I was the mother who felt guilty for letting her child play alone. I questioned independent play, wondering how voluntarily making myself unavailable to interact with my child could possibly be beneficial to him. Out of all the other things that would be calling for my attention, I felt like I owed it to my son to spend every second with him rather than plopping him in a playpen full of toys and walking away. Over the months, though, I have slowly taken a hands-off approach to my child’s playtime.
Instead of engaging, I simply sit back and observe how he plays. Sometimes, I’ll even step out of the room (he seems to become more engrossed in what he’s doing when he can’t see me) and watch him through the baby monitor.
And it’s a sight to see him make magic of his imagination.
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I have learned that the benefits this type of active play has for my child is a key component in building his development. Letting him play alone has been a factor in helping him establish a sense of independence—and even though it’s bittersweet to see him need me less and less, it fills my heart with joy that he is learning things on his own.
As an only child, my son doesn’t have siblings to play with and he isn’t always around other kids. My husband and I recognize that quality interaction and relationship building is important, so we still contribute to our son’s play experience when and how we can. But the pressure to be involved in every single playtime from sunup to sundown has subsided.
Unstructured play is essential for learning in early childhood.
Our child is able to regulate the simple activities that can keep him occupied for a while. So we have relinquished the need to be hands-on at every given moment and we let our child play alone to encourage his self-sufficiency.
Through play, children have the opportunity to build their motor skills, imagination, and learn self-regulation. I spoke with licensed clinical psychologist and mother of three, Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, about why independent play is beneficial for kids. Here’s what she had to say:
“Independent play is important as it allows parents the chance to attend to necessary tasks (such as cleaning, making dinner or caring for other children) while helping to advance children's emotional, social, cognitive and physical development. A recent study found that children who engage in more independent play show enhanced self-regulation skills years later. This may be because independent play gives children the opportunity to practice regulating themselves.”
There are times when I want to step in (and know that I can) to show him how his toys are supposed to be played with, but I love the look of excitement on his face as he figures it out for himself. And sometimes, I love how he simply makes things work for him—whether it’s the intended way the toys are to be played with or his way. Goodwin even went on to encourage parents to remove themselves and allow their children to govern themselves during playtime.
“Unstructured play is essential for learning in early childhood. When we as parents step out of the way and allow our children to direct the play on their own, children often show greater attention spans for play and, as a result, learning is enhanced. Research also finds that free play is associated with better quality parent-child interactions, improved play skills, and increased language use when compared to structured play,” she said.
One thing to note is that parents should create an environment that fosters their child’s ability to safely and effectively play alone. My husband and I have proactively tried our best to create a “yes” environment for our child to play so that we aren’t constantly telling him “no” and hindering his ability to freely play.
“Independent play is an important skill for children to learn and parents may be able to encourage the development of this skill by setting up the child's environment to foster independent play,” Goodwin says. “However, as with the development of any skill, parents need to be patient and understand that every child learns this skill at their own rate.”
So if you’re questioning if independent play is OK for your child—it is. Because not only can it provide you with some well-needed time to tend to other tasks. But because doing so can foster their independence—and their creativity.
Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a mother to three. She specializes in child development and has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience, providing therapy and clinical services for children of all ages.