Since my firstborn, I have read about Montessori and I felt a connection to this method of education. I thought I could align with this method to nurture my children. Encouraging independence is at the core of Montessori, to allow the child to feel capable and respected as a being. Play is a wonderful avenue to develop independence as when they feel confident in playing independently, they can feel confident in accomplishing other tasks independently and vice versa.
Independent play does not necessarily mean playing in different rooms from parents or caregivers - though it can be. It can happen in the same room/space, where we have time to ourselves and our children do not need engagement from us.
Independent play is not plainly about playing with toys by themselves. It is about the whole process and the experiences while playing by themselves that inspires some great benefits and drives curiosity about their world.
Before I go into how to foster independent play in your children, we can first understand the many benefits of independent play.
Nurture Creativity: When your little big dreamers are left to play by themselves without any interventions, rules, instructions or restrictions, they thrive in coming up with their versions of play. They let their own imaginations take lead and may come up with different ideas and different ways to play with the same toys.
Develop Problem Solving Skills: During independent play, they are given the chance to solve problems by themselves instead of having a hovering adult swoop in. And sometimes, they can come up with the most creative of solutions.
Develop Confidence: As they develop various skills and be self-reliant during their play, they become more confident and content. They learn that they are capable and this boosts their confidence, which can be a huge positive cycle.
Free Up Parents’ or Caregiver’s Time: Everyone has only 24 hours a day and sometimes we parents really need to complete tasks without our little ones tugging at our legs. During their independent play time, we have time and space to ourselves. This particular one is such a beneficial by-product of independent play as we do not feel drained out by constantly having to entertain them (this is beside our bonding time, which is definitely precious).
The first 3 benefits are some of the characteristics of a 21st century child, who can adapt and survive fearlessly in an ever changing world. So while freeing up your time, you’re nurturing your child to be ready for this evolving century, that’s so much win!
Now, I will move on to provide the tips that have worked in my family to encourage independent play in my children since they are young. This process surely does not happen overnight; it takes time and patience. Having reaped the benefits of independent play now, I will surely raise both hands to agree that all the effort is definitely worthwhile. Remember, it is never too late or too early to promote independent play.
I would organise my effective tips according to what you can do to the environment, how you can approach this matter and your children’s roles - jobs of the environment, the adult and the child. And they are pretty much sequential - it has to start from the top down approach, and when the top is not well executed, the sequential bottoms cannot happen. When anything is not in place, this inverted triangle system does not function well enough and you will find out why in a bit.
Jobs of the Environment - which has to be set up by you
1. Safe Play Space
A vital factor in the success of my children’s independent play lies in having a child-friendly prepared play space from a young age. Look at things from their perspective and put yourself in their shoes. It has to be a safe prepared space for them.
During their non-mobile years, they mostly played on a play mat. I tried to not let them play in their baby cot as I want them to associate their cot as a sleeping space and not a play space unless it is during their wake up times when I am not ready to pick them up yet.
As they start to become mobile, I set up a play yard in our room. According to Janet Lansbury, this is the “yes” space where they are free to roam around; free of “do not touch this”, “this is not suitable for you”, “no” and the likes. Think about it: How can independent play happen in a space where a hovering adult is constantly saying “no”?
Though there are school of thoughts that it is best not to coop your children up in a play yard, I decided that having a play yard as a safe play space worked the best for my family. I did a balance of time inside and outside of the play yard. Baby toys were arranged on the play mat in the play yard, which gave them enough space for movement and play.
At the same time, I set up a small play space (our TV console) in our living room as it was where we were most often and it was within sight from the kitchen where I cooked their meals. It may be helpful to set up a small play space where they can see you, for a start. Each of our resources has its own space on a low shelf (which is the TV console) and is within their reach even when they are seated on the floor.
As my firstborn grew up and my second born came into picture, we set up another toy cum book shelf in our living room and one in our room. We prefer the books to be front facing, so that they can see the cover and choose whichever book they want. Again, each toy has a dedicated space and they always know where to put them back to after each play session.
The toys are also displayed in an inviting way on the open shelves, to invite our little big dreamers to reach for them. They have to be visible at their eye level and not kept in any boxes. I usually display the toys on trays, so that they carry each tray off the shelf when they wish to play and put the trays back when they are done.
An uncluttered play space aids in cleaning up and is less overwhelming for our little big dreamer, and also ourselves. Contrary to what we may think, they do not need more; more toys cause clutter, which may be overwhelming. I had witnessed how my children do not engage with their toys as well when there were too many toys displayed, causing some clutter, which in turn overwhelmed me. I have since taken the effort to organise my toys into different categories, ready for toy rotation whenever I have the time to do it.
If you have enough space, feel free to add in child-sized furniture like a table and chair or arm chair to let your little big dreamer feel a higher sense of belonging.
As you can see, no elaborated play space is required. Hence, no matter how little space you may have, a safe and prepared play space can still be created with a simple shelf.
2. Developmentally Appropriate Toys
Once you have a dedicated safe play space, it is time to make the play space do its job! We always display age and developmentally appropriate toys and resources on our open shelves/TV console.
In the first 2 years, I mostly displayed resources to help them in developing their life skills. They did many Montessori-inspired activities like scooping and pouring of both wet and dry materials, using a tweezer to develop fine motor skills, posting of objects through holes, just to name a few. This development of life skills further aided in their independence and independent play as they grow to become capable of doing more things by themselves.
Toys are usually labelled by age but I am cautious to not let that lead our play blindly as different children grow and develop different skills at different pace. If a toy seems too difficult for your little big dreamer today and causes too much frustration, remove the said toy and re-introduce it at a later stage when s/he may be more ready for it. That said, if your little big dreamer has advanced skills, feel free to introduce toys that are beyond their age. Be really flexible about it!
My children are always free to play with any toys from their shelves. As their skills progress and they begin to understand boundaries better, I set up an art box as well. We subsequently progressed to an art trolley, which contained more art and craft materials. Do note to put in only art materials you are comfortable with and relevant to your little big dreamers. Eg, if you cannot take the mess from play dough then do not put it there and if your little big dreamer has a tendency to draw on sofas and walls, I would not recommend making markers available until a later time.
Our favourite art and craft materials include dot markers, stickers, washi tapes, recycled materials (toilet rolls, cardboards), crayons, shaper punchers, to name a few. You understand your child the best, so do what’s most relevant for your family while supporting your child in the best possible way.
We also display a functional mix of open ended toys vs structured educational toys - refer to the blog post on Open Ended Play for more information. Open ended toys do sustain independent play for a longer period of time as there are limitless creations their imaginations can invent! I can always set things up quickly, pull out any resources I want or do toy rotations because I have staple resources at home ready to go. No, you do not need everything but you do need a good mix of basic toys and resources to cater for different types of plays - eg. fine motor play, pretend/imaginative play, blocks & constructive play, cognitive development (puzzles & games), sensory play, art & craft, educational play etc.
3. Optimise the Use of Screen Time (if any)
I do not have fixed screen times in my family (read: I do not need to actively use screen time as a tool to help me as my children play well independently).
With that being said, I can understand that screen time can be a useful tool in many families to help parents tide through certain periods and that is completely fine. This is why I included this point though it is not applicable to my children. However, do note that screen time should be viewed as a tool to help parents when required and not as a tool for children just because they are bored.
According to research, too much screen time may lead to decreased attention span. Hence to set your children up for success for independent play, do note to use screen times effectively and limit over-stimulations. We want to build their concentration spans, which will help them in the long run. Take a look at a paragraph taken from What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Kids' Brains? (nyp.org)
Jobs of the Adults' or Caregivers' - Once the environment is set up, it is now your job to guide your children and manage yourself
4. Create Special Time to Fill Love Buckets
Humans are wired to crave for connection, hence it is normal that children seek our attention. We can specially carve out 15-30 minutes in the morning to fill each of your children’s love buckets, according to your own schedule. During this special time, put down your phone and everything else to focus all your attention on your child. In this way, you can be emotionally present and responsive to connect with them. This helps to fill their love buckets, so that they are more ready to move on to spend time by themselves. It is also important to refill their love buckets throughout the day as day-to-day activities may get overwhelming for our little ones, which will speed up the depletion of their love buckets.
I have started to write love notes to my children during P2HA as they may wake up earlier than I do. Hence I prepare love notes to jump start their day on a happy note, literally.
You can also arrange one block of Special Time (on top of the usual Special Time) before their independent play periods, so that they are more likely to play independently subsequently. This is a good way to start them off on independent play. You can gradually taper down this block of time spent before independent play, such that they can play independently even without this block of time (without affecting the usual Special Time).
5. Connect Over Caregiving
During children’s early years, a big bulk of time is spent on caregiving; from feeding to diaper changing to bathing. While carrying out these caregiving tasks, it is also a great time to connect with them emotionally. When we shower them with our full attention during these little pockets of time throughout the day, they are less likely to clamour for our attention at other times.
Sing and converse with them actively during caregiving moments and invite them to participate as well. This also helps to build language skills and their capability to carry out such tasks by themselves over time - independence.
“Let us wash your little toes”, “Come, feel the buttons. Let us push the button through the buttonhole”, “Please stretch out your arms and put into the arm hole” - and we help to stretch their arms out to put into the arm hole.
6. Manage Our Expectations
It is helpful to manage our own expectations (to prevent our own frustrations/meltdowns) that it is normal for young children to have short attention. Child development experts generally peg the attention of each child at around two to three minutes per year of their age; so a 1 year old will have just 2-3 minutes of concentration span on any activity.
This concentration span can be built up over time - which helps in our little big dreamers’ independent play.
Also to note, our little big dreamers may go through some phases of wanting more or less independence and this is completely normal. There may be periods when separation anxiety peaks. During such periods, provide extra assurance and work through these tips again respectfully. Give them a choice to follow you around when you carry out your tasks, if you deem necessary.
Just remember, phases come and phases go. There is no need to place too big a deal on it.
7. Respect Their Play
Have you seen your child really engrossed in an activity before? Do you interrupt by saying “Wow you’re so focused” or do you stay by the side and observe quietly?
Our little actions daily also add on to making or breaking their journey towards successful independent play. I always respect my little big dreamers’ play by observing by the sideline, taking extra note to not disrupt their focus on whatever they are doing. In this way, they build their concentration span over time.
We can voice our comment when we see that they are done with their play or they need help etc. “I saw you putting so much focus on building your blocks just now”. These little comments also help to build their confidence as we let them know that their play is important to us and we observe them.
By respecting their play also means to take on an observatory role rather than an active role of doing what you like instead of what they like. Let your children take the lead in their play, so that they become more self-reliant and watch their amazing play unfold!
It is important to observe them during their play to understand which developmental stages they are at and also learn their interests. Child-led interests will always sustain their attention span for a longer time.
8. Ask Guiding Questions
During their play sessions, it is normal that they ask questions or encounter problems. Your response is pivotal; do you provide the solution immediately or do you provide guidance? When your little big dreamer is used to having someone constantly providing them with solutions, they will constantly seek external help and solutions when they encounter problems.
On the other hand, when you ask guiding open ended questions, they develop problem solving skills and learn to solve problems by themselves. Eventually, they will be capable of asking themselves the guiding questions to think through and solve problems. It can be challenging to take on a backseat and curb your own instincts to help, so it does take tons of effort and practice - it gets better and will come more naturally overtime, I promise.
“How can we make sure the blocks do not topple?” and “What is causing the blocks to topple?” are some examples of open ended guiding questions to lead our little big dreamers to problem solve by themselves.
Learn to wait and not swoop in immediately with a solution when your little big dreamer meets with a problem (unless safety is compromised)! We are NOT helping them develop the necessary skill sets when we constantly swoop in.
If your little big dreamer is used to your help, you may wish to try “I know that I usually help you with this. Today, we will let you work on it by yourself. It is alright to take as long as you wish. I am here for you”. We want to empower them to start working on it by themselves and at the same time, let them know that we are there for them; this is a surely good place to start.
Sometimes my children may request for us to draw something. Instead of helping to drawing, I ask questions to guide them to draw it by themselves. “What should a house have? Look around us now”. This helps to constantly spark their thinking, so that they are used to practising critical thinking rather than relying on external help constantly.
9. Set Boundaries and Follow Through Strictly
Our little big dreamers will not magically say “yes mummy, please leave”. On the contrary, they may not be willing to see you leave their side and they may get very upset.
When my first born was young, I remember she cried occasionally when I went to the loo. Do understand that it does not matter where you go or how long or how short it takes; they are simply upset once you leave their sight. However, does it mean that we are unable to do a quick loo run or cook a meal? In short, no.
If you have never left your child to play independently and you would like to practise this respectful method, you may start off with a short loo run and increase the timing overtime. Do make sure your little one is always in a safe space.
“I am going to the loo for a quick moment. You're really upset/sad/worried that I am leaving your sight. I can understand that. Please give me 5 minutes and I will be back”. You can also add in some suggestions of “While waiting for me, you can read a book or play with the blocks”. Keep to the timing you promised and return “I said I will be back in 5 minutes and now I am back” - this helps to build assurance and confidence in them.
This does not mean that your little big dreamer will magically stop crying or not cry - eventually they will though, through repeated occasions of boundary setting. This framework simply helps to regulate your little big dreamer, to let them feel assured and understand boundaries.
Simply put, their jobs are to play and test the limits. Well, their eventual job would be to just play! When they test limits (their job), we can continue to be firm in setting our boundaries (our job). Overtime, they will reduce their testing as they feel our confidence and assurance in guiding them - which is what their developing brains need from an adult in charge. When the handling of limits testing is not well implemented, this affects the balance of the inverted triangle and this top-down system does not function as well - the tip of triangle (children's job) increases in size and becomes lop-sided.
Hence, we can guide them towards successful independent play by constantly and repeatedly implementing the above 9 tips sequentially!
This is an effective system that has worked successfully for my family. My 2 children aged 3.5 and 5.5 year old are able to play independently throughout the day if we stay at home and many a times, I am in awe when I observe their creative play! We do not have the most Instagram-worthy play spaces but we do have highly functional and very well used play spaces to cultivate their independent play experiences.
Step by step, start by first setting up the prepared play space then work on yourselves; you will be amazed by the transformation at home! That being said, be patient. Always remember that the goal is to set your little big dreamers up for success and NOT a competition with any other families; definitely not competing on who’s play spaces look better or who’s children play better. Do not fall into that black hole!
Before you implement the tips, check this article out 7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play - Janet Lansbury