There is debate amongst experts in parenting methods about whether the independent play is positive or even possible in the early years. It is, however, a great gift to both the child and the adult! For the child, it provides the opportunity for the development of concentration and skill mastery driven by their innate desire to learn about their world. Parents who foster this practice reap the wonderful benefit of observing their child’s independent activity with great enjoyment, as well as getting other important tasks done.
‘From deep dependence emerges true independence’.
Vital to a child’s ability to spend time in independent activity of any kind, whether an infant staring at the shades of light on the curtains next to his crib or the toddler rolling a ball continuously down an inclined ramp, is their secure attachment to a caregiver. According to Erikson’s stages of development, a sound foundation of trust allows for confident exploration to unfold naturally.
One of my favourite aspects of completing the RIE™ theory and foundations a few years ago was when we were given objects to play with. As loving parents, we are often captivated by our little ones and attempt to engage their attention often, whether it be shaking a rattle in front of them or showing our toddlers how to build a tower. With our first-born child being so keen to play with her as a form of bonding, I remember very often leading the play or probably even in retrospect overstimulating her. As she got older, we found it became almost a necessity for us to play with her; the independent play was uncommon, with more and more dependence on us for entertainment. As we began to do what we had in mind to do, another adult came along and made suggestions about what to do or how to use the play objects! It made me consider my involvement in play from the child’s perspective.
A few things assisted a positive shift in this for me:
1) Perception: First of all, I began to understand what children thrive on and, in turn, how as a parent, I could best support them. Children are born explorers, and without realising it, are often interrupted by their loving adults. I found my bonding time was most valued during periods of providing care for my girls, such as bathing, feeding, dressing and settling to sleep. Full attention during these times naturally progressed into independent activity due to being topped up with undivided attention and connection.
2) Opportunity: I began to notice how often my children were engaged in focussed concentration and how often I then interrupted it! Even from the youngest age, children concentrate on particular tasks, and focus can often be broken by not tuning in to what it is they are actually investigating.
3) Space: Setting up a safe environment that provides the invitation to free independent play (see ‘setting up an environment that invites meaningful play’ here.)
4) Time: In the rush of our modern-day lifestyles, it requires intentionally scheduling in time for free play to occur. Sometimes independent play can also begin looking like boredom, but building a predictable routine around it can certainly assist the child in settling into satisfying periods of play.
5) Parental Presence: A special way to show your child that you appreciate the importance of their discoveries is to make time to observe them during play. Sitting nearby and commenting on what you see while allowing them to lead the play can fulfil quality time for both of you.
6) Parental Parting: Parents can accomplish important tasks on their to-do list and not feel resentful or guilty – it’s a genuine win/win once a pattern of independent play is set up, with predictable time together and time apart.
Connected, quality, attached parenting can occur while allowing independent child-led play. It does not mean forcing a child to play alone, but rather allowing the independent focus to unfold by providing opportunity. For example, when a young infant is gazing out a window, instead of shaking a rattle in front of them in an attempt to connect, why not pause and watch what it is they are focussing on? If they look to you, then sure, engage them in a word, smile, rattle or song, but just an awareness will assist them as they grow into natural independence.