During these times when so many of us are juggling “all of the things” at home with our children there with us, it can be very helpful to prioritize finding ways to encourage and support their independent play. Before I share a few simple tips, I want to share two important points. First, don’t fret if you do not have a designated “playroom” for your children; I live in a two bedroom apartment with a toddler and a preschooler and I will share some tips for making a general living space also work as a playspace. And second, the amount of independent play your children are capable of engaging in is not directly correlated with the number of toys they have; as in most cases, less is quite often more.
Survey and Donate
Take out all of the toys — the dolls, the cars, the stuffed animals, the games, all of it. Donate anything that your children are clearly no longer interested in or anything that causes more stress in the home than enjoyment. In our home, that was anything that was battery operated. Be minimalistic here. You can also try to sell some toys in order to make money to buy more long-lasting, high-quality, open-ended toys. (*Read next tip!)
Integrate open-ended toys
This is really the big one. When surveying your toys, consider whether they inherently provide opportunities for your children to use their imaginations, creativity or problem solving skills — or if, conversely, they essentially do the “work” for them. Many toys capture kids’ attention at first because they are flashy and make noise, but after just a few minutes, they’ll get tossed aside because there is not much else to do with them. Blocks and stacking toys, kitchen play, dolls, arts and crafts, nature-based toys, and puzzles are some examples of open-ended toys that tend to provide for more learning experiences and extended periods of quality independent play.
Consider a toy rotation
While you are going through your toy collection, consider whether you have room to store toys away (out of sight) for long periods of time so that you can possibly rotate toys. You can have some out and accessible for two weeks to a month and then rotate to keep things interesting.
Get down on their level
When you are selecting items to put out for your children, put them at a level at which they can independently retrieve them. You want to minimize their need to rely on you, thus fostering their independent choice and child-led play. Keep things on the floor or on low, open shelves and consider putting a kid-safe step stool nearby things that need to be a bit higher.
Rethink your bins and baskets
If you are low on space, consider purchasing aesthetically pleasing bins and baskets that will make you happy and use them to store some loose parts items (ie: legos, small cars, balls, stuffed animals). But, be mindful of excessive use; it is a great idea to selectively choose some toy options to leave out on an open shelf or placed on a table or even windowsill for children to gravitate to. Bins are great to “hide” a mess, but they tend to do just that - hide a mess rather than foster choices. Kids will always have to rummage through them or dump them out and they can often be overwhelmed by the choices. Instead, select a few things to leave out at a time and limit their choices; this can help improve focus and create a calmer playtime.
Decorate using their artwork
There are so many wonderful purchasable options for playroom decor — and there is always a place for that! BUT, children really feel inspired and validated when they see their own work displayed. Consider putting your artwork choices at a higher level and saving some room or a specific place just for their work.
Set up invitations to play
When possible, try setting up different activities for your children before you go to bed at night (so they have something ready in the morning) or during nap time. This doesn’t have to be anything too fancy — simply leaving out a watercolor set and some paper hung up in a new place can spark all sorts of new ideas.
If there is something in your playroom that you would like your children to start playing with, consider that they simply do not quite know how to yet and they might need some guidance. If they aren’t heading towards the blocks, sit near them stacking a castle without impressing it upon them. If they aren’t into that new puzzle, work on it by yourself nearby. They might not join in right away, but they are likely to imitate you when they feel comfortable exploring.
Move furniture around
A special trick I love to keep our small space inviting and exciting is to move our main three shelving units around. It is a relatively easy thing for me to do by myself and every single time I notice the children play with toys that have been ignored for awhile when they are in a new place in the room or on a new shelf.
Develop and work towards implementing independent play expectations
It is reasonable to expect your children to eventually get to a point where they will play independently for an extended period of time. Maybe you decide on a specific time of day when the children will need to go to a specific place to play independently. Or maybe you use a timer to visually and audibly let them know that it is time to try to play by themselves. Perhaps you teach them a signal that means that they cannot interrupt their play or your work unless it is a real emergency. Of course these ideas vary for different age groups, but it can be helpful to reframe your own perspective around this issue and remind yourself that it is a wonderful skill for children to learn how to play independently. It will not happen overnight and it looks different in every home and with every child, but it can happen and when it is done right, it is a beautiful thing.
About Amanda Motisi
As a young child, I always found writing to be a really helpful way for me to process experiences, conversations, problems, and relationships in my life. I often wrote letters to people I was close to and found that I was able to better communicate myself with words on paper than words in person sometimes. Growing up, I found comfort in writing assignments at school and oddly enjoyed working on interesting research projects or free-writing tasks.
Now, as an adult, I still turn to writing as a means of therapy and since becoming a mother, I have found it a very useful tool for me to express myself and, more importantly, help other women to do the same.
I write to unite women in our journey here together. I write to encourage women to better themselves from a place of self-love so they can be the best moms they can be. I write to share my experience as a special education teacher coupled with research regarding my own positive parenting beliefs in an effort to provide a helping hand and alternative perspectives for those looking for them. And most recently, I’ve been writing to share my unwavering belief in the power of open-ended play on the learning and development of children.
I am a real mom just like so many of you reading this and I care about our well-being and the future of our children. I believe in us and I believe in the power of writing. I believe in our stories and in the strength of our compassion for one another. I believe in you.