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Independent Play

“Becky, will you help me tie this cape?” six year old Marissa asks.
“Sure, honey! What are you up to?”
“Oh, I can’t say just yet. I’m not done planning,” she responds.
This is typical play at our house — totally child-created. As these children have matured they have sought positive ways to express their independence, including creating their own activities and games, their own style of independent play.

True independent play is child-directed and child-driven, from their ideas to their outcomes. Nevertheless, older children developing activities and play scenarios need to know that adults are close at hand. By keeping safe, appealing play materials within easy reach, and granting the freedom to use them, we can help children grow toward independence. We start by helping toddlers initiate brief periods of independent play. For example, we always kept Duplos in an old soft-sided suitcase and paper and crayons in a plastic container. These were available to play with “at any time.” (Note: The zipper on the suitcase and the opening and closing of the plastic container also reinforced self-help skills.) As the children’s interests and abilities developed, we added other items- games, books and more art materials.

Why is Independent Play Important?

Through independent play, children learn to think for themselves, work with others, and assimilate new ideas and viewpoints. They develop autonomy, a synomym for liberty, independence, and freedom – all words that, for me, project a picture of the journeys ahead for children as they move toward adulthood.

We want to encourage those steps that help a child develop self-confidence and independence. Happily, solo play supports social growth by letting the child build confidence in his own abilities. In group play he draws on what he already knows. Group play led by children (not by adults) is another form of independent play. Child-driven and child-centered, group play helps children explore the concepts, ideas and viewpoints of their friends.

Let me share a few examples.

When Cassie was three and her brother was about nine months old, she invented “The Office.” Alec was a spirited baby and got into everything his big sister did. Out of frustration Cassie said that she would be “better off in the playpen!” Interesting idea! So we placed her Little Tikes picnic table inside the playpen, and she set up a very efficient office. She enjoyed sending memos to me, receiving phone calls and stamping her important papers with stickers. Alec was happy to surf the outside perimeters of the playpen, talking to his sister from time to time.

As a young preschooler, Alec, too, found pleasure in doing his own thing. He discovered the joys of the play kitchen. Cooking up delicious meals, talking on the toy phone and stacking dishes occupied his time. He would occasionally invite others, not the least his stuffed animals, to sample some new recipe. But for the most part he enjoyed the experience of being in total control.

Marissa, now six has always preferred the world of visual arts. Anytime she wants to be alone or with a friend, the art box is her preference. In creating her own masterpieces, she experiences infinite pleasure. She loves to share her art, even deigning to explain its deeper meanings, but her greatest joy is in the process itself.

The Adult’s Role in Independent Play

As adults, we serve in an advisory capacity: we guide where needed, tie up that cape or become the audience. We begin as facilitator and work our way to consultant, called upon as needed by the child. Promoting independent play begins early by introducing toys and objects that are safe and intriguing for baby. You remain close at hand, but this playtime experience is under the child ‘s control. I always found this a great time to step back and observe.

I remember many afternoons with Alec, happily engaged in playing with his Sesame Street activity gym, while Cassie and I read a book nearby. He cooed and “talked” to Big Bird and batted at Cookie Monster. When Cassie was ready to find something of her own to do, Alec was often happy to continue his solo play, leaving me a few quiet moments to jot down notes in their daily journals. As a baby, Marissa too, enjoyed play on her own. Her favorite spot was the swing with its varied rattles, keys and characters on the tray. Even as a toddler she continued to ask for the swing as a way to calm herself, taking a favorite book or doll with her. It was her sanctuary, and it comforted her that we were available while she nevertheless exercised some personal choice.

Now their ability to uncover new activities, develop individual interests and play independently has matured. I see them moving toward the confident, independent adults they will someday become, and appreciate the value of the time we’spent encouraging independent play.

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