How and Why You Should Encourage Independent Play In Children

importance of independent play for childrenEncouraging healthy habits and behaviors in children early on is an important part of building a solid base for future growth. Although the definition of “healthy habits and behaviors” differs depending on who you speak to, there are certain behaviors that parenting and mental health professionals seem to agree on. One of these behaviors includes independent play.
Independent play is classified as any play time that a child conducts on his or her own. This type of play is extremely beneficial to children in developmental stages as it helps them utilize their own creativity and innate talents to develop a sense of who they are as an individual.

The importance of independent play

Dr. Sheila Anderson, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education at Weber State University, says that during independent play, “Children freely express feelings and ideas, exercise imagination, and feel the joy of self-discovery.” She goes on to explain that, “This fosters creativity. As they plan and carry out their own ideas, confidence emerges, as well as the ability to sustain attention, and persist in problem solving.”
Dr. Genan Anderson, Program Coordinator for Early Childhood Education at Utah Valley University, adds that, “Often independent play is also constructive play or building something from materials. Creativity and flexibility of thinking develop in the process of making something either from natural materials, recycled materials, or commercial craft or building materials. Innovation and a sense of self-efficacy emerge as a new creation takes shape.”

How to encourage children to play independently

According to Dr. Genan Anderson, encouraging independent play requires that you provide your child open time without distractions from media. She adds that an effective way of doing this is to model and coach children in learning the skills of constructive play. From here, gradually withdraw as the child learns to play on his or her own.
Implementing this concept may prove difficult at first as some children may struggle to sustain independent play for longer periods of time. In this case, it’s suggested that a little extra support may be necessary to get on the right track. Dr. Sheila Anderson shared her “PLAY” model for successfully introducing independent play to a child who seems to be having difficulty with the concept.
• Provide a variety of simple open-ended activities of interest children, and time for play without TV or electronic games. Sensory experiences such as sand, water, and playdough are the favorites of some children, while others enjoy exploring outdoors, building with Legos, or creating with art supplies.
• Let children lead the way by picking the activity, determining the pace, and deciding how to play.
• Always support and value children’s play. Observe what is interesting to them, and occasionally describe your understanding of their point of view, but avoid interrupting when children are absorbed in play.
• Yield to realistic expectations. Create an emotionally safe environment. Remember the goal is for children to experience the joy of play, and the process may take time.
Finding the right balance
Independent play is highly beneficial for children learning to express themselves and refine their personal skills and talents. There is, however, a high value to encouraging your child to interact with and learn from other children. This is where it becomes necessary to find an appropriate balance.
Dr. Sheila Anderson says there is no specific recommended amount of time for children to spend in independent play. She adds “Time spent in independent play varies by developmental stage, interests and personality of individual children, and availability of peers for social play. Younger children tend to spend more time in independent play. By preschool many children choose a well-balanced amount of time in solitary and social play on their own.”
Paying attention to your child’s behaviors when confronted with the option to play with other children will also help you decide where and how independent play should be implemented. Anderson touches on this by noting that “Some children may avoid social play due to shyness, language delays, difficulty understanding the emotions of others, or being bullied.” Children in these situations may need additional support for developing skills to enter and maintain social play.

Being there without interrupting

Understanding the importance of uninterrupted play can be difficult given the worry associated with leaving a child unattended for an extended period of time. The great news? The izon camera makes it easy for you to keep an eye on your little one without disrupting independent play. Check out the two izon camera options here!
About Dr. Genan Anderson
Dr. Genan Anderson is Program Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Department at Utah Valley University. She received her Ph.D in Human Development/Child Development from Brigham Young University, and has obtained multiple certifications in early childhood education and elementary education. She has been awarded the Board of Trustee’s Award of excellence in 2006 and the Excellence in Scholarship award in 2004. She also serves on two local boards including the Mountainland Head Start Board of Directors and the Childcare Resource and Referral Advisory Board.
About Dr. Sheila Anderson
Sheila Anderson has 25 years of experience in the field of early childhood as a classroom teacher, program director, University instructor, and researcher. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at Weber State University and a Research Scientist for Sarana Consulting. Grant awards include Child Care Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS) and Head Start Scholars. Selected professional service includes: Co-Chair Early Childhood Utah, Utah State Office of Child Care Advisory Board and Professional Development subcommittee, Utah Association for the Education of Young Children governing board, Ogden Weber Head Start Board of Trustees, Utah Early Childhood Conference committee.