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Why Children Need Independent Play

As parents, there is often a misperception that it is our duty to occupy and engage our children’s every waking moment. This feeling can seem amplified the longer you're at home, and parents may worry that their children may be understimulated.

However, the act of encouraging your child to engage in unstructured independent playtime might be exactly what both you and your little one need to create a more positive and engaging environment (that also takes the pressure off you).

Many experts indicate that free, unstructured, and uninterrupted play is the most beneficial type of play for young children. This type of activity is critically important for social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development, as well as academic success later in life. When parents allow and encourage independent play, they are actually building their child’s confidence level, sense of competency, and an overall positive sense of self. 

Extended periods of uninterrupted play build children’s developing attention span, focus, and concentration in the formative years. These traits are crucial building blocks that make your children adept students in the classroom, and even competitive college and job applicants, and better friends and partners. Research that was published in the Psychological science journal noted, “the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child’s social skills in the third grade.”

One of the most important things you can do for your child is to learn to be their play “supporter” rather than their playmate. Refrain from interfering, dominating, or altering your child’s self-directed play. Instead, quietly watch, narrate what you observe, and trust them to request your input, which they do by looking at you or verbally expressing themselves.

An example of this may be when your child is stacking blocks and the blocks fall down. Try not to jump in and help your child re-stack the blocks. Instead, look for your child’s cue to help you know when to step in and assist them.

For instance, if your child looks towards you, complains, or cries, you can then narrate:
  • “I saw that. When you tried to put the red block on the top, the green and blue ones fell down.”
  • Ask lots of questions and assist as minimally as possible.
  • “What do you think we should do?”
  • “I wonder what will happen if you try to stack them again?”
This process may be more challenging for children who are already used to having their parents’ involvement and entertainment during play. Even though there might be more push back and obstacles along the way, the great news is that this is still doable and this is a great age to break that habit.

Getting your child used to this new kind of play will not only help reduce your pressure of feeling the need to entertain, but it will also help your child thrive in school later in life. Your child may resist this new way of being and playing, but they are only doing their job to seek an answer about where your limits are. As a result, your role is to:

Be clear, consistent, and confident about limits and expectations. 
For example, you can say, “I will be in the kitchen cooking dinner while you play in the living room.” Remember that children pick up on your hesitations so the more confident you are, the more empowered they will feel to separate from you and play independently.

Offer a choice. 
Children are more interested in the things they choose to play with than the things we choose for them. Allowing your child to choose what to do in the play environment rather than offering your choice of activity will better engage their interest, focus, and concentration.

Acknowledge feelings and desires. 
It is completely normal for your child to have the impulse to resist this change. So there may be meltdowns when you first implement this new play environment. What your child needs the most from you is to bring calm to their chaos and to sit through those big feelings with them. Validate their feelings by saying, “Oh, I know you want me to keep playing with you. I see how upset you are. We can play together after dinner.”

Provide a safe, “YES” space. 
Children cannot remain occupied for extended periods of time when they are distracted by the tension of their parents who are worried about their safety and the constant “no” or “don’t do that” warnings. Instead, offer your child space with minimal safety restrictions in order to optimize their play.

Provide plenty of open-ended toys or objects. 
Children are naturally inclined to invent their own unique and creative ways of playing with an object or toy. Close-ended toys that have a single function and are often overstimulating, they grab children’s attention rather than strengthening their ability to focus, use their imagination, and investigate.

We encourage you not to give up if these suggestions don’t work on the first try. Remember that children are creatures of habit and they can become accustomed to expect what their immediate environment and caretakers offer them. Through time and consistency, your child will adapt and create new habits for independent play that will empower them, making them feel more fulfilled in the long run.
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Sinai Akiba Academy is a private Jewish day school in Los Angeles, serving students in Early Childhood through Grade 8. We also offer a variety of parenting classes and programs for children through our Parenting Center. A Sinai Temple school.