Stages of Play: Why Independent Play Matters and How to Support It

independent play

As parents, we want to provide our children with the best possible support and guidance that we can in order to help them become well-rounded, successful adults. One of the most important ways that we can support our children’s development is to encourage independent play.

Independent play promotes problem solving and creative thinking skills, helps children learn to manage their emotions, and supports self-esteem and social development. In this blog post, we will discuss the benefits of independent play and effective strategies for promoting it. With this information in mind, parents can better understand how to foster their child’s development through independent play. But before we dive into the benefits of independent play, it is important to define what independent play is and how it relates to childhood development.

What is Independent Play?

Independent play is defined as children engaging in activities that are self-motivated and self-directed, as opposed to following the lead of a parent or caregiver. This type of play occurs when the primary interest of the child is in his own spontaneous fantasy, creativity, and imagination and not in the toys themselves. This type of play does not require adult intervention, guidance, or instruction.

How Long Should Kids Be Able to Play by Themselves?

You may have heard other parents claim that their young children can play for up to an hour a day by themselves. While it does happen but it is not the usual.

There are factors that play a huge part in a young one’s ability to play alone; these are:

  • Personality
  • Temperament
  • Normal development

Every kid’s ability to play alone, even with mom or dad doing everything to facilitate it, will be different. As with everything else, it is a good idea not to compare one kid to another.

Independent play capabilities depend on how old your little one is. You may use this guide as your future reference.

one-year-old = 2-5 minutes

two-years-old = 4-10 minutes

three-years-old = 6-15 minutes

four-years-old = 8-20 minutes

five-years-old = 10-25 minutes

The Importance of Independent Play

Your presence is vital; every moment you spend with them is essential for their physical and emotional development. A play doesn’t always or even usually require an adult to be present.

Independent play provides big benefits to children and parents.

1. It’s a Normal Stage of Play

independent play

Playing alone is normal for children. It’s the beginning point for learning about themselves and how they fit into the world around them. When kids begin to play alone, they may not know what to do or how to start, but their curiosity will guide them through this stage of development.

2. Promotes the Development of Imagination and Creativity

When children play alone, they are practicing the skills they need to engage with the world around them in imaginative and creative ways. They start by playing with everyday objects and figures like balls, dolls, or cars. But what happens when you give them an imaginary friend? They begin to turn the play into an alternate reality where every object is part of it. Playing alone allows children to develop their imaginations and creativity and use this ability how they want to in other parts of their lives.

3. Calms Kids

The young kid is in control of the amount of stimulus in the activity they select, which can be a huge comfort for them.

4. Allows for Social Independence

The ability for kids to play alone allows them to practice being social, which is an important part of healthy development. This will help your child learn how to communicate with others and interact with their peers in the future.

5. Decreases Dependence on Adults for Play

decreases dependence on adults for play

When kids play alone, they become more confident during playtime, which decreases their dependency on their parents. This makes them less demanding of their parents to be present while they play. They begin to understand that they can entertain themselves as well.

6. Improves Problem-solving Abilities

Independent play requires kids to think on their own and solve a problem on their own. This will make them more confident as they play, which will help them cope with difficult situations in the future.

7. Encourages Self-care for Parents

Parenting can be exhausting, especially when you have to be on the go all the time. Independent play helps parents by allowing them to take a break, rest, and do other things that they need to do.

Tips for Encouraging Independent Play in Young Children

There are numerous ways that you can encourage independent play. Facilitating independent play may mean looking inward and examining your own responses to your kids.

1. Wait for Some Engagement

wait for some engagement

Observe your child while they play. Avoid initiating interaction; only meet their requests for engagement when they initiate them. Try to move away from your kid a little while remaining in their room when they are focused on an activity.

When the kid looks to you for some interaction, interact while ensuring to praise their efforts. Don’t use words like, “Good job, “and instead say something to the effect of, “I notice how hard you are working on that!“. When children feel good about the effort they are putting into what they are doing; they are less likely to seek praise or engagement at every turn.

2. Do not Hover

It’s important to be a presence in your child’s life, but it is also important not to hover. Hovering can cause a child to feel like they are being controlled and undervalued. By hovering, you send the message that your time is more valuable than theirs, which isn’t true. Instead of hovering around them while they play with their toys or engage with other kids, try stepping back and letting them get involved in play on their own terms. Your kid needs to feel confident and comfortable playing in their space; they must know that as long as they play safely, they are doing it right.

The importance of your kid’s safety cannot be overstated, but hovering is not an idea and may cause kids anxiety. Providing age-appropriate items for play, Childproofing, and observing your little one’s play is enough.

3. Don’t Interrupt

Interrupting is a very common hang-up for parents of young kids when encouraging independent play. Interrupting a kid during play is not only annoying but also puts them off-guard and prevents them from focusing fully on the activity they are engaged in.

While most parents must take advantage of sensitive periods in development to encourage certain things, the short time kids engage in independent play must not be interrupted for this effort. Essentially, do not interrupt a playing kid unless there is a significant problem.

4. Involve Your Little One in Household Work

involve your little one in household work

Children are very capable at a young age, so involve your kid as much as you possibly can. They enjoy participating in certain things around your home, such as washing dishes, cooking, or folding laundry. Have your little one accompany you in your household routines.

Many household tasks that your little one is interested in can be presented on a kid-size scale in the form of Practical Life activities. Setting up a doll washing station or dishwashing station on a sensory table can encourage independent play. Identify the things we don’t invite our little ones to help us with, as they can be messy. Set those certain activities up on a smaller scale.

5. Create an Environment That Encourages Independence

In a Montessori classroom like in Montessori Academy, you will notice very little teaching happening. The environment of a Montessori classroom engages kids, and the materials do the teaching.

While you are not trying to recreate a Montessori learning environment in your own home, you can apply Montessori principles to the spaces you create for your little ones.

In order to help facilitate independent play, it is important to create a play space that is engaging and provides a child with everything he needs. The following tips can help you achieve this goal.

  • Prepare the play environment to be attractive, interesting, and safe.
  • Rotate the toys.
  • Consider using open-ended toys
  • Create a “yes space” for toddlers and babies
  • Shift your focus from “neatness” and allow for process play in art
  • Keep only a limited number of toys available.
  • Include kid-size furniture
  • Observe your little one for their interests and play schemas to select stimulating activities and toys for them

6. Limit or Eliminate Screen Time

limit or eliminate screen time

Limit or eliminate screen time for kids and limit the flashy light-up toys. Although it may not be best to completely eliminate screen time, try to reduce the exposure your little one has to it whenever you can. This will make screen time less of a draw for them and keep them from wanting to play with the toys you want them to play with.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, independent play is an essential part of child development. It gives them the space to be imaginative, figure out solutions to problems, and build their own structures and stories, while also learning to respect other people’s space and boundaries. Parents can support independent play by providing a safe and stimulating environment, providing open-ended toys and activities, and allowing plenty of time for unstructured play.

In Montessori Academy, our teachers provide toys and activities that encourage independent play. Our classroom designs allow for kids to play independently while the teacher observes and provides support when necessary. To learn more about Montessori Academy in Culver City and West Adams in California, Sign up for a tour!


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