On nurturing independence and imagination: a dance of freedom and re-connection

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.

— — —

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?


18 thoughts on “On nurturing independence and imagination: a dance of freedom and re-connection

  1. Great post! Growing up I never had loads of toys and gadgets, in fact, at the age of 8, my father (having warned me and my 6 years younger brother that he was going to do this), after one too many rows about which cartoon to watch, unplugged the telly and took it away, never to be seen or replaced again. One aspect of why we chose to move to Turkey was because I felt the UK is far too materialist and consummerist. The weather here enables children to spend more time outside and since birth, I have avoided cluttering DD’s environment with too many noisy toys. DD loves drawing and colouring and creating outfits for herself, she can never have too many books and she loves talking to and interacting with her huge collection of soft toys (99% of which we didn’t buy). She likes to involve me in her play because she loves role play and conversations, if she’s had a lot of outdoor play with her Turkish cousin and neighbours, she’ll come home for a bit of 1-2-1 with me. She’s 4 and even when she was younger, whenever she tried to do something, she would try and try until she could do it. I admire your appoach. I’m trying to break free of my conventional upbringing, but struggle with it.

    • Hi Kat,

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad my post resonates for you! It sounds to me like you are doing a really good job of breaking free of your ‘conventional upbringing’. I used to live in the UK, too (London, most recently). I couldn’t agree more that moving, in our case, to California has really liberated our parenting because the weather is so much better for being outdoors most of the time – so that is what we do. That is a huge blessing for us, too. I can imagine Turkey being less materialistic, yes. Have never been there but have travelled enough to have a good sense of a range of different cultural values and appreciate there are many ways of approaching one same (parenting) issue.

      I, too, am always learning. In fact, come back in a year and this post may seem positively out-of-date LOL. This happens. But yeah, keeping it simple, respecting our child’s play (knowing it is her work) and not interrupting her with our agenda (unless absolutely necessary like to eat or sleep) and at times ‘narrating’ what is going on in her world, from her perspective (helping her give words to what is happening) are some of the little things we feel work for us.

      Thanks again for popping by. Best wishes with all you do,

  2. I don’t know how much of it is personality and how much is a reflection of my mothering, but from the get-go, I feel that my son has required a lot of attention and input and has a more difficult time playing on his own. It’s definitely been improving since he turned 2, but now that he is nearly 3, I still find that he requires almost-constant participation from me in all of his play (the rare exception being reading books, he will disappear and read books to himself for 20min at a time). Whether it be an art project or imaginary play or legos, he looses interest or just doesn’t want to do it unless I too am fully engaged. Any thoughts/tips on this? I don’t mind being his constant play companion, but sometimes I do have other needs and I do want to foster his independence.

    • I am in the same position as Lucinda. My son is 5 and when we are home, he still wants my participation almost constantly. I have to tell him several times a day that I have to do this or that right now and this leaves me feeling rather torn. He will play on his own some but it is not often and I too have other needs and want to foster his independence. I look forward to suggestions.

      • Hi Elizabeth,

        Thank you for popping by and thank you for commenting (I am grateful to all of you – but you I think it is the first time the two of us are ‘meeting’ here on my blog!). So, welcome!

        So, as you may know, I have one daugther and she is 2.5. My practical experience extends to watching her and her friends play… but I have read a bit on this subject and suspect the principles remain the same, as they grow older… but you may have to work a little harder and longer at it, than some of us with younger kids, as your little one will have a more established routine and set of expectations in play with you. Then again, maybe not. All kids are unique. Try it and see, I guess.

        So, as I said to Lucinda, this is such an interesting topic and my answer liable to be so long that I think I am just going to turn this into a post. Hope that is okay with both of you. I may merge both of your questions into a ‘stylised’ catch-all question (artistic license, anyone??) or I might use Lucinda’s and try and make sure I answer your main points, too – in particular your desire to foster his independence (which I think is something that will resonate for lots of mums :)

        Thank you again for stopping by. I look forward to continuing to get to know you though our little exchanges. Cheers,

      • Hello Gauri and many thanks for the warm welcome. I look forward to reading the upcoming blog post on this subject as well as the comments thereafter. We travel full time so my son’s primary playmate is…me (SMILES). Of course, this is wonderful and I cherish the time but as every other mother, I have chores, cooking and my own interests to pursue throughout the day. I suppose I am looking for a positive way to communicate this with my son- in a loving way he understands that doesn’t leave him feeling rejected or in any way detached/alienated – when he doesn’t wish to be a part of it. Sometimes I feel that I communicate this way but other times I feel like I miss the mark. I would love to hear how other mother’s address these moments.

    • Dearest Lucinda,

      I hear you and do think personality plays into it, for sure. Nica is naturally determined, independent minded (in this respect, at least). But I absolutely think what we do as parents either feeds their inner world or interrupts it (to bring them into ours, our timing, what we find interesting, etc). Not to say you do that, interfere or interrupt but many parents do. And when we do, it is for all the right reasons – it just doesn’t always have the consequences we intended.

      I haven’t cracked it on all fronts but…How about I make your question (and my answer/thoughts) into a post of its own, a kind of ‘how to’? Not that I am an expert but I have learned from some experts – in person or more often from books – and can share more specifics of what we do and, in particular how we weave together the many philosophies out there, when it comes to this topic (like RIE, Playful Parenting, Hand in Hand Parenting, unschooling, attachment parenting, etc). If you are wondering, attachment parenting is relevant here, from our point of view, because little breastfeeding breaks are definitely her pit-stops where she refuels with milk, love and connection :)

  3. Tiny was a little late to the “play by yourself” ballgame but now that her imagination is in full swing, it is so beautiful to watch her at play. I have never interfered in her world. Not my job. Her job is to play. My job is to be with her how she needs me to be. Usually that means sitting right next to her, taking me orders.

    Interesting note for you…you mention that your wee one has imaginary friends AND pretends that she is other living beings. This is actually not common. Usually children have imaginary friends OR pretend that they themselves are another person, animal, etc… I recently read a study on this and found it interesting. I started to think back to when i taught Waldorf preschool and realized that it held true there. Children had imaginary friends OR pretended to be other things. Interesting…but we all knew your daughter is pretty special!

    Oh – your tie die adventures have inspired me. Tomorrow…we are tie dying!

    • Hey Jennifer, that is SUPER interesting… I don’t suppose you have a link to the article, still, do you??

      Well, Nica mostly is Andy Z or Old MacDonald or SuperDuck or… but the other day she was telling me all about how her friends Rasta-Froggy (you might approve?!), Cybil the Dragon and Mr. Cricket are already at the park, climbing trees, waiting for her. She didn’t ‘make them up’ though, they are all characters from Andy Z songs (!!!) but she does play with them in invisible form. She’ll just tell me they are doing this or that :) Does that count (when she didn’t create them herself)?

      Yay for tie-dye. Did you see the photos? :)

      • Let me see if I can find the link…it was VERY recent so I can probably dig it up with ease!

        Yes – I saw the photos. Super cute and so fun! We made two shirts for Tiny, one for me, 2 pairs of socks, and a pair of undies for me. Yeah – because my bum needs some hippie love! ;)

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