I’ve come to absolutely love playing with my toddler. His little belly laugh is delightful and his imagination surprises me daily. But as a first-time parent, I thought play had to be extraordinary to be “right” and that allowing independent play was lazy on my part. Admittedly, I’m not super creative and don’t set aside time to plan ahead for play, so I often felt I was failing in the play category. Then, I found myself becoming irritated and guilty that I didn’t want to play all.the.time. like he did. I struggled not having the energy, time, or interest, and I felt terrible for saying no. Add the pressure of reading those “you only have 17 summers with your child” statements, and I checked out completely.

I have a friend who shared my same feelings when it came to play. Her younger daughter seemed dependent on having her there during play and would cry when left to play alone. It seemed like her daughter constantly needed to be entertained or guided in play. “I can’t even leave her alone to use the bathroom!” My friend was out of ideas (and patience) for encouraging independent play.

Parents and Play

After learning more about independent play and child-led learning, my understanding of play and parenting was transformed. Reading more research solidified my commitment to purposeful free play as the best way to nurture children’s development. Magically, my stress was removed and I was able to finally find joy, comfort, and peace in my role as a mother with a playful toddler.

Really, it’s great news for caregivers! Research supports children’s play and curiosity develops their social, emotional, and physical skills independently. We don’t have to focus on teaching young children skills in a structured or artificial way when they have freedom to play, explore, be involved in their daily routines, and foster a healthy relationship with their caregivers. Play is one area where we don’t have to step in…let that weight slide off your shoulders!

What is purposeful “free play?”

Free play, or independent play, is a child’s ability to explore and entertain themselves in their environment. Lisa Sunbury from Regarding Baby defines free play as “any behavior that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. Ideally, your child chooses when, with what, and how to play, and is allowed to play with as little interference or direction as possible (with consideration for the safety of self and others) for as long as possible.” 

With this in mind, caregivers can feel good about taking a back seat to the child’s play. Sometimes it’s really difficult for me to feel content just observing and not interrupt my child. “Shouldn’t I be doing more? Am I being lazy?” However, when adults lead or even guide play for children, we often change the child’s direction, and therefore change their learning. It may not even look like play to an adult, but actually the child is working hard to explore and problem-solve through their play.

One step back (for parents), two steps forward (for children)

Caregivers often step in too often during play to teach the child skills. This often-well-intentioned move interrupts and interferes with the child’s learning. The other day I handed my toddler a beloved Mr. Potato Head toy and immediately began showing him where the pieces should go. Even when he tried to imitate me, I couldn’t help but correct him. “You’re funny! The nose goes here!” After about five minutes, I looked up to find him playing with my shoelaces and I was still putting on Potato Head pieces! Who was really playing here?! #Momfail

I left all the Potato Head pieces out, and a few hours later found my toddler playing in his own way. He was opening the back door on the Head and looking through the face holes like a telescope. Later, he put the hat on his own head, giggling when it fell off. Then, he found a piece of paper to fit in the shoe slot at the bottom of the Head. He was having a blast!

When caregivers take a step back, children will likely surprise you by taking their own steps forward. Creativity and imagination flourishes and a child can develop self-confidence in themselves to explore and learn.

So, what role do caregivers play…in play?

Fostering Independent Play

If you feel like my friend and want to encourage independent play, here’s a few things to try:

If you struggle with creating purposeful independent play, check out our favorite articles on play by Janet Lansbury: https://www.janetlansbury.com/tag/play/

This is Part 3 of our Play Series. Click the links to read Part 1: Why is Play Important? and Part 2:Stages of Play Development Part 4:Pretend Play

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