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!