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Whether you can believe it or not toddlers are born to play and investigate the world around them. They are also very capable of initiating self directed play, so why then on a daily basis do we hear ‘My Toddler just doesn’t seem to play independently!’ More and more we hear toddlers asking or even screaming for a screen or being accustomed to having their doting parents doing the playing for them or even craving to go out all the time to toddler activities or parks and playcentres.

What is standing in the way of toddlers doing what they are born to do, of doing the very thing that both builds and soothes their brains? Here are the 5 main hurdles to independent play that we see on a daily basis.

  1. FOCUS ON INDEPENDENCE

Now I know this first one seems confusing but hear me out. The focus of wanting our toddlers to just go and play so we can get something done around the house or creating playrooms down the hall far away from where we will be can really trip up their natural inclination toward self initiated play. Vital to a toddlers ability to spend time in independent activity of any kind, is their secure attachment to a caregiver. According to Erikson’s stages of development, a sound foundation of trust allows for confident exploration of the world to unfold naturally. We are huge fans of setting up play areas in living spaces for this reason. Sometimes either taking the time sit with your toddler or inviting them to play near you, lining up pegs as you hang washing promotes that truly satisfying state of independent play.

‘From deep dependence emerges true independence’.

2. ENTERTAINMENT ERA

We live in a time of entertainment, thrill seeking, sensory input, quick fixes, toddler class overload and never ending screens. You want to know why we all came up with the most basic yet wildly addictive games and activites when we were kids. It is because we were given the opportunity to be bored. Our parents weren’t entertaining us 24/7, or running us off to libraries, classes or popping us in front of the telly. Sometimes the biggest thing to breed independent play is a toddler who’s actually feeling bored and needs to seek out and move through that tricky process to imagine and create. A famous quote ‘play is the work of the child’ captures the fact that play can be hard work sometimes but the deep reward that comes from it beats a quick hit of dopamine from easy entertainment! When they can get the hang of what these cycles og play feel like they can actually be motivated to want to play more than be stuck seeking quick fixes to their state of boredom.

 “Being bored is a precious thing, a state of mind we should pursue. Once boredom sets in, our minds begin to wander, looking for something exciting, something interesting to land on. And that’s where creativity arises.”

3. BUSY BEES

We are all running from A to B, task to task, activity to activity or running errands often a deep sense of satisfying play takes TIME! Our fast pace of life can result in little time left to potter around aimlessly and find their groove in order to settle into a period of independent play and discoovery. The constant interruptions can also break concentartion and attrention spans meaning they don’t get the chance to strengthen these skills that promote ongoing play. Carving out a few slower days in the mix of busy life or even a patch in a morning or arvo regularly can do wonders for you both.

4. SPACE TO CREATE

When you go to create a meal in the kitchen and there is mess or try to accomplish a task when your office desk is disorganised it can really reduce your ability to create or perfom. In the same way when there is a lack of order or an overwhelming amount of toy clutter it is very difficult for your toddler to play. Not only that, it can actually defer them from even getting started. There are scientific studies that show us the types of environmental setups that best benefit toddler play. Some ideas include having a toddler sized open toyshelf, a soft playmat, a toddler sized table and chair, a forward facing bookshelf and above all else a toy rotation system so that not everything is out all at once. If you don’t know where to start then why not book a toysort and let us take care of the declutter and set up a storage and rotation system for you or you can check out the DIY Toysort or let us hold your hand through it in our Raise Toddlers Membership. You can also grab our toy labels if you are in the mood to get everything organised into categories yourself!

5. TOYS ARE TOOLS

Finally understanding the right tools your toddler needs for their age and stage of development can encourage their natural urges to be explored. Sometimes they really want to do what their urges are telling them to do, but the tools they need are not present in the environment so instead you see the play urges showing up as unwanted behaviours like throwing their food! You may also see them wandering around wanting entertainment and the quick hit of dopamine or getting restless and dysregulated and not knowing what to do with themselves. We suggest getting familiar with the Toddler Play Schemas in order to better understand your toddlers natural play urges and how to cater to those to help them while staying sane yourself!

We are passionate about freeing toddlers and their parents to engage in authentic connection over constant entertainment. Feel free to get in touch to get extra support toward independent toddler play. Join our membership or touch base for a parent consult.

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About the author

Mandy Richardson is a qualified Early Childhood Educator and also holds a Masters in Childhood Studies. She is currently completing her PhD in Respectful Parenting Methods. She is passionate about promoting a positive parent-child relationship and a natural, slow paced, peaceful and fulfilling childhood.

Past Posts

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The Regulation Station

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Toddler Temperaments 101

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Saying Goodbye to the Dummy

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