Thursday, February 24, 2011

FF: Encouraging Independent Play For Young Children

We have received a few e.mails asking us to host a discussion about how to encourage independent play for young children. To this we say, of course! Sometimes just a few minutes to spruce up your hair or make an important phone call can be sanity-preserving and cheer-restoring!

For starters, let me say that I used to worry that my first child didn't have an imagination because at two, he was nearly incapable of playing by himself. Now I know that he was just young and depended on me for most of his stimulation and entertainment. At five, he has a very colorful, active, fantastic imagination.

It has also been my observation that less media=more imagination.

I'll share a few suggestions of my own and then we'll open it up so y'all can share your ideas and observations on this topic.

* Let your children have lots of different tactile experiences.Lily (2.5 years old) will play in the sink for twenty minutes with a few little cups or water bottles or even a toothbrush. I fill one side of the kitchen sink 1/4 - 1/2 way full and then turn the faucet to a tiny trickle. Sometimes we add dish soap to make bubbles! A waterproof apron will save you from having to change a soggy outfit when the fun's over. Let them play with water, sand, dry beans, play doh, rice, and some measuring cups, spoons, funnels. This might take careful supervision initially to help them understand boundaries and rules (ie "these beans need to stay on the table; don't throw them on the floor.") But soon enough they'll be able to busy themselves without too much damage :)

* Marta recently wrote a great post about simple toddler activities. One thing I'd never seen before was a WaterWow Paint Set - a paint with water concept. Coolest part? When they dry, they go back to black and white and can be reused! Brilliant.

* My mom has a plastic 1-gallon ice cream bucket that she turned into a great little toy for the one to two year old set. She cut a small square hole (1/2" x 1/2") out of the lid. Then she bought a set of clothes pins that fit nicely through the hole. You wouldn't believe how many times my daughter would drop those clothes pins in, one by one. Then dump them all out and start again. Sometimes the simplest toys hold the greatest appeal. Also - balloons. Blow up a couple of balloons (not very full so there's less risk of them popping) and let your kids bonk them around.

* You might also try keeping a special reserve of toys that you pull out only in moments where you really need your children to be entertained. They'll be more interested in things they don't see everyday.

* Also, children love things that look/feel/sound real. See if you can get an old computer keyboard from an electronics store. Hand down your old cell phone. Make a ring of old keys that they can play with. Designate a kids' flashlight - my kids love flashlights. Buy a wallet or purse from goodwill and fill it with obsolete cards or expired gift cards, a compact with a mirror, a tube of chapstick, a hair comb, etc.

Maybe I'll pop in on the comment thread with a few more ideas. True confession: I have, on more than one occasion, used the "if you know what's good for you, you'll go to the playroom and stay there a while! Mom needs a few minutes to get happy again" line. They most often disappear for a while. Also, if I ask them to clean the playroom -- they'll usually putter away a half hour or so, not cleaning :)

What about you? How do you encourage independent play for your young children, especially the 1-3 age group? What holds their attention for more than thirty seconds? What things have you found that you can do as a parent to encourage independent or imaginary play in children of all ages?

Can't wait to hear your suggestions!


sarahandmatt said...

As I type this, my two-year-old is wandering around the house in my high heels. If we're talking about "playing pretend", kids love to pretend to be their parents or older siblings. Dress up, fake food/kitchen items, children's tool sets, playhouses, etc are great for those kinds of things. I have found that if I want my kids to play nicely, the best possible scenario is me setting them up with something to do within sight of me (dump a bunch of kitchen utensils, bowls, etc on the kitchen floor while I'm cooking or bring the blocks from the toy room to the living room where I'm reading). Usually, the least damage is done and the kids are the happiest when I do something like that. I save the tv for when I'm trying to shower or need some space.

Lindy Louise said...

I'm convinced that Tinker Toys hold some magical property: my 2 and 5 yr. old boys can play with them for hours!

Another sure fire winner is the pillow/blanket tent. If I help them build one, they'll happily play with it (i.e. destroy and rebuild it) on their own for a good hour or so.

Rachael said...

I second what Em said about less media equating to more imagination--my kids don't ask for me to turn the TV on when they're bored because we don't have one. So we don't even have to have that battle. :-)

The thing that I've found works best to get my children to play on their own? Play with them. I have this on my to-do list every day so that I make sure that all of them get focused time with me where I'm sitting on the floor doing whatever it is they want to do. They're much happier to play on their own when they've had my full attention for a little while previously.

Age also helps a lot too. :-) My oldest two (6 and 3.5) aren't nearly as interested in me as my son (18 months).

Sara said...

This morning we needed some serious entertainment due to another snow we set up the inflatable kiddie pool and threw all our balls in. Instant ball pit!

We've also gotten a lot of time out of homemade play-doh in various colors. Themes help! Last week it was blue dough (icebergs) and plastic penguins. Next week we'll do Egypt and make sand dough. (We love those Toobs with the plastic animals/figures!)

Sally said...

I did a post about this very topic about a month ago. We had a lot of the same ideas. My kids love the water in the sink and the beans with pots to pour them in. We also do the blanket tent and flashlights and another big hit is to line up all the kitchen chairs in the living room and they play train. And I totally agree that less media equals more imagination, but I also don't think I'm a bad mom for letting them watch some television everyday so I can collect my sanity. I understand why some families choose to not do any television, but I sometimes feel like those of us that do allow it are hiding shamefully in the corner, when we shouldn't be. Anyway, that's just my opinion, I'm not trying to stir up a heated debate on television watching.

liz said...

My two year-old's favorite independent activities are usually things like unwrapping all of my tampons or smearing grape jelly all over himself and the kitchen. I think I may be getting a little burned out! (My oldest is 13, so I've been parenting toddlers for a heck of a long time.) This is our last baby and we find everything he does darling and charming, but I have to admit, I'm not that creative about entertaining him and it's fantastic when my other kids are home to help keep him busy. That might be something for some of you to look forward to -- big kids who are old enough to entertain little kids :)

Kate said...

I noticed when I stopped letting my son watch TV his creative play shot through the roof. Now I'm not a person that's against TV or think it's evil or think you're a bad mom if you let your kids watch it. In fact, even though we have a general no TV rule around here, if things get really bad (i'm trying to finish dinner and the kids won't stop whining and hanging on me) I'll turn on a show and not feel bad about it.

The main reason we turned off the TV was that our son's behavior was getting worse and worse. And we were feeling sort of desperate not knowing what to do about it, it was getting so out or hand. And it occurred to my husband and I at the same time "turn off the TV" So we did. His behavior greatly improved and as a (huge) bonus... he started playing with his toys much, much more. For longer spans of time, and in a way more creative way. For example, pretending they talk and using fun voices to have them talk to each other. I was totally floored!

I'm sure kids do this naturally whether or not they watch TV. We found that everyday TV really was effecting our son's creative play. And we'd loved not having it around. But you know what, we watched Incredibles as a family and the next day he wanted to paint the robot from that show... and I loved that!

And I know this wasn't about TV, sorry for such a long comment about it. It's been my experience regarding creative play. and I'm excited to use all your suggestions too! We did the bean thing with Charlie and it would be fun to do it again for Lucy. And Sally, if TV didn't have such an effect on Charlie's behavior... I know I'd use it way more often! Every child is different and Charlie just can't handle it. No need to hide in the shadows! I think you're a great mom!

Kate said...

Liz just read your comment and laughed. Charlie was playing with a friend the other day and they needed a battery for some toy and I heard Charlie telling his friend he had found one and that this was a battery... So confident and matter of fact. come to find out it was a tampon!

lindsey said...

Excellent post - thank you for the ideas! My daughter is 17 months old and I am fortunate in that she has always been mostly good about independent play. To help her entertain herself when I need to shower and get ready, I keep toys packed away and then rotate them every month or so. We just did this the other day and she was beyond thrilled at the sight of her "new" toys. Also, she has her own little area in our living room with a little table and chairs. When she is napping, I rotate the activities that are available to her at her table. Last week it was her tea set and wooden food set, this week it is colored construction paper, stickers and crayons. I find that changing things up every so often really helps to refresh my daughter - and me and Dad too!

Anonymous said...

So many of the things mentioned here are some of my favs too! (Play-doh, playing in the rice or bird seed with funnels and kitchen tools, turning off the tv, forts - all of that has helped me) but I've also got a little gem I discovered not too long ago - We made a marble run once from that site out of a cereal box that my son played with forever.

He's got great things that are simple and inexpensive to make. We'll make something together and then it's his favorite toy.

Also, I noticed the more I read to/with my son the MUCH more likely he is to spend time just reading on his own. It's awesome!

Robin said...

I think some kids have an easier time entertaining themselves than others. My third child can never seem to play on her own AT ALL, not because she had no creativity, but because she was (and is) so social. Once she had a friend or sibling to play with, there was no problem. As I write this though, my fourth child, age three, has been happily playing with Qwirkle blocks for the past half an hour. I also find the big Legos or Duplo blocks to a must-have toy. Even a one-year-old can stick those big Mega-Bloks together. The thing I have to remind myself of, since I have older children, is that I have to set up the entertainment for my three year old first. I can't just expect him to walk into the toy room and pick something out that entertains him. I have to say, "Do this" and he'll usually be happy to do so.

jeanine said...

I"ve been really lucky in the fact that my oldest two are great at independent play and always have been. My youngest goes through phases where he is... and then at other times he wants me with him at all times. He really likes blocks (mega blocks, duplos, bristle blocks) which keep him busy. Also, putting smaller objects into a larger container keeps him pretty entertained. Everyones suggestions have been great!

toddnjoelle said...

We also love to built tents. My kids will entertain themselves for a long time.
One of our other favorite activities is to build cities. I get out the blue painters tape and make roads and parking lots on the floor. We put all the toys out for buildings and use cars to drive from place to place. We have also done this with animals and built a zoo.
Tea parties are also a bit hit in our family. We use water and get out mini marshmellows or small crackers to go with it. We will sometimes dress up for the occassion too.
One other idea is that we have a small table that I keep in the kitchen. It is just the right size for toddlers, though my 5 year old can still fit. We have tea parties there, but it is really for crafts. I have a rolling cart with all kinds of craft items in it. Paper, markers, glue, pipe cleaners, stickers, paint, etc. My girls will entertain themselves with card making or other crafts for a long time.

Phoebe said...

Some fun ideas here. Liz always keeps things real - bless her for that! Sorry, but how predictable is it that a certain commenter will take yet another opportunity to quickly jump in and mention that she runs a no-TV family? You gotta admit, it's comical how often she does that in the comments here on Bloom.

Barb @ getupandplay said...

For me, paying attention to what my son thinks is fun and funny helps a lot. Then I can make up new games for him that he'll play on his own. Today we invented a game of hide-and-seek for his trains and trucks. He's been stashing his trains under pillows and then finding them all day.

We love forts and "slides" out of couch cushions. My mother in law has a big bucket full of old vitamin container lids (way too big to choke on). The grandkids like to put them in and out of the bucket and stack them up to make towers.

I love these great ideas from other commenters!

Jon and Laura said...

I was one who suggested this topic- and i appreciate everyone's input! I have two little boys who were getting so whiny and clingy my sanity was going out the window. I made some small changes last week and was amazed at the difference it made. I'll share two things that helped for us-
One is some independent playtime. My 18 month old is still not totally sold on the idea, but all we do is 15 minutes- the boys have to play in their own bedrooms with some toys that I put out for them. That's when i fix my hair. I have found that just doing 15 minutes without brother getting into their toys makes it so other toys become more novel, that the boys want to play with each other and mom more (in a good way- not just clinging), and it has reduced whining quite a bit. Who would have thought?!

The second thing is that I've tried to be a lot more structured as we start out day. Breakfast, teeth brushed, beds made, clothes on, prayers said, solo time, timer goes off, time with mom, free play, snack time, play with brother- I have found that when they feel like the morning is more predictable, they whine less, and I feel more proactive and therefore happier.

Thank you all for your thoughts!

Genean said...

It's interesting to read everyone's different suggestions. This is going to be a long comment...

My approach is pretty different: I usually ignore them.

I have four kids; the oldest is 5 1/2 years, and the youngest is 5 months old.

My mindset has always been that it's not my job to entertain them-- it's their job to entertain themselves. It can be my job to place them in an interesting environment or introduce them to interesting people. But it's always their job to entertain themselves, whether a preschooler, toddler, or infant.

We enjoy getting out and doing things.

Options: zoo, museums, bookstores, shopping malls, libraries, friends' houses, parks, playgrounds. I set up preschool co-op groups and playdates (with or without other mommies). We go to fastfood restaurants "just to play, not to eat" (they can repeat that mantra). They climb on the little toy rides in the mall courtyard and PRETEND to ride them. Since I've never brought quarters to pay for a ride, they don't know it's a possibility for us and don't even ask.

If we stayed home all the time, the house would just get trashed and we'd get stir-crazy! So we are constantly on the go. And the times when we do stay home all day (it's a weekend, someone is sick, or I've just had a newborn) it's a relative novelty and they're happy with it. We don't have many toys, but the few we do have seem that much more exciting since they're not played with that often.

We have an inexpensive membership at the local YMCA. They get to swim, starting as babies, as well as play on an indoor climbing gym, outdoor playground, and explore lots of interesting toys and books (no tv there, which is great!)

My husband works at an elementary school, and we are on a very tight budget. If I can make this work, anyone can!

The past few months I've spent a lot of time sitting and nursing the newest baby. I have no idea what my 22-month-old is doing most of the time. Occasionally he'll wander in and say "help me, mommy" and hold out a couple Lego pieces that need sticking together. I fix it for him, and off he trots with a "thank you" thrown over his shoulder. If he's thirsty, he gets himself a drink. If he's hungry, he climbs up and gets an apple or banana. If he spills something, he gets a towel out of the drawer and cleans it up himself. That's the beauty of giving a child space and not always being right there next to them--they get to solve problems and figure things out on their own.

That being said, my 4-yr-old daughter seems to be the one who needs a little extra reassurance and one-on-one time right now. That's fine. I'll read to her and snuggle next to her while I nurse the baby. If I hear her crying or frustrated with something, I'll call out a reassuring reminder: "Mommy is always here to help you. Just come and ask me calmly and kindly. I will always help you."

Genean said...

(the rest; this is the last post--promise!)

One of the best things: a fenced-in, baby proofed and secure backyard. When my first child was 10 months old, I would let him crawl around the backyard by himself, exploring. I would watch through an open screen door while working inside, or join him outside doing work. He would explore sticks, rocks, dirt, and plants. It was great. I never worried about him choking; he never did.

Contrast this with a friend's daughter who was 15 months old and wouldn't walk barefoot on grass or across the driveway. When I met this friend's mother later on, I plunked my fellow down on the ground for him to toddle off, and my (then) 6-month old daughter on the grass on her tummy, and my friend's mother gasped in complete shock. Apparently it was a multi-generational thing in their family.

My laid-back approach saves me from suffering from over-anxiety about my kids. Yes, they go in and outside the backyard by themselves. Yes, a 15-month-old who is able to climb on the trampoline is allowed to jump. Why? Because I can't hover there every second trying to stop him. I have too many other things to be doing. No, they've never gotten hurt. Each of my kids has fallen off exactly one time--and then it never has happened again. They learn to be careful.

I'm not trying to brag, and I apologize if it comes off that way. (I'm a little distracted because I'm feeding the baby and typing at the same time. I just found this discussion very interesting and wanted to contribute.) I just feel that my perspective is probably the minority and it might be helpful for people to hear it so they can consider if they want to implement small changes with their own kids.

It can at times be tiring witnessing over-protective mommies on playgrounds or at playdates. The ones who micromanage their child's social exchanges with their peers, or oversee nearly every physical maneuver. It's exhausting just to watch or listen to it. Often these moms wonder why they feel overwhelmed, burnt-out, or like they don't have enough alone time for themselves. That's sad.

Here's a simple principle: your kids are as demanding and high maintenance as you allow them to be (with the one exception of special-needs children or those with behavioral/developmental disorders). They feed off of your anxiety or your calmness and follow your cue. If you want laid-back children, strive to become a laid-back mom. If you give your kids more freedom, they will surprise themselves (and you) in many pleasant and beautiful different ways! :)

Anonymous said...

Phoebe - I think part of the reason she leaves comments here is she is a friend of Anne and Emily. (And, I'm sure she is a big fan of the blog too I'm guessing!). That one commenter was leaving her best advice for the question posed, and wasn't that what we were supposed to do? As a reader, we should just take what you can from all the commenters, and let it be. Truthfully, as I was browsing through the comments there were only a handful that I knew would work for me that I took note of to try. But even then, I'm not going to point out someone's idea that I may not agree with, regardless if they put it here several times.

-Lisa in Tacoma, WA

Mrs. Cropper said...

Dear Genean,

I love you.


Anonymous said...

I am a newer reader of this wonderful blog and it has helped me out in many ways. I just had a thought that is a spin off from this discussion that may be interesting- and maybe not. As I was reading through the post and comments the thought came to me regarding tv time and how it stimulates creative play when we lessen it. I have noticed that when I turn off the tv for myself and my hubby we tend to get more creative as a whole with our family. This includes getting out of the house, crafts, yard work, and even dates. Don't get me wrong, we have the tv on here and there and probably more than we should, but as I've tried to lessen it, we have become a more connected and I guess you could say interesting family. It's much more fun to get out and enjoy things than just watch about them on tv so I am going to keep it to a minimum and encourage independent/ creative play for my kids AND myself. Thanks for everyone's great ideas!

Rachael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachael said...

@Phoebe: Part of the reason why I state that my family doesn't have a TV is because I think it's good to know that option is workable. Like Kate said, I don't think TV is the worst thing ever. But I notice a real difference without one, and personally, if I had a TV and I was feeling desperate about how much time my kids spent watching it, it would be nice for me to know that other families were finding it easier to go without. I know the topic of TV is very polarizing, but I also think that one of the best things about blogs is finding out what works for other people and potentially implementing that in your own family.

I feel strongly that this is one of the best parenting decisions my husband and I have made for our particular family. So yes, if I'm asked what has worked to foster creativity and independent play in my children, an honest answer will include that as the #1 thing.

@Lisa: thank you--I really appreciated your comment.

Genean said...

Thanks, Anne ;)

Rachael, I get where you're coming from. My husband and I decided we weren't going to be a "gamer" family--no Wii, hand-helds, computer games, whatever. It's just not something that appeals to either of us; it's not something we value.

A practical reason is (lack of) money.

Last reason--I don't relish the idea of playing the role of the ENFORCER (time limits, whether homework/chores are done first, earning points, etc). It doesn't sound like a fun role, and I am too lazy and distracted and busy to follow through consistently. I know my limitations and just don't want to go there!

For those who like gaming, that's cool. I don't think it's a right/wrong or good/bad decision. There's no moral implications here. It's what works best for you and your kids.

Same with tv watching. I'm cool with it. We're usually out doing things and don't have much tv time.

Jamie said...

I know this is both irrelevant and superficial, but can you tell me if the floral dress on the cute little girl in the picture with her brother is handmade or from a store that I can buy one from? ha ha, thanks for responding if you can. I love your blog.

Bloom said...

That cute little dress was purchased from Janie & Jack ( a couple of years ago - you might be able to find it on EBay now??

Good luck!

- Em

Natalie said...

Loved all the comments so far. My biggest advice is using "non-toy" items to play with. Like several people have said, beans, clothespins, shiny little pebbles that you can buy in the craft section etc.

I think teaching creativity starts very early, and I agree with whoever said that it is born from taking time to play with your children each day. Sitting on the ground, speaking their language, and teaching them how to play. At a certain point your efforts begin to pay off, and you have little people setting up Noah's Ark on their bed with all of their stuffed animals. This is such a magical time of their lives. I always try to remember that this is their only childhood, it will never happen again, and it's my job to help make it magical.