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Valley Parents: Encouraging independent play

Valley Parents Correspondent
Published: 8/20/2020 5:11:05 PM
Modified: 8/20/2020 5:10:54 PM

Just go play!

It’s become a common refrain at home throughout the Upper Valley and around the country from parents looking for a few minutes to focus on work or — better yet — enjoy peace and quiet for a moment.

While it’s natural for kids to want to engage with their caregivers, it’s also important that kids learn to play independently, said Jessica Laperle, the manager of patient experience at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and a certified child life specialist. Many families realized that during the pandemic when the usual means of entertaining kids — outings, extracurriculars and playdates, for example — were suddenly unavailable.

“We’ve built these hectic lifestyles, so kids are used to having their play packaged up for them. They don’t necessarily have time to just explore,” said Laperle, whose children are 10 and 14. “My own children had to relearn how to play.”

Independent play isn’t just a sanity-saver for parents, it’s also important for kids. They get to build their imaginations in a way they wouldn’t if adults are around.

“An adult is going to organize the play in a way that makes sense in an adult brain,” Laperle said. “During unstructured play, kids explore and process differently. They interact with the world differently when they have space.”

Encouraging independent play is a learning curve for kids and parents. Here are Laperle’s tips for making it work.

Start slow

Encouraging independent play should start slow, especially for younger kids. Start by playing with your toddler or preschooler, then excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. Get out of sight for a minute or two, but don’t stretch it too far.

“You don’t want to push it to see how far they’ll go, because you’re trying to build trust around the scenario,” she said. Each day, make your “bathroom trip” a little longer, until kids are comfortable playing alone.

Create situations that engage

If you tell your child to sit and play, they might scoff. Instead, try setting up situations that engage them, without any direct instruction. Lay out new craft materials or a toy they haven’t seen in a long time. “Set them up for activity that’s desirable,” Laperle said, then let them discover it.

Resist the urge to join in

If you notice your child playing independently, praise them, but don’t interject yourself into the game, Laperle says. “We can help them to understand how fun it is. Instead of getting involved, say, ‘It looks like you’re having fun,’ and help them recognize their feelings of pride and joy in being imaginative.”

Accept boredom

“Kids need time to get bored to get ideas,” Laperle said. Her son took days of complaining about being bored before he even opened his closet, brimming with untouched toys.

Allow your kids to get uncomfortable. Although you might have to deal with a bit of whining, it will encourage creativity, especially for older kids.

Have realistic expectations

If your kids have never done much independent play, it won’t happen overnight, Laperle warned.

“There’s a lot of desire for kids to sit quiet and play for hours on end, but that’s not a very realistic thing,” she said. Having more limited expectations will help everyone succeed.

For kids, play presents all sorts of opportunities. The pandemic, with the additional downtime at home, has given many families space to explore that. Laperle’s kids have started playing rummy — a card game they never would have had time to learn in normal circumstances, she said.

“We as adults think of play as a luxury, but for kids play is a necessity. They can’t learn without play,” Laperle said. “It’s our job to make sure they have opportunities to think creatively, problem solve, and build confidence in the world.”

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