“MUM! Will you play with me?” is an all too familiar question in our house. Especially when Immy is at school and it is just AJ and I home alone. I love being with my children as they play – watching, encouraging and joining in, but I do admit to getting more than a little frustrated when my to-do list for the day is two pages long and I am asked over and over to ‘come play!’
Finding balance between time to play and time to get other things done can be hard. Especially as I believe it is perfectly natural for a toddler or preschooler at home all day with Mum or Dad to want to play with Mum or Dad. It’s not at all unusual for two to four year olds to be fiercely independent one minute and clinging to you for dear life the next – learning to be independent takes time.
Here are four ways to encourage independent play, ie. my helpful tricks to grab 5 minutes to get things done!
Tip #1: Give them some Mum love, then move away and let them play
When I know I have jobs to do, I like to start playtime with some uninterrupted play together (without my phone nearby!) and then excuse myself for a short while to do a chore. I might say, “Mummy is just going to put a load of washing on and then I will check back in with your game,” and that is exactly what I do. If AJ (or both girls) are fine to keep playing, then I just look in and then move onto another chore. I really only involve myself in the play again if my presence is requested. I find that this technique works with younger children if you start with shorter periods of separation, and extend them just a little each time.
DUPLO BUILDING CHALLENGE: Engage your child in play by setting them a simple building challenge. You can make it as easy or as difficult as you like, depending upon the age of your child.
Tip #2: Choose open-ended toys
As an early childhood teacher and a mum, I think one of the keys to children playing independently is choosing open-ended toys that can be played with in lots of different ways. Children are most likely to stay interested and engaged when they are able to explore lots of different possibilities with the toy they are playing with. Whenever choosing a new toy, I always consider its play potential in terms of how many ways it can be played with, and whether it is worth the investment from both a durability perspective and how long (ie. In years and developmental stages) my girls will be interested in playing with it. DUPLO is one toy that gets played with over and over again by children at our house, and not just by the little ones as you’ll see below!
Cooking with DUPLO: Who says DUPLO bricks are just for building? Have fun cooking up a storm in your pretend kitchen!
Tip #3: Set the stage for playful fun by combining toys in new ways
Combining familiar toys in fun, new ways, is guaranteed to pique your child’s curiosity. When I take a few minutes to set up a fun, new invitation to play, my girls are immediately interested and ready to explore – in fact, they are often hovering, waiting for me to finish getting things ready!
For example, it took me about 15 minutes to make this DUPLO PLAY MAT by drawing grass, fields, roads and rivers with markers inside a large, flat cardboard box. I then added a selection of LEGO DUPLO bricks, vehicles and figurines, setting them up ready for play so they looked fun and interesting – the farmer in the field with his horse, Mum driving down the road with baby in the back and Dad waiting at home for their arrival!
My girls have played with it on and off for long periods of playtime over the past three days (and counting!) In fact, it was the first thing they wanted to play with when they got up this morning! Great timing for me as it meant I could check my work emails and get breakfast prepared while they played.
Tip #4: Encourage imaginative play
Children will often remain engaged with imaginative (or make-believe) play for more extended periods of time than they would otherwise spend in other forms of play. Imaginative play is creative, it requires the child to plan and invent, and for young children, imaginative play provides a safe place to test out new language and their newly acquired ideas about the social world and their own emotions. Combining people figurines with animal figurines or vehicles is a simple but fabulous way of encouraging independent, imaginative play.
DUPLO and bubbles! Create bubbles with dishwashing detergent and a little water in a flat tub (I use an under bed storage tub) and set it on a table outdoors or indoors with some bath towels handy for splashes. Supervision is obviously essential with any water play so be sure to stay within eye and earshot while your child is playing.
While children who are not used to playing independently might need a little more time to get used to the idea of doing it without you, I am positive that setting them up for success with these four tips will go a long way towards supporting them to take a big step forward. And it might just give you a minute (or five!) to catch your breath and get things done!