Create a Guilt-Free Zone & Tell Them “Go Play”

“Go play.”

Most adults heard these two words on repeat their entire childhood. They heard them so much so that now when thinking back on their younger years, those two words conjure a smile and feel like a portal to a world they wish they could return.

Independent Play is Crucial in Child Development

Experts agree that independent play, a time when a child plays alone without siblings or parents or anyone else, is crucial to a child’s development. The following are thoughts from a few of those experts:

  • Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research at the Institute for Child Success: “For children, play is associated with positive cognition, social-emotional, and physical development. The evidence is so strong that in August [2019], the American Academy of Pediatrics published a recommendation for their providers to ‘prescribe’ play for children they see- encouraging parents and other adults in a child’s life to play with them, particularly unstructured play where we can follow a child’s lead.”
  • Dana Rosenbloom, Child Educator in Manhattan: “Independent play encourages time management, executive function and organizational skills, and emotional and physical awareness and regulation. All skills that help us be successful individuals as adults.”
  • Cindy Bohrer, Director of Early Childhood at The Village School: “While quality interactions and playtime are essential for healthy relationships and development, children also benefit from opportunities to develop independence and self-regulation skills.”
  • Rachel Giannini, Early Childhood Specialist and Content Creator at Chicago Children’s Museum: “It’s important for children to find joy in themselves. A built-in playmate in life is not a guarantee, and children need to learn how to entertain themselves.”

Quoting experts in the field of child development and their take on the importance of independent play could continue for the length of this piece. The bottom line is that independent play encourages children to solve problems on their own, to unleash their creativity and imagination, and lessens the chance they’ll be devastated by boredom when the electronics go kaput or they’re asked to sit for more than ten minutes without outside entertainment.

The Guilt is Real & the Coronavirus Shines a Light on the Issue

But even though most adults grew up with the words “go play” and they’ve likely heard quotes from specialists similar to the ones listed above, there is still a sense of guilt among the current population of parents with young children. Instead of looking at “go play” as an opportunity to empower their children to be creative and self-starters, they feel guilty… a guilt that is intensified when their little curly-top, toothless sweethearts beg and pout and do everything they can to get a playmate at their fifth tea party of the day.

The lack of independent play in the youngest generation has never been clearer than it is now, thanks to the tentacles of the coronavirus. As the coronavirus pushed parents to work from home and children found themselves home-bound as well, because schools and childcare facilities closed, more parents than ever before were forced to utter the words “go play” because they needed to accomplish their professional work in the same building where their children played.

These parents working remotely from home were, and in many cases still are, expected to deliver a full day’s work while their children ran circles around them and asked for snacks every thirty minutes. To add to the stress of it all, Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, says “in this time of anxiety and uncertainty [coronavirus], it’s really natural for children to regress, which means their dependency needs [for comfort, physical closeness, affection, and communication] are going to be paramount. It’s a bit of a paradox, but independence and exploration are not the opposite of dependence, safety and security. They flow from them.” In other words, do not confuse encouraging independent play with your children’s sense of security and understanding of your love for them. They are not exclusive of each other.

Tips to Develop Independent Play

So how do you ease children who are unaccustomed to independent play into exactly that? The New York Times published an article in April 2020 that addresses that very question. The article’s suggestions are as follows:

  • Start with connection
    • Set a timer for 20 minutes of play with your child. Do not let your phone or anything else distract you. Do not dominate the playtime. Let your child be the leader. No judgment. Offer encouragement. When the timer goes off, let your child know you loved playing with them and that now you need to take care of some things while they continue playing.
  • And start small
    • If a child hasn’t been forced to play independently, doing that for more than thirty minutes may be painful, for both you and the child. Start with five or ten minutes of independent play and slowly work up.
  • Create invitations to play
    • Create scenarios and scenes that encourage children to want to play. Sit their favorite stuffed animals around a tea party. Build a tower with the legos that have been sitting in the box in the back of the closet.
    • Spotlight toys by positioning where they will see them. Perhaps the dinosaurs are attacking the dollhouse? Or maybe the Barbies are climbing up the bedsheets?
  • Make room for mess
    • Yes, it’s messy to use paint, sand, clay, water, playdough, and beads, but those are exactly the play items that children play with for a long period of time and that are known to be relaxing.
  • Build a movement zone
    • As Avital Schreiber-Levy, parenting performance coach, says, “kids are not going to sleep or behave well unless they have exhausted their body.” She suggests clearing away furniture and piling pillows, sleeping bags, yoga mats, and whatever else you think may lend itself to fort-building and imagination cultivating.
  • Build connection into play
    • Ask your kids to do something that you will participate in later.
      • Will you set up a tea party, and tell me when it’s ready?
      • Will you decide what you want to make for grandpa’s birthday and then, I’ll help you think that through once you have all your ideas ready?
      • Will you decorate cupcakes that we can drop off at the neighbors’ houses?
      • Etc.
    • Create opportunities for independent play that make your child feel connected to you, whether it makes them feel like they’re helping you or surprising you.
  • Customize your plan for your kid
    • Think about what is best for your child and leave it at that. Don’t compare children or your independent play ideas to that of other parents.
  • Be patient
    • It may take time for someone unaccustomed to independent play to embrace it, but it’s well worth their caretaker’s time to help them adapt.

Love Letter to Parents

In many ways this is a love letter to my fellow parents. I see you feeling guilty for telling your children “not now” while you wash the dishes. I hear your exhausted sigh when you have to send your child away from your coronavirus-forced at-home work zone for what feels like the millionth time. I feel your heart’s desperate yearning to be like all the moms and dads with Facebook posts and Instagram shots of moments you’d never think to create in a zillion years.

The guilt stops now.

Independent play is an important part of your child’s development, and you, as an adult, are allowed to have a few moments of your day to accomplish the things that need done around the house or to just sit for a moment in a chair that isn’t one made for a toddler. And not only will your household feel a little saner if you encourage more independent play, but all your children’s future teachers, caretakers, and employers will feel the positive benefits of you doing just that.

Author: Evelyn Lindell
Certified Health & Wellness Coach