PARENTING :: Independent Play

If you’re beginning your journey into less is more with the screen time, you may be left wondering, “okay, but now what?”

For a while I followed resources like popular toddler activity Instagram and Pinterest accounts. All of which is great. But all that prep and planning lead me to mass burnout in about 3 days.

This mama isn’t meant for organized childhood. Not my vibe.

Realizing there’s nothing wrong with (and, actually, a lot of developmental positives for) a lazier style of parenting was like finally receiving a permission slip to be the mom I knew how to be. And it was SO freeing!

But that phrase “independent play” kept popping up, and here’s how we figured it out.

Once you discover that everything you need to explore independent play is already right in front of you, and requires little to no investment or prep, you’re like WHOA! Heck yes sister!

Dump the Excess. A lot of the struggle to play independently can come from decision overload. I never realized how many toys we actually had until our movers left them all categorized together in one massive pile of boxes. It was embarrassing, and also really obvious. Enter Toy Purge 101. Weeding out the junk, keeping the quality toys, and introducing a toy and book rotation provided the environment they needed to explore and play independently within our home.

Start Young. If you’re a few years into parenting, this is easier said than done. But the younger you start, the more this will just become a way of life. Our first born was three before we changed focus from screens and preplanned activities to independent play being a top priority. So the adjustment was much harder. Our younger two, they don’t know any other way of life! The younger you start, the easier the transition will be.

Clear Your Schedule. A lot of our child’s inability to play independently is because they’ve become so dependent on schedules being filled and pre-planned for them. Schedule the blank space. Have days set aside for nothing, better yet if you can make this a weekly occurrence. Children will come to depend on that downtime to unwind and relax. Something they really need in today’s world of errands, events and organized extracurriculars.

Invite Them In. When you’re doing the dishes, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, folding laundry, caring for a younger sibling, invite them in. Let them be a part of your domestic task. A lot of independent play comes from modeling the behaviors they see in us every day. This is where so much learning and development starts! Involving them in our tasks is a fantastic way to build up their imaginative piggy bank.

Embrace Boredom. Independent play is simple. Sit in the discomfort of boredom. Encourage their curiosity and discovery. Follow their lead. Watch your child bloom. Realizing I didn’t have to have answers for them was a big hurdle for me. As a mom we just want to jump in and solve their problems. But sometimes we need to let them sit in that discomfort. So as hard as it may feel, give it a try. Once you see them take off, you’ll realize how totally worth it that temporary discomfort is.

Model the Behavior. Sometimes kids, especially first born children, may need a little help kick starting that independence. Meet them where they’re at. Get on their level, play with them for a few minutes, and let them lead. Build with the legos, burp and rock the doll, bake in the toy kitchen. Modeling play behaviors is a great way to get them started in imaginative play. If you choose to have more children it gets much easier; that natural birth order kicks in and one picks up and learns from the other. If you’re fighting the single child or large age gap struggle, try a few play dates with kids a year or two older than yours, or enroll in a day care provider that blends children’s ages, instead of separating them.

Head Outdoors. I plugged in the podcasts and let them roam free. They wanted to dig in the dirt, throw sand, collect pinecones, walk through tall unkempt grass. I cringed. I mean I cringed. SAND IN THE EYES. BATHS EVERY NIGHT. DIRT IN THEIR EARS AND HAIR. FROGS. TICKS. THERE MIGHT BE TICKS. E. COLI, ISN’T THERE E. COLI IN STAGNANT PUDDLE WATER?! So I took some really, really, REALLY deep breaths, because being a chill, cool, jump in the mud, climb a tree mom isn’t second nature to me. And I sat on my hands and kept my butt in that seat.

You know what. No one died. They played. For hours. FOR HOURS. And I was like, whoa, this is actually hella nice. And then we kept it up. More afternoons outside. And once they got used to ‘how’ to play outside on their own (of which my first did really have to learn, as she was super accustomed to me joining in), I started seeing that same progress indoors.

Educate Yourself. A lot of motivation to succeed at independent play came from researching multiple avenues of early childhood education. I jumped down the rabbit holes of Montessori and Waldorf practices. And while we are not a strict home in either sense, there were many really cool and helpful tools I learned from both practices. I’m a huge advocate for submersing yourself in all the options out there, plucking what works for you, and ditching the rest.

I’ll share some awesome resources below that helped me understand the importance of a relaxed, free-play childhood.




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