Some children are naturally more content to play independently than others. I vividly remember my sister playing contentedly by herself for hours, while I would choose to play with someone every single time if given the choice.
Temperament aside, there are definitely things we can do to help our children learn to play independently, and part of this is selecting certain toys and leaving others in the toy store.
What to avoid
Certain toys actually hinder a child's ability and desire to play on their own.
They teach a child to be entertained, rather than actively engaged in their own play. Children may gravitate toward them because they look fun and exciting, and they are also easier than active play, in the same way that watching TV is easier than reading or pursuing a hobby.
It is passive and requires no creativity or active participation. These toys tend to lose their appeal quickly and make it harder for children to develop their creativity.
These are another example that almost always requires adult direction. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a kit that shows a child how to create a specific craft or build a certain model, but after it's built, the kit is often useless and the child cannot engage with it independently.
No matter what they are, having too many choices also hinders creativity and independent play, as children become overwhelmed. That doesn't mean you can't shower your little one with gifts this holiday season if that's what you want to do, but try putting most of the new toys away in a closet so your child can fully appreciate them as you rotate them throughout the year.
What to look for
In contrast, certain toys invite children to become lost in their own play, to the point where they may seem to forget that you're even there. This is hugely beneficial, not just for you and your ability to get things done, but for your child.
When children are deeply engaged in play, they are exercising creativity and concentration, which both grow and develop with practice. These are skills that will transfer over to their academic lives and serve them forever.
Here are a few things to look for:
Open-ended toys, like blocks, have nearly infinite uses. Children can use them to build towers or cities or can make patterns from the shapes or colors. There is no one right way to use an open-ended toy, and so it invites children to be creative and explore the many possibilities their minds come up with.
High-quality art supplies encourage creativity and also provides many interesting sensory experiences as children explore what paint and glue feel like, and how different writing instruments feel in their hands.
Painting and drawing can also be excellent for fine motor development as the child strengthens their hand and becomes increasingly exact in their creations.
To support your child's confidence in engaging with art materials independently, try not to show them how to draw something specific. They might become discouraged when their own picture doesn't look the same. Instead, expose them to all sorts of art, from completely abstract, to impressionist, to surrealist so they learn that artistic expression can look all sorts of different ways.
Toys that help your child explore the natural world and the way things work show them that they don't need anybody else to learn. They teach them to be an explorer in their own world, to be their own teacher.
Whether the toy explores magnetic fields, gravity, or the intricate details of butterflies, these scientific toys encourage deep learning as well as independent play.
Children really don't need anything other than free time to use their imaginations, but there are some great toys that can help them along and add variety to their games. Items like dress ups and costumes invite children to become someone else, to create a different world in their minds.
Model toys, like animals, figurines or train sets, also invite imaginary play and many children can play with this type of toy for quite a long time on their own.
Toys like puzzles that encourage problem-solving skills, can suck children into deep concentration if they are just the right level of challenge. Completing this type of activity also gives children a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Every child is different. Watch your child. Notice when they're lost in play and seems to forget you're there. That is when the magic is happening.
Make note of what they're playing with when this happens and keep that in mind as you select toys for him in the future. Encouraging this type of deep engagement and independent play will serve your whole family well beyond the holiday season.
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