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Encouraging children towards self directed play

Friday, 05 October 2018

The inability to play independently inevitably increases the childs sense of dependence on the adult. Conversely, independent activity allows him to experience autonomy.”  – Éva Kálló and Györgyi Balog, The Origins of Free Play


Encouraging children towards self directed play

We all know about the benefits of independent play - but it’s easier said than done.  Children quite rightly want to play with their parents and love to do so, but it can be heartbreaking to say ‘no’ and walk away, leaving them to play by themselves.  Independent play makes for highly productive, happily occupied kids, which in turn makes for happier, calmer parents. So what can go wrong? and how could you make the transition to self directed play more stress free?  


1. The first thing to start with is to honour your child’s need in wanting to spend time with you.

After all, your child is only young once and you don’t want to miss out on these precious moments to engage with them. Sometimes it’s better to offer your attention right away and proceed with a positive action.  If you ‘fill their cup’ right there, when they need it, they’ll be more inclined to occupy themselves at a later point, hopefully, when they really are ready to let go. 


2. Stop playing for them

It’s our natural instinct to play with children and do the thinking and creating for them, but it’s not always what’s in their best interest.  In the words of Magda Gerber  “Do less, observe more, enjoy most”.  After conducting years of studies she discovered that children flourish in play in the presence of caregivers, but lose confidence in their ability to play when it is done for them.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play with your child, but consider doing it in a way that follows their lead and supports their process in making all the decisions.




3.  Set a timer

You could set your boundaries at the outset and let your child know that you’ll be playing with them for, say 20 minutes, and then you’ll be leaving to do your chores. Make sure you get their agreement upfront, so they will be less upset when the bell starts to ring and you have to run to put dinner on.


4. Be firm, but kind.

For a child who is used to playing with you for long periods of time, you’ll need to use a different tactic.  Observe your child and when they are engaged in play, slowly start to pull back, giving them more and more opportunity for them to play with the toys by themselves. See this as part of a long term plan e.g: 

  • Play with them for a little bit, reduce your involvement in play and return back to the area after two minutes. Gradually increase the time that you are away over a period of several weeks.




5.  Offer limited options

If these ideas still don’t work for you your child, and/or if your child is 2 or younger and is tugging at your heart strings, insisting you stay and play, be firm but fair, and give them a limited choice: “you can help me with the cooking or you can bring your toys into the kitchen”.  Think of something you could offer them to bring into the kitchen to play with.  Better still, could they help you in the kitchen? 


6.  Respect concentration when it’s happening
Once they are engaged, respect this all important time and remember that children learn best when they are given opportunity to concentrate.  If you have the need to offer them a snack, engage in dialogue or pick them up to play with, do so only when they have finished.  Remember Montessori said that “…concentration is essential for a child’s development.  The child who concentrates is immensely happy” so if anything, protect a child who is absorbed in play and minimise the likelihood of any distractions.




7.  Don’t sweat a mess

If your child is playing nicely, don’t worry too much about the mess that has been created.  Only intervene if there’s harm to the toys, friends or furniture.  Instead focus on the bigger picture and know that when they are finished, you’ll remind them how to put their toys back in the right place.


8.   Remember that Rome was not built in a day

It may take a while for your child to transition to this new way of being with you, but give yourself a goal and be consistent and patient.  In the long term you’ll be surprised at the pleasure you derive from watching them play.        

Dipti Kanani
Casa Dei Bambini Montessori School

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