, but it’s really not as loving as being that strong person who is sure of themselves so that she can say: okay, well this isn’t doing anything for me. No one’s getting wound up by this and okay, I’m going to let go and go do what I need to do or do what I want to do, or just let go of this and maybe do nothing for a little while and then find something to do. That’s how it starts.

Another important aspect of this is really shifting our mindset on what play is supposed to look like — that it’s this child happily engaged in a certain kind of activity, because it can be all kinds of things for a child. It’s really just them being themselves in the space that they’re in. And in this transitional period, play could look like her daughter following her around and her mother confidently continuing what she’s doing, or her daughter’s sitting somewhere being upset and her mother coming and checking in with her and reassuring her that she’s seen and heard. And it’s okay for her to feel that way.

We don’t want to ignore our child, but maybe ignoring this annoying part of it, this part that could be getting to us. We can turn to them every once in a while and say, “I hear you’re still asking me. You’re still having a hard time.” What I wouldn’t do is say, “Go play. You go do this right now. You need to play.” Because we can’t play when someone tells us to play. Play can’t be demanded or it really isn’t play anymore. It’s more organic than that. And again, then we’d be directing her, directing her to play.

What we want to do is let go of directing her. So not telling her to play, not even setting an activity up for her. I mean, that’s not a terrible thing if you want to try doing that in the interim to help with this transition, but ultimately we want to relieve ourselves of that job too.

Sometimes with a one-year-old or a 15-month-old, there are times when maybe we have a gated in area, we have a yes space, and they’re at the gate. And that can be really disturbing, right? Our child’s at the gate calling for us. But sometimes they’re at the gate because being at the gate is an interesting part of their play. And in my parent-child classes, there’s a gate there over a doorway and very often children are standing at the gate exploring the gate. So it’s not that our child feels so trapped and stuck and is in a terrible place if they’re at the gate, they’re often just exploring it, exploring that situation and that separation between us. And sometimes they’re saying, “No, don’t go. I don’t want you to go.” And we can easily jump to: oh, they’re abandoned and they’re, they’re feeling deeply distant from us.

But if this is part of our regular routine our child knows very well, and also we’ve told them that we’re leaving to go to the bathroom or to do something in the kitchen, they know that we will come back. They’re just voicing their point of view, which is so healthy and positive. It’s important to see the strength in our child in all of these situations, to believe in them. Because if we’re not comfortable, then they’re really going to have a hard time settling in. And that makes sense. They need a leader and that’s us. And if the leader’s not sure of what’s going on, then they have no choice but to hold on. They can’t let go and be with themselves.

So I often hear from parents that they feel there’s a defect in their child that their child can’t play, and the majority of the time when parents have difficulty with this, it’s because they have a very strong child that is checking out the leadership that’s happening and getting stuck in kind of controlling everything that the parent does. And this doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids. It’s a fine thing to ask for. It’s part of them understanding their world and their relationship with us and doing their job, which is to see where the boundaries are, to see what we do and what we don’t do. And they really just want to know. When they do know, it frees them.

So there are only positives in this adjustment, and I highly recommend it. It’s wonderful for children. It’s helpful for parents who can get a break once in a while. And even when we’re with our child in this way, we can enjoy hanging out with them because the pressure’s not on us to entertain and stimulate and keep play going and using our energy on that. We can be the audience enjoying what they’re doing.

Children come and they hand you things and they do bring you into their play that way. And we comment on what they’re doing, especially when they’re looking at us for a response and we say, “Wow, you’ve been working on that a long time and look what you did. You put three blocks on top of each other.” We’re still fully present, we’re still engaged, we’re just not the actor on stage. We’re leaving that to our child.

And yes, of course we can join in and play with our child. Or play a game with our child as they get older. We can always do things once in a while, but if we’re trying to establish something new, and if we’re getting stuck in being the entertainer, then we might wanna work on undoing this kind of dependency.

I really hope this makes sense and I hope it helps. I’ve written a lot of articles about play and developing self-directed play. They’re on my website and in my books . Well, one book is all about boundaries. That’s No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame. And that will give you a lot of support in the things I’m talking about around saying no to our child and freeing them through that. In Elevating Child Care, there’s more about independent play, the benefits and joys of it for our children and for us.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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