Between working from home, keeping everyone fed, and trying to prevent my house from looking like a tornado hit it every day (still happens most days), entertaining my kids on top of all that usually feels impossible.
But guess what?
Did you know that one of the most important and effective ways to raise creative kids is simply letting them use their imaginations and play on their own?
[Click below to listen to the podcast episode on this or scroll down to read!]
The Benefits of Free Play
So many times, as parents, we overcomplicate learning for our kids.
Yes, there is definitely value in formal education, field trips, and guided lessons.
But, allowing your child plenty of free time for imaginative play is actually one of the best ways to support learning and creativity!
I can’t tell you how many moms I’ve talked to who are all worried about their 3 year old getting enough education…”Should we put them in preschool? Should I buy a curriculum for them so they don’t get behind?”
Let me tell you this, if you WANT to do some curriculum with your preschooler, that’s okay.
But your 3 year old doesn’t need preschool. Actually, neither does your 4-year old!
The earlier you put kids into school, the more likely they are to get burned out on learning. And, according to studies, by 3rd grade, kids who started formal education earlier are no farther ahead academically than their peers who did zero preschool.
But get this…
Imaginative play enhances brain function, lowers stress, increases communication skills, aids learning and encourages the formation of healthy relationships in kids, according to a clinical report in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
I love how Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Roger) put it, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Education is hugely valuable, don’t get me wrong. But what is so interesting to me is that, right now–in the current job market–there are a lot of people with degrees who are struggling to get a job. But people who are able to think creatively or “think outside the box” are standing out.
So really, by letting your kids develop their imaginations, you are giving them an invaluable tool that will help them succeed in whichever career path they end up pursuing.
I’ve seen this in my own life. I had zero preschool prior to kindergarten, but my parents encouraged us to play independently and I did. I used to come up with elaborate stories that I would play with my dolls or Barbies.
I used to invent things. I remember one time I rigged an entire pulley system in my bedroom so I could open my door, get a snack, or access books all with the pull of a string while sitting in one spot on my bed. Hey, maybe I should do that now!
I even started businesses as a kid and made money and learned about marketing and leading a team, even if they were my fellow 9-year-olds who lived on my street.
And I have used all of these skills SO much in my own journey of working and being an entrepreneur.
The ability to think creatively and problem-solve on the spot has helped open doors for jobs, leadership roles and promotions for me.
So, whenever or however you choose to start formal education with your kids, please take the pressure off yourself (and your kids) and encourage your kids to explore their imaginative side, knowing there are tons of benefits for them and you.
How Do You Get Your Kids to Play On Their Own?
Ahh, yes. Now THAT is the real question.
When my first daughter was a toddler, she wanted me to play with her All. The. Time. So, lots of times, I did! And as much as I love my daughter, I found myself exhausted and frustrated trying to keep her entertained all the time. (Did I mention I got more than a little bored building the same block tower 627 times in a row?)
Some kids play independently without any prodding, while others need some help making the transition.
If your child falls in the second category, here are a few tips I’ve learned on the journey of helping my reluctant-to-play-alone child to love independent play.
12 Tips for Inspiring Kids to Play on Their Own
1. Have age-appropriate expectations
If you have a child under the age of 1, you can expect about 5 minutes of independent play time. At 12 months, that grows to 15 minutes, then at 18 months it’s about 20 minutes, and at age 2, about 30 minutes.
So when your 1-year-old only lasts 12 minutes playing on their own, be patient. The more they practice the skill of playing on their own, the better they’ll get.
2. Make independent play normal, not a punishment.
Set an expectation for them about playing on their own. Gently explain to them that moms and dads play with their kids sometimes, and then kids play by themselves while moms and dads get work done. Playing is a kid’s “job” while moms and dads have other jobs to do.
Talking about independent play with your kids will help normalize it for them and make it feel more like fun and less like punishment.
3. Know your child’s personality & love languages.
My husband’s love language is quality time. I remember his mom telling me that, when he was a kid, he was fine playing on his own, as long as he was in the same room as she was.
My second daughter’s love language is physical touch. I find that she needs periodic breaks for hugs and snuggling or crawling into my lap to read a book together.
Understanding your child’s unique personality and love language will shed light on how they play and how much interaction they may need from you on their journey towards independent play.
I would encourage you NOT to compare your kids to each other. Their needs are different. Their personalities are different. Their birth order is different. Some kids naturally tend to play on their own. That’s great! Other kids need help learning this skill. Be patient with them.
4. Help them get started.
Most kids need a little bit of help to play on their own. But that doesn’t mean you need to come up with a ton of activities for them.
Instead, try giving them an idea, helping them set up their own activity, and making sure they have some resources to start with. (You won’t always have to do this, but during the learning process, it can help a lot.)
For younger kids (under age 3)…
- Play with them for a few minutes until they get engrossed in play, then quietly remove yourself, but stay close by.
- If you find that your child stops playing as soon as you do, then try this: Play with them for a few seconds, then walk away for a few seconds, then come back and play for a few seconds. This creates the expectation for them that you are still around and involved. You can make those time periods of walking away longer and longer until your child is comfortable playing on their own.
For older kids (age 3+)…
Instead of just giving them an activity, help them get started on a creative idea. Here are a few fun ideas to inspire imaginative play:
- DAY AT THE ZOO
You can finally make use of that giant collection of stuffed animals your kids have! Let them put similar animals together and create a zoo! They can use chairs, baskets, or whatever they want as “cages.” They can even create a ticket booth at the entrance and use these free printable zoo tickets I created!
- BEACH FUN
Turn on a rolling ocean scene on your tv, get out some beach towels and toys and let your kids make a beach! If you have a blue/green blanket, that can be the water and a tan-colored sheet or blanket can be the sand. They can even pack a picnic of snacks and take them to the beach!
- CHRISTMAS MORNING/BIRTHDAY
Who doesn’t love Christmas morning? One of my kids’ FAVORITE things to play is Christmas. I just give them a roll of Christmas wrapping paper (usually one that’s older, hasn’t been used much or I just don’t like it), some tape and kid-safe scissors and let them “wrap” their own toys and play Christmas morning. (Bonus if you have a small Christmas tree that’s not too hard to get out of storage.) Another variation of this is playing birthday!
- ANIMAL ADOPTION AGENCY
For my daughter’s birthday one year, we hosted an animal adoption themed party and it was a huge hit! Some of her friends still talk about how much fun they had. The best part is that it’s super easy to do! Have them get out their stuffed or toy animals. Then, create “stations” for them to go through (or let an older sibling create the stations) like a grooming station, feeding station, medical check-up station, and a place for them to sign their own Pet Adoption Certificate!
- LIVING ROOM CAMPOUT
Get out a pop tent or make a fort for this one. Put a campfire on the tv and/or play a woodsy soundtrack to set the mood. Your kids can “explore” the house with a backpack full of supplies, make shadow puppets with flashlights, roast pretend (or real) marshmallows over a fake campfire and have a blast!
- FIRST AID STATION
This can be for pets or people! Get out any play medical supplies like plastic stethoscopes, thermometers, shots, etc. Then take a quick look through your own medicine cabinet and look for supplies you don’t really use like old bandaids, gauze, empty syringe, ace bandages, etc.
Sometimes I use one of those $1 boxes of bandaids from the Target dollar section and let my kids use them on their dolls. That $1 box takes their creative play to a whole new level in their minds. Have your kids set up a little first aid station and let dolls, stuffed animals or siblings come get taken care of!
5. Stay within range.
For some kids, the real issue is wanting to be close to you. If this is the case, let your child set up their imaginative play close by to where you will be, so they can still see you and feel close to you. Gently reassure them that you are there and you’re going to do your “work” while they do their work, which is of course playing.
6. Guide them towards activities that don’t require your help or supervision.
The more they need your help, the less likely they’ll be to play on their own.
A great way to do this is to make sure you’re providing age-appropriate toys and activities. For example, leaving your 4 year old with a tub of legos probably isn’t going to work.
They’re going to get frustrated trying to put them together and take them apart, because that activity is already a stretch for their age. But you could give your 4 year old a play kitchen with some play food. They don’t need your help with that.
7. Decide to be okay with a mess.
I know this one is hard, but it’s important.
The less okay you are with mess, the more you’re going to feel the need to hover and control what they’re doing. Have you ever tried to be creative with someone peering over your shoulder making sure you’re doing everything correctly? Yeah, it’s not fun. And it stalls your creativity! So if you’re not the kind of mom who is okay giving your kid a bin of rice and some measuring cups and walking away, then don’t choose that type of activity.
Instead, choose in advance that it’s okay for your kids to make a mess. You can decide the level of mess you’re comfortable with and make sure the activities available to your kids match that level.
8. Choose toys that encourage imagination and not completion.
Sometimes we give our kids an activity that has a very clear starting and ending point.
Like the time I gave my daughter what I thought was a tricky maze to complete and she was done in 30 seconds. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending 30 minutes setting up an activity for you kid and then they’re done with it in 4 minutes (sensory bins, anyone?).
Start & end activities are great for a certain purpose, but they’re not great for inspiring imagination. When you choose toys that don’t have a clear starting and ending point, that’s when you give your kids the opportunity to get lost in imaginative play.
Examples of start/stop activities: Doing a puzzle, painting a picture, toys with sounds & lights, etc.
Examples of open-ended toys: dress-up clothes, plastic animals, little people or action figures with a house, building blocks (legos for older kids, wooden blocks for younger kids).
9. Limit the number of toys available to your kids.
My kids have a lot of toys. As much as I try to be a minimalist with certain things, toys is an area where we struggle.
But do you know what I’ve noticed? Despite the fact that my kids have a ton of toys, they keep coming back to the SAME ones over and over again. You know what those toys are? Open-ended toys.
- Little animals or people and houses/workshops
- Legos or building blocks
- Dolls & stuffed animals
You don’t have to get rid of all your kids’ toys to make this work. But the more you can help curate their toy “collection” to include open-ended toys like these, the more you will encourage them to use their imaginations.
10. Keep your kids’ toys grouped in a way that is easy for them to see, easy for them to use, and easy for them to clean up.
As much as I hate to say it, don’t have a toy bin where you throw every type of toy into one giant melting pot. I know that’s tempting, because clean-up is easier, but it’s a huge factor in discouraging independent play.
If your child has a set of 5 Daniel Tiger characters and they all get chucked into the giant toy bin, when your child wants to play with Daniel Tiger and he can only find 2 of the characters, he’ll probably get frustrated and give up.
Instead, keep like toys with like toys. I actually love this, because then, instead of dumping out an ENTIRE huge bin of every toy imaginable every time my kids want to play, they can choose ONE smaller bin of the toy they actually want and it has only the ones that match that set.
Tips for making this work:
- Use clear bins so you can see exactly what’s inside
- Stick to categories of toys and get rid of as many of the miscellaneous ones as you can
- Have an organizational system that allows your kids to pull out one bin of toys at a time
This is tough. For my kids’ larger toy sets, I’ve started using a plastic tub with a lid that clicks on. That way, instead of an open bin where they can easily dump out 6 different sets of toys at a time that you need to then SORT in order to put away, they are encouraged to get out one thing at a time.
This also makes it easier to put some sets of toys away if you want to try rotating them.
For the smaller sets of toys, like the set of 5 Daniel Tiger toys, I get small, shoebox size clear plastic bins with lids. We actually have one of those shoe organizers in our playroom that has 12 slots for shoes and we put one of those plastic bins in each.
Organizing my kids toys this was has seriously made clean-up so much easier, because everything has a clear place. And my kids play with their toys so much longer because all (or most) of the pieces and characters are all there in one spot, so it’s more fun for them!
11. Get outside!
I’m always amazed at what the outdoors does for kids. My kids could be bored to tears with their numerous bins of carefully curated toys, but then we go outside and they somehow find a way to stay entertained with sticks, rocks, mud and bugs.
If your kids are struggling to play on their own, grab your cup of coffee and take them outside. Let them explore the world without an agenda and see what happens.
12. Celebrate independent play and encourage them.
Independent play is not and should never be used as a punishment.
On the contrary, independent play is an incredibly useful life skill that helps your child think creatively, solve problems, manage their emotions, get comfortable being alone and SO many other benefits!
So when your kids play on their own, celebrate it with them!
Use Gentle Responses: If your child is complaining of being bored, begging you to play with them, etc., gently encourage them to continue playing on their own with phrases like these:
- “You’re doing great! Keep going.”
- “Yes, I’d love to play with you, but I need to get some work done. We can play together at 2 o’clock. But right now, you need to play on your own, okay?”
- “It’s okay to be bored. I know you’re creative. What idea can you come up with to play right now?”
The more you encourage your kids to play on their own in this gentle way, the more comfortable they’ll become with the idea.
For a while, it seemed like my one daughter would NEVER play independently.
But now, she amazes me with all the creative ideas she comes up with. She loves playing by herself now and even invites her sister into her epic imaginative play ideas.
Wherever your child is on their journey of learning to play independently, remember that one of the most valuable and educational things you can do for your kids sometimes….is to leave them alone. Let their imaginations run wild!
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