How to Start Independent Play

Independent play is an awesome activity for children of all ages, and there are countless articles out there about the importance of it.  But how do you start?  If you think you've over-scheduled your child, how do break that cycle? 

If your child's school year was hyper scheduled, with activities all the way until dinnertime and now you want him or her to play independently, they will probably have a tough time at first.  They will look to you for direction, and want you to entertain them.  If you want your child to reap the benefits of independent play, you have to help them at first.

When I started this with a 5-year-old, he was used to being entertained constantly.  I asked him what he would like to do in the house, like draw or play with Legos.  He picked drawing pictures.  So I got out a stack of paper, some markers and crayons. 

"What should I draw?" he asked.

"Draw whatever you'd like," I responded.  I wanted him to choose.

He stared at me, not really sure what to do, so I began to doodle on another paper.  He started drawing too, pretty much the same thing I was drawing.  That's when I knew he needed a little guidance.  So we drew together a bit, and then I told him I needed to start dinner, and that I would come back in two minutes. 

That was all the time I gave him.  The next day, he played with his action figures for five minutes without me in the room.  I slowly increased the time, until he could go a half hour without me.  If he needed help with something, or wanted to show me something, I didn't ignore him.  I celebrated his accomplishments and aided him when he needed help.

Now he loves his independent play time in the house!  He builds his own cities with Legos, fights zombies with his action figures, or draws a pretty beach scene.  I try and give him a half hour each day after camp that's completely unscheduled.  His favorite day is Fridays, since we never have anything scheduled.