One of the things I am most proud of in my short parenting career so far, is being able to step back and let my child lead in her own play. I trust her to get on and make-up her own fun. No wonder the RIE approach resonates so much for me! This is my own natural style: give children space, freedom and trust. Combine that with a good dose of genuine enthusiasm and joy for what they are doing (which comes naturally to most parents) and you’ve got what, in my view, is the best way to foster an independent, creative mind in a child that becomes, first and foremost, their own leader.
My friend Lucy says her kids are semi-feral. I love that description. And I think of how well it fits her kids, as they run around her leafy garden, creating fun adventures for themselves. We live in a flat so, on low-key days like today, my kid’s ‘free roaming’ is indoors. But we get out into nature as often as possible for lots of free play there, too.
Right now, my child is playing by herself in the living room. She has been amusing herself for literally hours (with the odd, short breastfeeding break). At the moment she is chatting with her cloth farm animals (from IKEA). Earlier she went to our room, closed the door and ‘read’ books to herself for half an hour or so. Bless her heart. She is 2 and a half.
On stay-at-home days like this, I essentially see what she is playing and go and join in every now and again, so that our day is a dance of connection and independence, coming together and separating – with some set pieces in the middle (some deliberate ‘special’ one-to-one time, meals, bed-time routine, etc). Play is her domain. She leads 90% of the time. I interject ideas every now and again – some of which are accepted and some which are not (hah!)
Her attention span is quite delicious. I see her doing her puzzle over and over with glee or singing songs in a circle around the room for 20 minutes – and sometimes much longer.
Honestly, I think in part this is just who she is, it is her temperament… but I pat myself on the back for at least not drawing her out of that, for helping her hold onto this. But I also feel I was pro-active from when she was very young in deliberately fostering her ability to self-start, to play uninterrupted and to build her attention span. You can read more about some of the things I was doing for that, here. I also try very hard not to clutter her world with toys and other gadgets that call at her and pull her out of her own, self-created world. The simpler the environment, the richer the imagination (as a rule of thumb). Nature is still the best play setting, but a nice, safe room with some simple toys and objects can be a great canvas on which a child can paint their waking dreams. [more on my approach to toys and a creativity boosting play environment, here]
I am an only child and remember doing this a lot myself. I was very good at entertaining myself – for hours. I would create an imaginary world and go live in it. Already I see that emerging for my little one. She has imaginary friends popping up, now, as well as frequently telling us who she ‘is’ (mostly Andy Z, as you’ll know by now). I am also extremely social. I loved playing with others, too, but the point was I was NEVER bored. I just made my own fun.
So, as a mom, now, I try and enter her imaginary world with respect. There is an old rule in improv comedy (so I am told) called ‘Agree and Add’. Essentially you work with whatever the last person just said and build on it to collaborate in creating a funny scenario. That is kind of how I approach her play, I ‘agree’ (meaning I see where she is at and accept that as our starting premise – ‘ahh, I see, this is your rocket ship going to Mars’) and ‘add’ occasionally (‘hey, look out that window, you can see the Earth getting smaller. Isn’t it amazing?!’… or whatever). The same goes with any game. If she is playing with shells and has been having fun with it for a good while but I feel she might like to take it a little further, I might suggest that they’d make some really good beds for her tiny dollies, then I step back and let her run with it in any direction she choses (or none at all, if it didn’t hit the mark). So she plays for half an hour or so, I connect with her, perhaps make some suggestions for a few minutes and off she goes again, re-fuelled and ready for another stint of solo playing. It doesn’t always go this smoothly but it is beautiful when it does.
Of course I love playing with my daughter, too, and engaging deeply for longer periods of time. That is one of my highest joys. But this ease at letting go and letting her play by herself (rather than feel the need to ‘stimulate her senses’ or what have you, 24/7) I think is one of the biggest investments in energy that I have made.
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How about you, are you comfortable allowing your young child to play by themselves or do you feel they are missing out if they are not actively engaged with you (or the TV or a ‘press here for entertainment’ type toy)? Are you afraid that they are missing out on valuable opportunities for learning and being challenged if they are left to engage in free play for ‘too long’? Or do you, like me, delight in seeing your toddler be totally comfortable with just creating and having their own fun, seemingly from thin air and for hours on end?