Supporting Your Child to Play Independently: Free Play

By Dr. Laura Markham

Dr. Laura, I have free playtime on our schedule every morning after their schoolwork, just like you recommend. But when I tell my kids to go play, they beg for screens, they whine that they don’t know what to do, they don’t have any good toys, they need me to play with them. This is the only chance I have to get any work done, and I need that time. Why can’t they play by themselves?

Why indeed? Consider these scenarios. 

  • The baby mouths her rattle happily. Dad coos at her, takes the rattle, and shakes it loudly, so she can see how it works. 
  • The 2-year-old has a new classic toy: spools and a cord to string them on. He piles them into a column, then tries to drop the cord down through the holes. ”Like this,” says Mum, deftly threading the spools onto the cord. 
  • The 3-year-old turns the handle on the jack in the box so that it pops up. ”Good job!” says Dad. 
  • The 4-year-old is painting, swirling all the colour together. ”When you mix them all, everything turns brown, and all the pretty colours go away,” says Mum. 
  • The 5-year-old is constructing a marble run. ”Why don’t you make it higher at the start, so it goes for longer?” asks Dad.  

As parents, we love to teach our children. But any educator can tell you that humans learn best when they discover for themselves. And since children learn through play, interrupting our child’s play to teach them also lessens the joy that our child experiences from independent play. 

And we’re teaching our children another lesson that we never intended: We’re the experts on play, just as on everything else. We have all the good ideas. To play the “right” way, they need us to play with them. We, the adults, are in charge of play. (Ridiculous, right?) 

So from their earliest experiences, children learn that they need our help to play. We compound this problem by over-scheduling our children, so they’re always en route from one activity to another, which doesn’t leave much time for independent play.

Then, when our children do have a few minutes without anything to occupy them, we respond to pleas of boredom by entertaining our kids with screens, which keeps them from developing their “play muscles.”  

And then, suddenly, we’re confined to our homes, and our children expect us to entertain them and play with them! 

So if you’ve found yourself wishing that your child would play by him or herself more often, and for longer periods of time, you don’t need to feel guilty about that. Sure, it would be good for you, so you can get something done without having to put your child in front of a screen. But independent play is also good for your child, as long as they’re also getting plenty of connection time with you. 

Research shows that children who regularly lose themselves in play develop qualities that will help them master whatever they pursue for the rest of their lives, including increased capacities to problem-solve, persevere, focus, manage frustration, and use their imaginations to create and explore. Play is how children learn, explore, and process big emotions. Play is how children experience their environment and who they are in various situations, which means that play is how children discover who they are. So play is children’s work, how they “become” themselves.

And simply from the perspective of enjoying life with children, play is what keeps children happy and absorbed, so they aren’t whining or fighting.  

1. Respect your child’s play

Research shows that children play more deeply when they have longer periods of time in which to immerse themselves without interruption. 

What’s deep play? Think of it as the experience you have when you lose yourself in creativity or work-you’re in “the zone,” fully engaged, exploring, discovering, applying yourself fully, creating. The inner monologue is suspended-that’s the “losing yourself” part-and you’re fully present and alive. That’s play, and it revitalises and refreshes the brain and our very sense of self. 

Children can play with others or by themselves. They can pretend, build, explore how things feel in their hands, move their bodies, watch others playing, even watch the dust motes in a shaft of light.

That’s the kid’s job. Our job is to respect our child’s play as their “job,” something of value, so that we support their play, just like we would support our partner’s work. 

2. Create an inviting place and time in the schedule

Children do best with a schedule, which helps them know what to expect and lessens anxiety. If they know that every day after breakfast (for instance), they’ll have a chance to play, they’ll look forward to that time and get into play more quickly. 

A safe place for playing gives your child the experience of autonomy, so they don’t need the constant, distracting hovering of an adult.

Set up clear places for kids to do messy play like art versus a construction zone for building things and a cosy, quiet corner to read or dream. Use washable art supplies, make sure kids know to keep messes on a tray or cookie sheet, and expect some mess. 

3. Fill your child’s cup first

If your child resists independent play, make sure they’re routinely getting enough of your attention to feel “full,” and that they’ve had a chance to work through any upsets or anxiety they feel so they can more easily settle into play. 

  • Every day, include 20 minutes of Special Time in the schedule, where you actively play with each child individually-and enjoy it! 
  • Use roughhousing to give your child a good session of laughter a couple of times a day, which lessens anxiety.  
  • Connect with your child emotionally and physically throughout your day by being empathic and responsive when they need you. 
  • While you’re moving your child through the schedule (dressing, brushing teeth, changing nappies, having meals), try to be fully present and warmly engaged with your child, so that they experience you as emotionally present.  
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