One of the things which brings me the most happiness as a mother is sitting back and observing Frida as she plays. Listening to her narrate little stories and watching her act out dramatic scenes fills me with so much joy.
I am often asked how I encourage independent play with Frida, so I hope the following tips are useful.
Give your child lots of quality time with you if you want them to play alone.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but I have found that children play much better once their cup is filled, and they feel safe and content in their attachment. I have certainly noticed this with Frida; she is far more likely to play alone for a significant period of time if we have been reading together or playing together first. It’s like her reserves have been built up, ready for her to spend some time without much interaction from me.
I know how frustrating it can feel when you just need half an hour to get something done and you really NEED your child to play alone, but I promise they are far more likely to do so if you can give them your undivided attention for a while first.
Provide time for unstructured play and exploration, and build it into your daily rhythm.
We have a daily rhythm which provides a lot of “free”, unscheduled time for Frida to play throughout the day, but we have built specific “quiet time” into our daily rhythm. After lunch we generally go upstairs and, after reading a book or playing together for a while, I tell Frida that it is quiet time and that I am going to sit in the chair in her playroom and read / journal / do an online grocery order whilst she plays. Building it into our routine means that Frida knows it is coming, and she also knows that it won’t last forever! After quiet time is over, she knows that we will make tea and a snack, and read books and look at art together for tea time.
Often Frida will come up to me and try to involve me in her play, but I try to be quite firm with this boundary, explaining that mummy needs some quiet time too in order to be more fun later. I feel OK doing this, because we do have many periods of quality time where I give her my undivided attention. It’s good for everyone if I have a chance to refill my cup a bit, and on days where I don’t get a chunk of quiet in the middle of the day I really feel it by the evening.
Equally, have realistic expectations, and remember that all children are different. Some babies might not spend more that ten minutes at a time occupying themselves, whereas some will lie for 45 minutes trying to roll, or reach a toy. It’s the same with toddlers and pre-schoolers. Some will find it much easier to play alone, and some find it much harder and need more parental involvement. It’s the same for feeling comfortable playing when parents are out of the room. All children will have different needs and will play in different ways! Consistency and patience will help with building the habit of independent play.
Provide toys and materials which spark their imaginations.
If you’ve been reading Frida Be Mighty for any amount of time, it won’t surprise you to hear me say that I’m a huge advocate of open-ended toys, toys with the potential to spark a child’s imagination, and beautiful toys which entice the child to pick them up and play with them.
A few simple toys which can be used to act out their own stories (think: wooden blocks, Lego, train sets, a doll, wooden animals, play silks) are likely to see your child play far more deeply than toys which have done all the imagining for them. For babies, think mobiles, simple grasping toys made from natural materials, and mirrors to watch themselves. Young toddlers who are yet to play imaginatively may enjoy items such as treasure baskets, jars to open and close, stacking cups, and simple puzzles.
I am also a huge fan of children being given “loose parts” to play, build, and tinker with (age appropriate, of course). One of Frida’s most used and beloved possessions is a basket filled with pieces of wood, conkers, cheap semi-precious stones I bought from the Natural History Museum, and pebbles. These are used all the time, and become different things every day. They encourage so much creativity – even more than her most open-ended and beautiful toys! This is an excellent blog post on the theory of loose parts.
It’s great if children have a designated space to play in where their toys are kept and they can find what they are looking for. This might be a playroom, or in their bedroom, or a corner of the sitting room or kitchen. It doesn’t matter where it is, but it does help if it’s a calm space without too many distractions, with designated places for toys to be put away after use. If you don’t already implement toy rotation, I urge you to give it a go!
Respect their play.
If we want our children to learn to value their play, then we must show them that WE value their play. If play is truly “the work of the child” then we must take it seriously! If your child is happily playing, think carefully about whether you need to disturb them. Do they need to eat right now, or could you wait ten minutes? Could you change their nappy once they are finished? Would it be ok to text your play date and tell them you’re running fifteen minutes late? Can you hold off on bedtime just until they’re done with the puzzle? By interrupting our children mid-flow, we teach them that their play is not valuable.
Let’s extend to our children the same courtesy we would show another adult who was immersed in a task, perhaps warning them that they would be needed soon and giving them a chance to wrap up what they were working on. By respecting their play, and their concentration, we respect our children.
Limit screen time (or ditch it altogether).
I have spoken honestly before about the fact that we do allow some limited screen-time to watch the odd video, but recently we have cut back on even this limited interaction. We made the decision as my husband and I both saw that there was a noticeable correlation between how well Frida played and how much screen-time she was having.
It’s not just us. Many parents find that their children play more deeply when screens do not occupy an important space in their lives. You may well find there is a period of adjustment as everyone gets used to the new normal, but in my opinion going low-screen can only have positive impacts on play.
We won’t be ditching videos completely, but we are definitely moving towards them being maybe a once a week or so activity.
Want to explore in more depth how to create a family rhythm which makes time and space for independent play? There are still a handful of tickets remaining for the April Frida be Mighty workshop on simplicity, where we will be exploring simplifying and slowing down in our homes, our schedules, and our children’s daily lives.
It’s going to be a brilliant morning, connecting with like-minded mothers over tea, cake, and conversation, and you will leave feeling energised, with plenty of tips to put into action. Come and join us!