As a parent of young children, I often find myself wishing I had just five minutes to unload the dishwasher, pay the bills, or even catch up on the slightest bit of news going on outside my four walls. Getting our kids to play on their own isn't selfish. In fact, research shows it leads to self- confidence, creativity and language development in our children.
However, for children to learn how to play on their own requires us to teach them over time. The average 18-month-old will not likely play more than 15 minutes at a time on his own without feeling lonely or getting bored. Kids need direction. They're learning. As we train our kids to play on their own, remember that, as with anything, it takes T.I.M.E.
Here are four ways to help foster independent play.
Timing: Make sure you're not trying to push your child to play independently of you after a meltdown or tantrum. Choose a time your child is most content—like after lunch, bath time, or a diaper change. The brain learns best in a relaxed state.
That said, I'm going to add one more "T" to our acronym—technology. I understand how easy it is to want to turn to technology as your babysitter to find that 15 minutes of freedom. However, research shows that too much screen time, especially in the early developmental years when the brain is rapidly growing, increases inattention in kids and produces the opposite outcome we're actually looking for—a child who needs constant stimulation to play on their own. Research shows that constant amusement—or not allowing our kids to be bored—inhibits their creativity and imagination.
I strongly urge using less screens, not more.
Interest: Find toys your children are interested in playing with. Our daughter loves sitting in the kitchen and playing with bowls, spatulas, and lids. Our son, on the other hand, will take a puzzle and do well without us, perhaps summoning us only on occasion for help. Give them toys they're interested in and don't overwhelm them with a smorgasbord of options. Providing one or two toys at a time teaches them to focus.
Monitor: This is an important part of helping kids learn independent play because it requires us to be patient. Monitoring and helping our kids is an important part of teaching them to play on their own and find their own interests. We cannot expect our kids to just pick it up in a day. Remember our acronym, it takes T.I.M.E.
If our kids pick up on our impatience, it will only foster the same in them.
Finally, when our son was learning to play on his own we found him a few minutes later next to our fireplace with black ashes on his face. After calling poison control, we learned that a few ashes wasn't much different than eating burnt toast (in case you're wondering how to increase your daily carcinogen intake). Learn from our gaffe and make sure to keep their independent play in a safe and secure location within sight.
Everyday: Maintain routine. Make it a habit to give your child a toy she's interested in and do so in the same safe location. As our children learn, each day we can begin stepping further away and for longer periods of time.
Teaching our children to play independently not only brings some freedom to our day, it also fosters creativity and self-confidence in our kids.
But as you teach, be patient. And allow your growing relationship to be the primary focus of the learning process—because it's emotionally safe relationships that are the breeding ground for healthy independence.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, and president and co-founder of the Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of the newly released Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well (Waterbrook Multnomah) and along with his wife, Christi, is the producer and co-author of the video curriculum The Screen-Balanced Family: Six Secrets to a More Connected Family in the 21st Century. He wakes up each day striving to love others better beginning with his wife, Christi, and their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy.
For more encouragement and ideas on marriage and parenting in the 21st century, you can join Josh and a growing tribe of awesome families at www.joshuastraub.com and follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.