Something I’ve been struggling with lately is this concept of independent play. It wasn’t something I thought much about after the birth of my first son. Nobody talked about play probably because everyone wants to talk about sleep with your first. I wish that play was more of a topic because I could’ve used the inspiration and ideas. I am currently trying to un-do some minor “play dependencies” with my now 3-year-old.
Play sounds like something that just happens naturally, which it does, but why is play then disappearing in older kids today? This is becoming a lost art. Multiple distractions are behind it, in my opinion, like an over-focus on academics at the cost of soft skills and emotional development; technology and the addiction of screen-time on developing brains; a materialistic-society throwing tons of battery-operated toys that mindlessly entertain; a disproportionate fear of letting our kids roam outside unsupervised; and a busy workaholic society that has grown so structured that doctors are literally “prescribing” play into families’ overwhelming schedules.
In these early years, I always knew my babies were born wired to play and explore, but I didn’t know that there are things in my control that I can do from birth to either hinder independent play or encourage it. Before, I directed my son’s play because we didn’t think babies were yet capable of making choices in play. This set us up to be his playmate. Furthermore, his shy and reserved personality wasn’t something we knew how to best support at first. The common advice of validate, don’t push, led us down a helicopter-parenting crash course in which we weren’t showing him the trust and space he could’ve grown more confidence from. And where there’s confidence, there’s independence. We are on track now in finding what works best, but it’s a journey!
Then on the parent side, there’s the falling victim to the over-planning pressure. I was born a mother during an era of do.all.the.things, wear.all.the.hats. Make food from scratch. Socialize with formal play dates. Budget for the baby classes. Carve out time to Pinterest crafts. Plan. Plan. Plan. This set me up to feel like I was failing if we had days of nothing-ness. I value busy, which means I struggle with distractions myself. These distractions can pull me away from my kids and then they will have half-filled cups, which leads to attention-seeking rather than confident solo play.
I am so deeply nostalgic to protect my kids’ childhood with good old-fashioned play. Of course they are still young and they have different personalities, but I want to set the right tone in an age where distractions and instant gratification are the norm. I’m realizing that my expectations of their ability to play without direction or entertainment start with me. And the hardest expectation of all is the fact that nurturing this is a longer journey.
One. I am not their playmate, I am their guide. My overarching role in play is to back off and let them lead. My daughter already loves taking the lead, but my son often seeks my direction. In those moments, I refrain from directing by asking him questions that encourage him to problem solve or create. “How about you try to build that? Can you show me what you think that would look like? What do you think comes next?” It’s not that I don’t play with them, it’s just that I am much more passive.
Two. I am a stickler about the kind of toys that come into our home. It is rooted in protecting hands-on play over creating a habit of being entertained by stuff.
Three. I am working on minimizing my own distractions and valuing the simpler things I can experience with them to steer clear of the structured, scheduled trap.
Four. I stay in control of screen time. We rally around the TV in consistent, limited doses, but my crutch for needing breaks is no longer just the TV. It’s going on a walk. Eating a snack. Or turning on music. Or … letting the moment be nothing and embracing the temporary crash of the day.
Five. I try to model a love for the simple things that I want for them rather than the old, “Do as I say, not as I do.” If I want them to read more books, I need to read more books. If I want them to love the outdoors, I need to love the outdoors.
Do you struggle with this with your kids? How do you embrace unstructured play in today’s structured society? What works for you? When did independent play really blossom in your kids? What is your favorite alternative to screen time in those moments of crashing?