Here at Unplug Your Fun we're all about family time. But what about those moments when you want some me time and your kids can't figure out how to entertain themselves without turning to screens?
We'd like to think that kids are born knowing how to play. Not long ago, they probably were. In today's world, however, kids have lost that natural instinct to play with whatever and whomever is around. We're much more involved in our kids' daily lives, which is a good thing. The downside is that in the process, our kids depend on us to entertain them whenever things get a little boring. In previous generations, if there wasn't anyone to play with, kids made their own entertainment with whatever they had available. Today, it's as simple as turning to a screen to fend off boredom.
While that might solve the problem of allowing us to catch a break or get dinner on the table, it doesn't do them any favors. Learning to play independently is an important developmental milestone that will serve children well into adulthood. It builds problem-solving skills, encourages imagination, and leaves children feeling confident in their ability to self-regulate. Kids who are able to play independently grow up into adults that can manage downtime and aren't afraid to be alone with themselves.
That all sounds wonderful, of course, but how do we get there? Here are a few ways to encourage independent play in kids of all ages.
When you stroll the aisles at your local big box store, chances are the toys that catch your children's eyes are full of bells and whistles. They probably light up, make noise, or are tied to a favorite TV show. Often these toys are one-trick wonders. After a few sessions of playing with them, kids lose interest. Look past these toys and seek out items that encourage open-ended play. Dress-up clothing and props, building materials, arts and crafts items, kitchen or store playthings, and play sets with figurines are wonderful choices.
Let's face it, kids can be lazy. If something interesting isn't easily accessible, they probably won't dig deep trying to find it. Instead they'll look to a screen or to you for entertainment. Keep toys easily accessible where your kids actually play. (Hint: it's probably not the toy room or their bedroom.) Open shelving and shallow open bins keep toys organized but readily available. Don't be too quick to put toys away, either. Kids may build something elaborate, leave it for a bit, and come back. Having to always start from scratch can be frustrating, discouraging kids from building something in the first place.
After the kids go to bed or while they're napping, set out something special. Put out materials for some open-ended art play. Gather a few books and playthings that go together, such as books about birds, binoculars and a few stuffed animals. Set out a puzzle or a building kit.
We often think that if our kids are having trouble finding something to play with, they must need something new or different. The opposite is usually true: they have so many things that simply choosing one is overwhelming. The solution is to get a box or a plastic bin and put some of the toys out of sight. After a few weeks, rotate the toys from storage with the ones that have been out. Even if a toy had only been out of commission for a month, it seemed like a brand new toy when I brought it back out again!
It sounds obvious, but it bears mentioning. Kids can't play independently if they're never home long enough and given enough unstructured time to do so. Limit outside activities at least a few days a week so that they have the opportunity to play at home. If your kids are very young or if you've never really encouraged independent play, start slowly and give it time for them to get the hang of it. Aim for 10 minutes of independent play, praise them when they play successfully by themselves, and work towards longer sessions.
Children play differently when you intervene or hover. Remember - you're not ignoring or neglecting them. You're helping them! Take advantage of the break and find your own fun!
We'd love to hear from you. How do you encourage independent play in your home? Are there any stumbling blocks to play you've been able to overcome?
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