Letters from a Respectful Parent

9 Tips for Encouraging Independent Play

The sweetest sound carried into the quiet room where I was lying next to my seven-month-old, watching her sleep peacefully after filling her belly with momma milk. I heard the muffled sound coming from the next room where my two-and-a-half-year-old had been contentedly playing alone for the past twenty minutes. “I’m having FUN with my guitar!” he shouted between strums. My heart leapt for joy at the sign that my firstborn feels so good in his skin, happy just to play for the audience of noone but himself.

As a parent, I am dedicated to providing my children with secure attachment by responding quickly to them when they express their needs, even if it isn’t always convenient for me or if they require nothing but my presence. Yet, I believe that one of the many reasons we rejoice over each small milestone that further establishes our children’s independence, is that our hands become increasingly freed up to do the things that require much more effort when there is a child on our hip or a pair of little arms wrapped around our leg. 

One of my greatest joys in motherhood is spending quality time with my children — fully present, fully engaged. Yet, I also find great satisfaction in giving my full attention to whatever task is at hand, or to recharging for a moment during a long day, week, month or year. It is a breath of necessary fresh air for me to be able to shift my focus to something other than my children every now and then, and that is okay and entirely normal!

Perhaps my son is more inclined than other children his age to find joy in sinking deep into a world of play in which, more often than not, no adult is required, but I do believe there are many simple ways to encourage independent play that a child enjoys, not endures. I believe that our families can be places of togetherness where all of us thrive, not just survive. 

Here’s how:

#1 Prepare the space

In today’s flashy, high-tech world, toys that don’t move/talk/light up may seem boring. However, there is nothing better for a child’s imagination than for them to have to come up with ways to bring the objects surrounding them to life, not just sit back and be entertained. I love the way Magda Gerber suggests for us to choose “passive toys that require an active baby instead of active toys that create a passive child.” Active play is therapeutic for our little ones! And when I watch my children sink into a world of their own and subconsciously process the tensions of their everydays, it’s therapeutic for me, too.

A few months ago, I had a thought while clearing out many of Ellis’ toys that seemed to be cluttering our space instead of inviting him to engage in deep and focused play. “A child will do what he was WIRED to do with whatever is available to him — he will play!” It eased my mind to realize that my children would spend their days playing, regardless of how much or little was available to them.

So, as you prepare a space for a child, keep in mind that they WILL inspect and experiment with whatever they have access to. (We still need to figure out a good way to keep the cords running across our dining room floor out of Lucy’s reach.) When bringing things for my children to play with into our home, I do my best to focus on versatile objects that can be used in a number of ways. Toys that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to play with.

“Play is the work of the child,” Maria Montessori once said, and any of you who has ever had a office job like I used to, knows how stressful it is and how difficult it makes it to focus when our desks are messy and piles of paper are screaming for our attention from every corner.

A clean, clear, inviting space encourages our children to enter a productive workflow.

Even in settings where there are NO toys, you might find your child using a stick he finds while you’re on a walk to draw on the ground. To him/her, rocks can be cars, leaves can be boats.

I can’t stress enough how much peace it brings to my home when it is a safe, open space for true play to take place!

#2 Let them lead

Have you ever asked yourself what role you and your child play in THEIR play? Have you ever reflected upon the amount of commands and guidance you give? How much you demonstrate, assist or step in?

I recently heard about a study concluding that children are told to do things they don’t want to an outrageous number of times each day.

When it comes to play, I often observe parents giving their children unnecessary instruction and have started to ask myself questions such as, “Does it really matter if he’s using his guitar and drum stick as a bow and violin?” “Is it his goal or mine to build the tower as high as possible?” As much self-control it sometimes takes, I can see so many benefits from letting my children experiment and decide how THEY would like to play rather than show them the “right” way. 

In refraining from doing so, we are not only allowing our little ones to develop a sense of security in their own opinions and decisions, we’re also avoiding an unnecessary dependency on an adult to tell them how, where, what and when to play.

Now, if you view your child as the director of their own play, you might be asking if this means that I’m suggesting that we refrain from joining our children in their play altogether.

On the contrary, I would encourage us to actively observe them. When my son looks up at me, he’s seeking connection, not instruction. “I see you’re cooking in your kid’s kitchen,” I might say with a genuine smile, instead of “Why don’t you make me a sandwich!” And when he grabs my hand to lead me to the table where he is coloring, I might grab my own piece of paper instead of telling him what to draw or which colors to use next.

So, although there are times that Ellis requests we build a house made of legos together, there are other times when he becomes so engrossed in what he’s doing that I’ll let him know I’m going to go to work on something, too, after I’ve enjoyed being with him for a bit. 

I’ve noticed that when we offer more of our fully-engaged presence and less of our own ideas, our children become the most brilliant, creative thinkers! 

#3 Fill their tank 

“Lucy’s sleeping,” my two-and-a-half-year-old recently stated. After I nodded in agreement, he continued by stroking my arm and saying, “You love this time with me, Momma.” 

When was the last time you made it a point to spend high-quality time with your child with no other distractions? 

Any time you spend with your child can be meaningful, no matter what you’re doing together. I truly enjoy my children’s company and make it a point to repeatedly let them know it. 

Running errands can be a date if you’re more focused on the “being together” than the task at hand. Doing laundry, cooking or cleaning up at my son’s pace provides both of us with a great sense of satisfaction as I am able to cross things off my list, and he feels important and valued, often beaming as he tells his Papa things such as, “I made this food for you.” I believe that children love to be included, even from a very young age. 

There are, however, things that I do not want to do with my children. Showering, for example. 

Yet, as Janet Lansbury puts it so simply, “No one of any age wants to feel like they’re being dumped or set aside for more important things.” In order to set myself up for success, I’ll wait until my seven-month-old is rested after a nap, her belly is full and I’ve spent some time on the floor with her in the bathroom actively observing her while she plays before letting her know I’m going to take a shower. 

And on especially busy days, I often choose to use the entirety of one of my daughter’s naps to put all duties and distractions aside and tell my son, “Lucy’s sleeping, I’ve put my phone away, and I’d really love to just be with you.” Even on slow days, I try to set a timer for 30 minutes and dedicate my undivided attention to my toddler. 

One of my favorite tips from Magda Gerber is to view caregiving activities such as bathing, feeding and changing as times for connection and bonding with your little ones. The time you’re spending one-on-one with your child anyways can be turned into something beautiful where you can soak up each other’s love and presence.

It becomes a beautiful cycle when both my and my children’s tanks are full. They’re well-balanced and find joy in their play, I find joy in observing them in that state and in the freedom to turn my attention to other things without anyone wailing.

#4 Honor their flow

It’s so easy to forget that to our babies, everything we would consider a normal part of this world is completely new. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations and concepts are all things to be made sense of; this place called earth is an exciting and sometimes scary and confusing place. 

To our children, the simplest of things are sometimes the most captivating. But a newborn staring at a shadow on the wall isn’t just a baby zoning out — it is amazing research taking place! It is work just as meaningful as a toddler doing a puzzle or an adult doing their taxes. 

When we view it as our duty to support our children in the investigation of their surroundings and provide them with the safety and space to do so, we remove the pressure many parents are burdened by to be their little ones’ constant entertainer.

When we we redirect our children’s attention in unnecessary situations, it seems to me that we’re not only forming a dependency upon ourselves in our children’s play and exploration, but also sending the message that their intrinsic curiosity and motivation is less valuable than those external.

Also to be considered is the fact that when we bring our children’s thoughts to an abrupt halt, we are unintentionally shortening the amount of time their minds are able to spend recharging in that place of deep focus. I know how frustrating it can be to be interrupted when I’m in the middle of something that requires my full attention. If this happens more than once, I might resort to trying again later or giving up completely. For our children, it could mean hindering the development of their attention span if they are never given the chance to sink deep into a world all their own.

Keeping this in mind, I might lay out a few objects near my baby instead of waving things in front of her face, then allow her to examine them at her own pace.

And instead of showing my son every airplane I see in the sky, I do my best to take in the scene before me as I turn my attention to the things that are catching his eye. 

What better way to achieve a deep connection with our children and to value them than to tune in to what peaks their interest and allow them to thoroughly examine without interruption, however simple the concept may seem. 

#5 Don’t overpraise

Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the words, “Good job!” could be damaging your children? 

If you think I’m crazy, please read on. 

When I first heard @themellowmama claim that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin, I was curious about what she had to say. When she continued by suggesting we refrain from overpraising our little ones, I thought she had gone too far. “There’s no such thing as too many “Good job!”s or “Well done!”s,” I thought to myself.

Yet, as I further explored her reasoning, I realized that praise could do just as much damage to a child’s sense of self as harsh scolding could.

Many parents long for their children to be content to play alone, yet leave them feeling like they’re missing out on something when there is no one to constantly shower them with praise.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the quickest way to quiet a child’s intrinsic motivation is by making them believe that an external one is more valuable. 

I don’t believe anyone wants to raise their children to become people-pleasers or only find satisfaction in the affirmation of others, but in our modern behaviorist society which originated as a form of animal training, it is sadly quite common. We receive stickers, stars and over-the-top responses for welcomed behavior, and are punished for unwanted actions. “Well, what should we do instead?” you might be wondering. “Ignore our kids entirely?”

When a child’s gaze meets our own, often a smile and nod sending the message, “I enjoy my view,” is enough. And when they present their works of art or request our attention, I believe we can leave our children feeling seen and loved by gifting them a moment of our full focus as we acknowledge what we observe: “It looks like you’re using those carrots as drumsticks.” “I see you fit every piece into that puzzle!” 

Those kinds of statements don’t label our child’s actions as good or bad, and allow for THEM to discover what they deem cool, creative or fun. 

When seeking to raise children who are happy to be who they are and pleased to spend time alone with themselves, this is pure gold!

 #6 Allow for frustration

A baby grunting in attempt to roll over. A toddler struggling to open a lid. A child’s tower that keeps tipping over. A toy that seems to be just out of reach. These are all situations that any adult could easily “fix,” but why would we want to? 

It’s uncomfortable to watch our children in their visible frustration. It’s something our instinct tells us needs to be resolved immediately.

Refraining from doing so does not come naturally to me; yet, it is a conscious decision I repeatedly make.

But why?

Way back when, I was the five-year-old who memorized everyone’s telephone number and address in my kindergarten class, and when the time came for each child to be quizzed in front of the other students, my teacher had to keep repeating, “I know YOU know his/her phone number, Alyssa, but right now, it’s time for her to show me if she knows it, too.” 

Allowing our children to problem-solve is something that often takes quite a bit of re-programming in our adult minds. However, supporting them through their frustration sends a message that aligns much more with the heart I believe parents have for their little ones than constantly “saving” or helping them does. 

When we raise our children to turn to us to take over at the first sign of difficulty, they will have a hard time when left alone with a problem that needs solving.

Swooping in and giving them a nudge, opening the lid, stacking the blocks or lifting them up is not only sending the well-intentioned message of, “I’m here for you,” it is also stealing away the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with an, “I did it!“ after overcoming an obstacle.

By supporting our children through their challenges with our engaged presence, doing only as little as possible to assist them when their frustration grows to be overwhelming, we are creating space for many small, triumphant victories, as well as letting our children know that we believe in them and their capabilities. 

When it comes to independent play, a creative thinker and problem-solver comes a lot further than someone who can’t handle an ounce of frustration and needs assistance every step of the way. 

#7 Slow down

With the fast-pace of this busy day and age, I find it so important to be aware of the way I design my days with my children.

It’s so easy to get antsy. Many of us tend to become restless when we’re not running from one thing to the next. But there is so much to gain from slowing down.

Imagine you were invited to an elaborate dinner. A three-course meal was planned, as well as many activities. Then, imagine that your server kept switching your plates back and forth between soup, steak, and dessert, pulling you away from the table so you could dance to a short song, dragged you over to a group of people for you to meet before sending you onto the stage so you could hastily paint a picture while a light show was going on behind you.

While that might provide you with an evening of entertainment, I doubt you would be able to FULLY enjoy ANY of the wonderful sights, sounds, tastes, or conversations that had taken place. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Yet, I believe that this is the way many children are used to spending their time. When we believe that our children are in need of constant entertainment, we might find our schedules filled to the brim and any quiet moment that arises may feel awkward and boring.

However, as I have made it a point to slow our daily life down, the restlessness in me has started to fade, and I’ve noticed how balanced not only my children, but also I have become.

Inspired by @themellowmama I do my best to dedicate my focus and attention to one thing at a time. “When we eat, we’re only eating. When we play, we’re only playing.” We sit down together for all of our meals. When we cook at the counter, I attempt to refrain from mindless scrolling in between reading the steps of the recipe. 

When our activities are less scattered, our brains are, too! 

For our kids, that means being much more capable of focusing on the work in front of them.

When I create time for outings to be unhurried, when time at the playground doesn’t have to be cut short, when I start lunch several hours before we get hungry… I find my children feeding off of my peace — not my stress.

#8 Make room for big emotions 

Do you know how difficult it is to focus, how hard it is to think straight, how uncomfortable it feels when there is an emotional storm brewing inside of you?

Our children are incredible at finding ways to let go of their tension. They are amazing releasing stress. They have an inspiring art of of dealing with complicated emotions in the simplest of ways.

If you find yourself constantly confronted by meltdowns and tantrums, then I‘d love to congratulate you. Your child views you as his or her safe place!

You know those pictures of kids wailing with captions being reasons most adults deem “ridiculous” for being upset? I dare to say that nine times out of ten, the things that bring our children to tears and volumes quite uncomfortable for us adults are simply outlets for releasing the big and confusing feelings that lie beneath. 

So, instead of dismissing or ridiculing him, I hear my two-and-a-half-year-old out when he shows his devastation over the fact that I cut his sandwich into triangles. I relocate to a place where I am free to welcome the waves of his emotion if I need to — however long or loud they may be.

One of my favorite quotes by @respectfulmom is “There is a great difference between quiet and calm.” 

This is why inside, I am usually rejoicing when my toddler disrupts our day, demanding my immediate attention, knowing that if I refrain from cutting it short or shutting him down, the release of built-up tension will be followed by a calm after the storm that will last longer than any quieting could ever bring forth.

Many of the most serene times of play I’ve had the chance to witness my son sink into have come directly after multiple minutes (sometimes even an hour) of screams and tears.

Though it may seem counterproductive to invest time in the moments that interrupt your child’s play when you’d really love for them to play alone, providing him/her with a safe place to turn to and a secure attachment will leave them feeling confident in their independence as time goes on and the storm subsides. 

#9 Do some inner work 

Our kids are so quick to sniff out tension in the air, sense that we are stressed or that something just feels a little bit off. The days when I’m on edge are usually the ones when my children’s behavior requires the most of my attention and whatever’s left of my patience. 

Our little ones enter this world with very few tools to help control their inner antennas, picking up on all sorts of uncomfortable frequencies, not knowing how to ignore them or contribute to the resolve. 

They need to know that they are safe with us, and will ask to be affirmed of this as well as our love for them in the most unlovable ways. 

So how do we get out of this cycle where our tension and stress brings out tension and stress in our little ones, setting the stage for some of our worst moments when trying to manage our own feelings as well as our children’s most testing and trying behavior?

It seems logical, but often times, I think many of us lose sight of the fact that a peaceful home starts with peaceful parents. 

I’m not suggesting that we wake up every day and put on a happy face — I‘m saying that instead of first addressing your child‘s behavior, you might want to reflect upon your own and ask yourself where it could be coming from. 

One of the biggest game-changers for me in moments when all of us are worked up has been to ask myself, “What message am I receiving that is triggering me right now?” “Do I feel unappreciated, unloved?” Then choosing to deal with my trigger instead of my children‘s behavior, which I long ago chose I would not take personally. 

Investing in the peace of your home might look like having some hard conversations to contribute to the health of your relationships. It might mean creating small vacations for yourself throughout your everyday, so you don’t end up feeling like you need a break from your life. 

Become mindful and aware of what’s going on in YOU, so your children can flourish under your calm, confident wing. 

As @respectfulmom says, “Stay away from the edge of you don’t want to get pushed over it!” 

In conclusion, I’ve found that the slightest adjustments to my sails have brought about the greatest, most meaningful changes to my course. My hope for you is that applying some or all of these tips to your life will leave you with a happier, healthier home.

I’d love to hear from you — what has played a part in your children’s peaceful play?

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