The Value of Independent Play

Let your kids entertain themselves – seriously.

I know it seems strange that a blog dedicated to engaging your children is now encouraging you to let them entertain themselves. I felt it was necessary to address this right at the beginning. I felt it necessary to address this right at the beginning.

Yes I believe in thoughtfully engaging kids in creative play. Yes, I believe in getting on the floor and directly engaging in their play. But I also believe in balance. I make sure to build in “free-play” time daily. Time where I haven’t devised an activity or provided specific materials. Time where I am not directly engaging them, or even really interacting at all.

Why do I believe in letting your kids learn how to entertain themselves?

1 – Creativity

Letting your kids direct their own play opens the door for some pretty awesome imaginative play. Let’s face it, kids are innately creative. Much more so than even the most creative adult that I know.

Just this morning, my kids built a pirate ship out of my weight bench and a small chair. They made the entire sea with blankets and islands out of books. They played for an hour before breakfast and almost an hour after. They went from being surfers searching for a good place to surf to adventurers searching for sea creatures, complete with a hand drawn map. They even dug out my weights and yoga mats and lead themselves through a workout!

Ayla and Rory in their pirate ship.

The point is, I couldn’t have thought these things up if I tried. And I do try. But imaginative play is like the bane of my existence. I can only say the same scripted line for so long before I’m day dreaming about what I’m doing to make for lunch, or dinner, or bedtime snack (What? I like to eat!!). I also find it painful to recklessly move from being pirates to surfers to adventurers. I can’t help but point out the gaping plot holes and inconsistencies, much to Ayla’s dismay.

This creativity may be channelled into play today, but in the future it will be an invaluable skill in a rapidly changing work world.

2 – Mom’s Sanity and Self- Care

Whether you are a stay at home mom, a working mom, or something in between like me, we all need a few minutes for self-care. DAILY!

Taking a few minutes for me.

Independent play is the perfect opportunity to take five minutes for you. Have a shower, drink a hot coffee, read your favourite blog (pssst this one!)… just whatever you do… don’t pick up the phone, as that is guaranteed to make free-play time come to a crashing halt. Seriously?! The second you say hello you can 100% guarantee all hell will break loose. But I digree…

In order to be the kick-ass mom that you are, you need to take time to fill your cup too. Do what speaks to you that day. Some days, for me, it’s working out. Others it’s having a hot bath. Alone. Sometimes I just need to sit on my bed and breathe.

Your sole job is not to entertain the little people in your life. You are important, too! You need to know that, and so do they.

3 – Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

If you are on any form of social media, I’m sure you’ve read an article (or twenty) about how we are faced with a growingly incompetent generation of young people. Teenagers and young twenty-somethings that have Mommy call in sick for them, or ream out their teachers/professors for a bad grade.

Rory playing dominoes. He then used them as a road for his cars.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree that the entire generation is a wash, but I can admit those problems do exist. My theory? We haven’t allowed our kids to solve their own problems or make their own decisions. In an over-zealous attempt to make life peachy for our kids, we removed all opportunities for them to practise these skills in safe, small ways. So when it comes time to tackle big life problems, so many young adults just aren’t able to. They lack the skills, and the confidence in their abilities.

I urge us all to take a step back. And it starts with letting your kids figure out how to entertain themselves. Without flipping on a screen, or device. Without $800 worth of toys. Just this morning, my two were arguing over who got to be the captain of the pirate ship. As I’m putting away dishes, I held back the urge to jump in and solve it, to make the decision. Instead, I waited and listened – ready to guide if needed. All on their own, they decided the ship could have two captains (Rory was Captain #2, hahaha, but he didn’t mind). This seems small, but if I jumped in and demanded Ayla gave her brother a turn to be captain, then I would have taken away the chance for them to build those essential problem-solving skills they’ll need late in life. And I’d have sent the inherent message that they are incapable of solving problems without me. Which may be okay when they are 2 and 4, not so much when they are 22 and 24!

4 – Reduce Stress and Anxiety

It is no surprise that today’s kids and teens are more stressed and more anxious than ever. I do attribute some of this to better awareness of our kid’s emotional states, but my completely unscientific opinion is that overall levels have risen, too.

Just some pirates doing their daily exercise.

But think about the average school-aged child’s day – wake up and rush around to get to school Spend 7 hours a day there. Then rush off after school to dance/karate/gymnastics, etc. Hurriedly shovel in dinner and complete homework sometime in there. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I am not suggesting that extracurriculars are a bad idea. In fact, I think they are super important. But I am suggesting that a balance needs to be found. That kids still need unstructured time to just be kids. They have their whole adults lives to rush around be stressed. That allowing them the time to just be, to recharge their batteries, is as invaluable as piano lessons.

Tips for building in Independent Play:

  • Start with small chunks of time.

The younger the child, the shorter the length of time. If this idea is new to your children, no matter their age, start with 10-15 minutes.

  • Attempt it when children are at their best

This time will be different for every child/family. My kids play independently the best when they first wake up in the morning and after dinner. After school is a danger zone and Ayla is too tired and grumpy to make any decisions, so I usually offer her a quiet art or sensory activity.

  • Use a Timer

If your kids are used to you being their main source of entertainment, there may be some resistance at first. Set a timer. If they come to you, point to timer and remind them they have 8 minutes left, then you will come play.

Ayla and Rory made this caterpillar. He was named Fuzzy and lived in front of our fire place all day.
  • Model appropriate play

When you are playing with your kids, model for them how they can play with certain materials. Build towers or puzzles, colour, zoom cars around the living room, etc.

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I’d love to hear how you build in independent play in your home. What works? What doesn’t?

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