In Praise of Independent Play

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Independent Play“See Katie, that dad is doing it right,” my mom remarked as we hung out at the playground with my toddler son. I instinctively rolled my eyes; my mom and I have had enough parenting conversations for me to know they sometimes don’t end well.

When I looked up, I saw the dad in question, relaxing on a bench while his school-age daughter skipped from the monkey bars to the tire swing, singing to herself along the way. “Parents today need to learn how to just leave their kids alone and let them play by themselves,” by mom went on.

My eyes immediately stopped spinning. “Finally, a parenting technique we can agree on!” I cheered.

I think the importance of independent play for children of all ages cannot be overemphasized. Play that is child-developed and child-directed is a powerful spark for creativity and problem-solving; Mom can’t figure it out for you if she’s not hovering above you.

Stepping aside, however, can be difficult. Often my generation is told that it’s our job  to constantly play with and entertain our children, and that if we don’t we’re bad parents – the ultimate insult. We don’t want to be bad parents, so we play catch until our arms are sore or “Ring Around the Rosie” until we’re so tired we have to fall down. Because that’s what good parents do.

Or not. A recent study published in Parenting: Science and Practice  found that when moms continually directed their young children’s play – “no, little Johnny, put the cow in the barn, not the school-bus” – instead of allowing the children to play however they wanted to, the kids actually displayed less engagement with and more negativity towards their moms. Allowing your child to play independently means resisting the urge to explain why Mr. Whiskers isn’t the most logical name for a toy puppy, and now research shows that keeping mum leads to a happier, more confident and creative child.

There should be limits to independent play, of course, particularly for safety reasons. I’m not talking about turning your back while little Johnny climbs up the kitchen cabinets. The point is simply that there is real value in giving children more autonomy in their play, in setting perimeters around their activities rather than calling the shots.

The best part, I’ve found, is that watching a young child play independently is absolutely fascinating…and downright fun! One of my greatest joys is watching my boy explore on his own. He’s mesmerized by things I never would have considered toys (last night he spent a good thirty minutes playing with a paper plate!). He gets frustrated when he can’t figure out how to do something, but then is absolutely tickled with himself when he gets it. He makes himself laugh, and sometimes he even dances solo to music in his head.

Sometimes I get up and start dancing too. But sometimes I remain still – just like that dad on the bench at the playground – and simply enjoy the view of my son learning early on how to do his own thing.

How often does your child play independently? What value do you see in child-directed activities?