How to help your children learn to play all by themselves

Here are some expert ways to make free play work for your child

child-play-alone

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)
  • Breakfast
  • Morning Activity
  • Snack
  • Free-Choice time
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon Activity
  • Snack
  • Free-Choice time
  • Dinner
  • 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!

This article originally appeared on www.dremilyking.com.

Check out some of our favorite toys that captivate kiddos and make independent play more successful.

Janod splash easel 

Janod splash easel

This colorful easel calls budding artists to create with a chalkboard on one side and a magnetic dry erase board on the other. The attached paper roll makes sure there's always something to draw on, and the supply tray is perfect for holding chalk, dry erase markers, crayons and whatever other materials they may need.

$99

Plan Toys detective set

Plan Toys detective set

Solving mysteries takes some quiet solo time. Complete with an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag, your little detective is ready for action.

$40

Lovevery block set

Lovevery block set

This science-backed 70-piece play set keeps little ones of all ages engaged and learning in countless ways. Whether they build, roll, stack, lace or create, they're sure to find new ways to use each piece every time they pick them up.

$90

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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    When you ask any two mamas to share their experience with breastfeeding, you are bound to get very unique answers. That's because while the act of breastfeeding is both wonderful and natural, it also comes with a learning curve for both mothers and babies.

    In some cases, breastfeeding won't be the right path for everyone. But with the right tools, resources and social support systems, we can make progress toward the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation to continue breastfeeding through the first year of a child's life. After all, breastfeeding helps nourish infants, protects them against illnesses, develops their immune systems and more. Not to mention that mothers who breastfeed experience reduced risk for breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

    With National Breastfeeding Awareness Month this month, it's a great time for mamas (and expectant mamas!) to gather the supplies that will support their feeding journey—whether it looks like exclusively breastfeeding, pumping or combo-feeding.

    Customflow™ Double Electric Breast Pump

    Designed for regular use, this double electric breast pump allows mamas to customize the cycle and vacuum settings that work for them. The 100% SoftShape™ silicone shields on this pump form-fit to a wide range of breast shapes and sizes—which means more comfortable, more efficient pumping. And every pump comes with two complete Dr. Brown's Options+ bottles, giving you everything you need to go from pumping to feeding.

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    Dr. Brown’s™ Breast Milk Collection Bottles

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    Breast Milk Storage Bags

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    Silicone One-Piece Breast Pump with Options+™ Bottle & Bag

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    Dr. Brown’s® Manual Breast Pump

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    Options+™ Anti-Colic Baby Bottle

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    7 hacks for simplifying after-school snacks

    Prepping delicious and nutritious foods shouldn't take all day.

    When you're in the middle of the school year and managing a family, each minute of time becomes very precious. Sometimes that means healthy food choices in the household can take a backseat. But don't stress it, mama. Prepping delicious and nutritious choices for the kids to munch on doesn't need to take all day.

    Remember to keep it fun, simple and interactive! Here are tips for simplifying after-school snacks once and for all:

    1. Prep snacks on Sunday

    This simple trick can make the rest of the week a breeze. Tupperware is your friend here, you can even write different days of the week on each container to give the kids a little surprise every day. I really like storage with compartments for snack prep. Personally, I slice apples, carrots or cucumbers to pair with almond butter and hummus—all great to grab and go for when you're out all day and need some fresh variety.

    2. When in doubt, go for fruit

    Fruit is always a quick and easy option. I suggest blueberries, clementine oranges, apples, frozen grapes or even unsweetened apple sauce and dried fruit, like mixed fruit. It's fun to put together a fruit salad, too. Simply cut up all the fruit options and let the kids decide how they'd like to compile. Prepped fruit is also great to have on hand for smoothies, especially when it's been sitting in the fridge for a few days—throw it in the blender with some nut milk and voila.

    3. Pair snacks with a dip

    Hummus is a great dip to keep on hand with lots of versatility or you can grab a yogurt-based dip. Easy and healthy dippers include pre-sliced veggies, baby carrots and multigrain tortilla chips. Plain hummus is a great way to introduce seasonings and spices too—shake a little turmeric, add fresh basil and you'd be surprised what your kids will take to.

    4. Have high-protein options readily available

    Snacks with high protein, like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, hard boiled eggs and jerky will fuel kids for hours. One of my favorites is a turkey stick, which is a fun addition to the hummus platter. Just slice into bite-sized pieces. I love cottage cheese because it can go savory or sweet, use as a dip with your prepped veggies, or drizzle pure maple syrup and sprinkle with berries.

    5. Always keep the pantry stocked

    Monthly deliveries keeps the pantry updated without a trip to grocery store. Many kids are big fans of popcorn, granola and pretzels. We like to DIY our own snack packs with a little popcorn, pretzels, nuts and whatever else is in the pantry so there's always something different!

    6. Make cracker tartines

    I love the idea of replicating popular restaurant dishes for kids. Here are some of my favorite snack-sized tartines using any crisp bread, or favorite flat cracker of your choice as the base. There are no rules and kids love adding toppings and finding new combinations they love.

    • Avocado crackers: Use a cracker and then layer with thinly sliced avocado, a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese topped with roasted pepitas or sunflower seeds.
    • Tacos: The base for this is a black bean spread—just drain a can of black beans, rinse and place into a wide bowl. With a fork or potato masher, lightly smush the beans until chunky. Spread onto your cracker and top with tomato, cheddar cheese and black olives. Try out a dollop of super mild salsa or some lime zest to introduce some new flavor profiles.
    • A play on PB&J: Smear peanut butter, almond or a favorite sun butter on the cracker. I like to get a mix it up a bit and put fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries and tiny diced apples) and a little bit of dried fruit sprinkled on top.

    7. Pre-make smoothie pops

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    15 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    Keeping kids entertained is a battle for all seasons. When it's warm and sunny, the options seem endless. Get them outside and get them moving. When it's cold or rainy, it gets a little tricker.

    So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of the best toys for toddlers and kids that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, many are Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these indoor outdoor toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.


    Stomp Racers

    As longtime fans of Stomp Rockets, we're pretty excited about their latest launch–Stomp Racers. Honestly, the thrill of sending things flying through the air never gets old. Parents and kids alike can spend hours launching these kid-powered cars which take off via a stompable pad and hose.

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    Step2 Up and Down Rollercoaster

    Step2 Up and Down Rollercoaster

    Tiny thrill-seekers will love this kid-powered coaster which will send them (safely) sailing across the backyard or play space. The durable set comes with a high back coaster car and 10.75 feet of track, providing endless opportunities for developing gross motor skills, balance and learning to take turns. The track is made up of three separate pieces which are easy to assemble and take apart for storage (but we don't think it will be put away too often!)

    $139

    Secret Agent play set

    Plan-Toys-Secret-agent-play-set

    This set has everything your little secret agent needs to solve whatever case they might encounter: an ID badge, finger scanner, walkie-talkie handset, L-shaped scale and coloring comic (a printable file is also available for online download) along with a handy belt to carry it all along. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

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    Stepping Stones

    Stepping-stones

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    Sand play set

    B. toys Wagon & Beach Playset - Wavy-Wagon Red

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    Sensory play set

    kidoozie-sand-and-splash-activity-table

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    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

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    Foam pogo stick

    Flybar-my-first-foam-pogo-stick

    Designed for ages 3 and up, My First Flybar offers kiddos who are too young for a pogo stick a frustration-free way to get their jump on. The wide foam base and stretchy bungee cord "stick" is sturdy enough to withstand indoor and outdoor use and makes a super fun addition to driveway obstacle courses and backyard races. Full disclosure—it squeaks when they bounce, but don't let that be a deterrent. One clever reviewer noted that with a pair of needle-nose pliers, you can surgically remove that sucker without damaging the base.

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    Dumptruck 

    green-toys-dump-truck

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyard or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? It's made from recycled plastic milk cartons.

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    Hopper ball

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    Burn off all that extra energy hippity hopping across the lawn or the living room! This hopper ball is one of the top rated versions on Amazon as it's thicker and more durable than most. It also comes with a hand pump to make inflation quick and easy.

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    Pull-along ducks

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    Rocking chair seesaw

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    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

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    Meadow ring toss game

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    Mini golf set

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    We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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    Even 5 hours of screen time per day is OK for school-aged kids, says new study

    Researchers found screen time contributes to stronger peer relationships and had no effect on depression and anxiety. So maybe it isn't as bad as we thought?

    MoMo Productions/Getty Images

    If you've internalized some parental guilt about your own child's screen time usage, you're not alone. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to significant amounts of screen time in children leads to an increased risk of depression and behavioral issues, poor sleep and obesity, among other outcomes. Knowing all this can mean you're swallowing a big gulp of guilt every time you unlock the iPad or turn on the TV for your kiddo.

    But is screen time really that bad? New research says maybe not. A study published in September 2021 of 12,000 9- and 10-year-olds found that even when school-aged kids spend up to 5 hours per day on screens (watching TV, texting or playing video games), it doesn't appear to be that harmful to their mental health.

    Researchers found no association between screen usage and depression or anxiety in children at this age.

    In fact, kids who had more access to screen time tended to have more friends and stronger peer relationships, most likely thanks to the social nature of video gaming, social media and texting.


    The correlations between screen time and children's health

    But those big social benefits come with a caveat. The researchers also noted that kids who used screens more frequently were in fact more likely to have attention problems, impacted sleep, poorer academic performance and were more likely to show aggressive behavior.

    Without a randomized controlled trial, it's hard to nail down these effects as being caused directly by screens. The study's authors analyzed data from a nationwide study known as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD Study), the largest long-term study of brain development and children's health in the country. They relied on self-reported levels of screen time from both children and adults (it's funny to note that those reported numbers differed slightly depending on who was asked… ).

    It's important to remember that these outcomes are just correlations—not causations. "We can't say screen time causes the symptoms; instead, maybe more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior," says Katie Paulich, lead author of the study and a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. Also worth noting is that a child's socioeconomic status has a 2.5-times-bigger impact on behavior than screens.

    Weighing the benefits with the risks will be up to you as the parent, who knows your child best. And because we live in a digital world, screens are here to stay, meaning parents often have little choice in the matter. It's impossible to say whether recreational screen time is fully "good" or "bad" for kids. It's maybe both.

    "When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations," says Paulich. "That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it's unlikely to be important at a clinical level." It's all just part of the overall picture.

    A novel look at screen time in adolescents

    The researchers cite a lack of studies examining the relationship between screen time and health outcomes in this specific early-adolescence age group, which is one of the reasons why this study is so groundbreaking. The findings don't apply to younger children—or older adolescents, who may be starting to go through puberty.

    Screen time guidelines do exist for toddlers up to older kids, but up to 1.5 hours per day seems unattainable for many young adolescents, who often have their own smartphones and laptops, or at least regular access to one.

    Of course, more research is needed, but that's where this study can be helpful. The ABCD study will follow the 12,000 participants for another 10 years, following up with annual check-ins. It'll be interesting to see how the findings change over time: Will depression and anxiety as a result of screen time be more prevalent as kids age? We'll have to wait and see.

    The bottom line? Parents should still be the gatekeepers of their child's screen time in terms of access and age-appropriateness, but, "our early research suggests lengthy time on screen is not likely to yield dire consequences," says Paulich.

    Children's health

    Mom and gorilla bond over their babies at the zoo: ‘It was so beautiful’

    The new mothers shared a special moment at a Boston zoo.

    Franklin Park Zoo/YouTube

    Motherhood knows no bounds.

    When Kiki the gorilla spotted a new mom and baby visiting her habitat at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, she immediately took a liking to the pair. Emmelina Austin held her five-week-old son Canyon to the glass so Kiki could get a better look.

    The gorilla spent nearly five minutes happily pointing and staring at baby Canyon.


    Emmelina's husband captured the sweet moment on his phone, in a video that's now gone viral.

    Mother shares unique maternal bond with gorilla (FULL VIDEO) www.youtube.com

    Why was Kiki so interested in her tiny visitor? Possibly because Kiki's a new mom herself. Her fifth baby, Pablo, was born in October.

    Near the end of the video, Kiki scooped up Pablo and held him close. The new moms held their baby boys to the glass and shared a special moment together: just a couple of mothers, showing off their little ones.

    "When I walked into the zoo that day, I never could've imagined that we would have had that experience," Austin told ABC News. "It was so beautiful, and we walked out just over the moon."

    We can't get enough of the sweet exchange. There's something special about sharing your little one with the world. Mothers of all ages, races–and it turns out, species–understand.

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