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There is quite a bit of advice out there encouraging parents to promote unstructured play for their children. Free time allows children to feel what it's like to be bored, gives them a chance to work out their differences with siblings and lets them solve their own problems without an adult. Free time also encourages independence, increases social skills and builds resilience.
While this is true for children who are ready to be independent, already have a solid understanding of their social world and can trust that they are not in danger when something goes wrong, free time can be challenging for children with less developed executive functioning and social skills or anxiety.
Two reasons children may have difficulty with unstructured play may be that they tend to be blissfully solo players, or never leave you alone players. Your child may not fall exclusively into one of these categories, but most children have moments that their parents can relate to these ideas.
The blissful solo player
Some children prefer to play alone. Perhaps this is just their temperament. Additionally, many children identified with an autism spectrum disorder or with a diagnosis of dyspraxia (trouble with movement), solo play often feels like the safest kind of play. No one enters their space, no one throws off their plan, and if allowed to, they never have to transition away from this blissful play to do such boring things as use the bathroom or eat a snack.
Also, many children on the autism spectrum have superb memories of television shows they may act out in play as well as heightened interests and an ability to hyper-focus that allows them to enjoy their solo play.
While parents of the blissful solo player might be grateful for this time to make dinner or talk on the phone, at the same time they often have a gut feeling that too much of this play may limit their child's social opportunities and language development.
The never leaves you alone player
If your child falls into this category, you're already nodding your head. These are the children who are either too anxious to play alone, too distractible to settle into play or tell us they are too bored to play on their own. Therefore, they persistently seek attention from parents who feel they need to be in the same room or constantly entertain the child.
These play patterns come from several different reasons. Children experiencing anxiety may follow you around the house and need support to play away from you. Children who are developing their executive functioning often struggle to plan and begin their play and sustain their attention long enough to stick with their play. Experts state that executive functioning skills really start to develop between age three and five, but that it is a skill that children and adolescents are always working on.
This might look like a child who complains of being bored when you see lots of things for them to do or the child who loses interest quickly and doesn't have the skills to come up with a new idea. If forced not to bother their parents, these children may wander around and never settle into an activity. While it is a strength that these children often ask for help and engage with parents, relying on parents too much can limit their independent opportunities for problem-solving that can grow resilience.
Support your child's free time by making a routine when there is no routine
The most important strategy when teaching free time is to schedule it like you would any other activity. I often recommend framing free time as "free-choice" time rather than an open-ended free for all—this can prevent "the blissful solo player" from becoming withdrawn and "the never leaves you alone player" from clinging to you or wandering around aimlessly.
Having a general daily schedule can be helpful. Make sure the schedule is not too detailed—if too complicated, and something doesn't go as planned, this could lead to an additional problem of inflexibility when the plan changes.
Usually, something like the following, written on a whiteboard in your kitchen, does the trick:
- Morning List (e.g., dressed, brush teeth, feed the cat)
- Morning Activity
- Free-Choice time
- Afternoon Activity
- Free-Choice time
- Night time list (I.e. bath/shower, brush teeth, stories, etc.)
The trick is to make this routine consistent and then follow through with morning and afternoon activities—which are chosen by the parent—and free-choice time—which is selected by the child.
Sit down with your child and create a free-choice menu where they can practice brainstorming things they like to do alone knowing that they will be expected to play alone for a certain amount of time.
How this helps the blissful solo player
The blissful solo player will benefit from a written routine with a few tweaks. This child will love free-choice time, so this is where we must help them expand it by adding options to their list.
The goal for the blissful solo player is to transition away from free time play successfully. The trick here is to join them just before the transition. Engage with them, play with them and then help them transition by moving on together, being as encouraging as possible. This is where a visual STOP sign or PAUSE "button" is great to put on the play area so that kids know it's time to move on and they can come back to it later.
How this helps the never leaves you alone player
As the expert on your child, you will need to decide what an appropriate time and location will be for the free-choice time. Start with what you think your child can do and expand the time frame or distance from there.
Some children will need you to get them started on an activity or be reassured when something is a small problem they can solve on their own and when it's okay to come get you for help.
Use a timer to let them know when they are done with their play. Remember, you are teaching them how to be independent, so encourage and praise their successes. Let them know how helpful it was that you were able to call a friend, check your email or feed the baby.
Just remember, for many children more structure is better, visuals are helpful even when a child is highly verbal, and consistent schedules are often magical.
A word about activity time:
Activity time on the schedule may be something mandatory, like a doctor's appointment, or it could be an errand, like the grocery store. It could also be a playdate to encourage those who would not pick peer play for free-choice time, or it could be pretend play time for those who need practice in symbolic thinking.
Either way, setting up the expectation that the adult is in charge of that time can be a helpful way to set boundaries and create a balance of work and play within a summer day.
More than anything, have fun!
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