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How to encourage independent play

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Play is vital for children to develop and learn from the world and everything around them but it doesn’t always mean that they have to have an adult, sibling, friend or someone playing with them. Encouraging and teaching your child to have periods of independent play will not only set them up toward developmental milestones and helps their imagination grow but it also means you have some time to get things done, or just sit back for some down time of your own.

Here are our Learning Bugs top tips for encouraging independent play;

It’s never too early (or too late) to start

It’s so common as new parents and guardians of babies to feel that you need to supervise, interact and observe every single aspect of their play. In reality there’s actually a degree of contentedness from playing alone that can be developed from as early as 2 months; letting a baby discover what happens when they touch a rattle, cuddle a teddy or doll or how to reach out for a toy on a baby-gym is all amazingly exciting when you’re so small. It’s also part of teaching them that their play is worth it and that they can do it without always having the help of someone around them.

If you’re coming to independent play later then it’s still important to help show your child that independent play can be just as fun and exciting as playing with others. Don’t expect for them to take to it straight-away and maybe encourage brief periods of independent play everyday and then build up the time as they become more confident in their own play.

Consider the toys on offer

For children to be able to play well independently they need to have the right resources on offer; don’t confuse this with number of toys or how expensive they are. It’s all about how engaging those resources are and how children can use them in creating their own play opportunities.

A simple basket of ‘treasures’ found from the kitchen and garden can have so much potential and open ended toys are perfect for enabling children to develop their own play independently as objects can become anything they want them to be. ‘Tinker trays’ are particularly brilliant for toddlers who love experimenting and playing with loose parts and babies who just love exploring different objects, shapes and textures.

Open ended toys offer so much more than battery operated or single function touch toys, there’s no right or wrong answer to playing with them and similarly there’s less time to get bored as the toys can become many different things and appear in many different facets of play.

Credit @playhooray

Keep the play age related and relevant to interests

Keeping things age appropriate is still important even if the toys are open-ended or not; think about what stage your baby or child is at in their development and try and match toys and activities to what interests or things they’re enjoying at the moment. So for a 9 month old knocking things over may be the most amazing thing they’ve ever experienced so setting up bricks or towers for them to knock over is you helping them to play independently.

Your toddler may be into dressing up and role-playing so run with that and encourage play in that world and let their imagination run wild with what they could be or become with just a few resources. A play silk could become a cape, a scarf, a sling for a teddy or even become soup in a kitchen play set up. A streamer can be used to twirl and dance with but also as a land boundary or river in small world play and will have plenty of play opportunity both inside and outside.

Make the play space inviting and accessible

I’ve learnt with my own toddler that having storage or toys easily on offer is key to ensuring independent play is successful. For example, if all your toys and resources are beautifully packed away they’re not accessible if needed during play and will therefore stop the flow a child has got into. Of course for many of us we need to store things away but consider how these can be made easily accessible to the child or have a set number of toys on a rotation that are ‘out’  or on a table at their height and easy for them to get hold of.

A great way to also minimise mess for you but also encourage independent play is to offer or set up an ‘invitation to play’ where you select certain toys and resources that will inspire play. There’s so much inspiration on Instagram for this so have a search of #invitationtoplay for great ideas you can set up easily at home or use small world play set ups that lend themselves easily to this type of play.

If you have space you may also want to consider setting up different areas of the play space and incorporating areas where your little ones can be quieter and calmer; a reading nook or corner works well as does having a teepee hideaway where if you’re lucky they may even take themselves off for a nap!

Play with them not for them

A really key part of independent play is letting babies and children decide how they want to play with what’s on offer, you may want to show and instruct a few examples first but it’s really important not to take over the play with you leading everything as they won’t discover their own ways of interacting with the toys or objects. A favourite of mine for this type of play is play or modelling dough as children can manipulate, shape and construct the dough into whatever they want, the sensory process of playing with the material is also a winner and can be great for babies too (under supervision of course) but older children can be left to their own devices a little bit as it keeps them occupied for a fair while if you have tools alongside the dough.

If you’re really wanting to encourage independent play then using guided resources and toys is a sure fire win and can be a good differentiation from open ended toys. Creating and using busy bags, arts and crafts activities or small-world play set ups will encourage children to ‘find’ the game or play they’ve been presented with much easier and may also open the door to other types of imaginative play over time.

 If you’re wanting more ideas for Independent Play then pin this blog to read later and follow Learning Bugs on Pinterest for more play ideas…

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