For anyone who has raised children, you are very aware of all the amazing fun things that other parents are doing with their kids that you feel guilty not doing with yours. If social media is to be believed, you should be making cookies every night and have an endless stream of creative and educational activities to fill their every waking moment.
Last time I checked, you are not a birthday party princess sent to play games and make crafts with your little angels all day long. In fact, if you find yourself working to entertain your children every moment of the day, you are not giving them the opportunity to figure out how to entertain themselves.
This type of play, called independent play, is an important time when kids are allowed the freedom to figure out how to amuse themselves. At first, they may struggle with knowing what to do, but with some trial and error, they figure out the things that they like to do on their own. This in and of itself is a form of problem-solving and helps them become better at working and playing independently as they grow older.
Make independent play part of your day
Choose a time of day for independent play. The length of time will depend on the age of your child. Generally the older they are, the longer they will be able to amuse themselves. For younger children, set out only a few toys that allow for creative play. Generally, toys that make them do all the work are best, such as building blocks or sorting toys. This is in contrast to electronic toys that supply ideas and creativity for the child.
Then, step back. Find something else to do. For children who aren’t in danger of hurting themselves or choking, leave the room. For younger children, stay close, but be content to watch. The further you are from the play, the more they will understand that it’s up to them to figure it out. If they come to you looking for ideas, remind them that this time is for them to come up with a way to play all on their own. Remember, if you give in and try to give them ideas on what to do, you’re robbing them of the chance to figure it out on their own.
When the time is done, give heaps and heaps of praise for any small accomplishment. Be specific and praise the things they did well and ignore anything that they struggled with. The more consistent you are, the more able and willing they will be to enjoy this unstructured playing time.
Rocks as toys
My kids always struggled with entertaining themselves when they were younger. I didn’t understand that for some kids learning to play doesn’t come naturally and sometimes you have to teach them how by letting them struggle a bit. Part of me wishes I could go back and be more proactive in letting them learn how to entertain themselves in ways that don’t include a screen. That said, even with all my shortcomings, my kids will surprise me and come up with random games to play with each other that I could never imagine.
Recently, when on a family RV trip, our kiddos discovered that the rocks they’d used to pave the camping area were actually kind of pretty. To my surprise, my teens and their younger brother spent several hours hunting down the coolest rocks and then setting up a trading post for each other to compare what kind of rocks they’d found. Of all the things we did on that trip, that was the time all three of them were the happiest.