Why Independent Play is Good for Your Child’s Health

Independent play isn’t something that should only be encouraged among preschoolers and school-aged children. It’s something that can be developed from a very young age. As a first-time parent, I didn’t realize the many positive benefits of this type of play and certainly didn’t connect it to developmental milestones.

While learning how to play independently carries lasting benefits as children grow, it’s never too late to arm them with the opportunity to explore and develop the skills needed to successfully play on their own. It’s believed this type of play improves mental focus, creativity and attention span. And, as parents, we know how valuable these skills can be!

Starting at a young age is ideal. Here’s why:
Placing your baby in a swing or saucer doesn’t mean you’re neglectful. You can allow babies to discover things and entertain themselves for short periods of time (likely 5-10 minutes) while you watch from a short distance away. Some experts also suggest giving your baby age appropriate toys instead of acting as your child’s entertainer. Stop playing for your child and instead arm your baby with the tools to understand how to play alone.

Choose basic toys over flashy ones. Here’s why:
Toys without the bells and whistles will foster your child’s problem-solving skills. A sensory teether or rattle encourages babies to develop skills which teach them how to manipulate objects and play more creatively. For preschool or primary school agers, offer things like playdoh, blocks or large letter magnets. Open ended, problem solving toys give children the tools to learn more about role play and imaginary play so skip fancy battery-operated toys whenever possible.

Cut down on screen time. Here’s why:
Admittedly, most parents will agree some screen time is a necessity, especially when there’s a lot on your to-do list! TV time can be hard to compete with, especially since it’s a sensory and stimulation smorgasbord, and it easily entertains children. But watching TV doesn’t allow children to tap into their own creative juices. Try limiting screen time and balancing it with toys and games that encourage independent play.

Set a clock for older kids. Here’s why:
Setting a clock or timer will help children understand that their alone playtime doesn’t have to last too long, especially if you’ve just introduced independent play. You can begin with five or ten minutes, depending on the age of your child and gradually increase the time as it becomes more familiar. It’s also important to offer praise after the timer goes off.

Don’t dictate how your child plays. Here’s why:
Full disclosure: I’m sometimes guilty of interrupting playtime by asking my children to clean up the piles of toys and crafts on the floor but leaving things until after playtime is over is a much better option. Allow your child to explore using blocks, dress-up, puzzles or paint. If they choose to play with all of them, so be it! Don’t stress over the mess and worry about the clean up after. Playtime definitely trumps a messy room.

Don’t let guilt get in the way. Here’s why:
You don’t need to interact with your child every waking moment. Interrupting play to join in might seem like a good idea but doing so won’t help improve your child’s independence. Some kids feel embarrassed when they discover mom or dad watching. What’s more, interrupting them doesn’t allow them to stay focused in their make-believe world.

There’s no need to feel guilty about leaving your child to his or her devices (so long as it’s safe). Kids need time alone to develop these essential skills. If you’re uncomfortable leaving the room, check in quietly and discreetly without letting them know.

There’s tremendous value in teaching children how to play by themselves. It’s not a matter of you, as the parent, missing out. It’s doesn’t mean you’re careless. It doesn’t mean you’re not tuned into their interests. There are many benefits to this type of play, including improved self-confidence, self-reliance and social independence. So, take pride in stepping back and watching your young ones explore, learn and grow!