Fostering Self-Directed Play: ten tips to help pre-schoolers entertain themselves

After my last post on Nurturing Independence and Imagination: a Dance of Freedom and Reconnection Lucinda asks:

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 loses 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.”

Dear Lucinda,

This is so clearly the question of a caring, involved and engaged mama… Thank you for sharing of yourself in this way, too. We all have times when we need to be able to get on with things and we hope our kid will not want to ‘help’ with absolutely everything all the time… And, yes, I do think personality – a kid’s nature – plays into it, for sure. Some kids are more dreamy and are off creating their own worlds, seemingly from the get-go. Others need a little more help. However, I will say, that all the RIE/low intervention parented kids I personally know tend to play well by themselves for long chunks of time, and though I haven’t seen any research on this personally, it does seems to be the experience of all those teaching and practicing these approaches, too. So it would appear ‘nurture’ has a fair chance of at least expanding most kids’ attention spans and helping them play and concentrate on something, on their own, for longer.

Here’s the thing, though, I am not perfect. I am still learning myself. And I am not an expert. I am a mom who likes reading and thinking and watching her kid and her friends’ kids at play. And I am willing to share what I have learned so far. Use only what resonates with you and serves your family.

Our aim here, then, is to help your child gain confidence in following and sticking with their own play impulses. To kick-start them into this new habit of sustaining independent play, you might need to put some extra energy into the system for a limited period of time (probably a few months – although it will get easier as you go). Of course, in the long run, the goal is to have them play by themselves more and more but to start with you can do things that will help them build the confidence and skill to play on their own and that will take some commitment from you. But you will be re-paid in both renewed closeness and increased focus and attention span.

Here are some of the ways we can support our kids to do that:

  1. Let your child pick the activity – he leads, you follow. Right now he is (clearly) not ready to just be left and for you to assume he can sustain the game on his own, so in this transition period you are going to do subtle things that encourage him to sustain an activity that he has started. But that is key. You mention art and crafts and legos… I am wondering, whose idea is it to play with those, usually? Was it yours or his? Adult-led activities will often need adults to carry them, too. So, your job to start with will be to observe him (as I am sure you already do) and follow him. Set a time, perhaps half an hour a day, in which you will intensively follow his lead in play. Anything he wants to play, you do it and once he has started it, you stay with him, pouring your enthusiasm into everything he does (not praise – we know that is not helpful – but genuine, heart-felt joy at the minutia of what he is coming up with, expressed through facial expressions and non-verbal cues as well as some choice, intrinsic-motivation-building words :)

    A Play Break

    A Play Break (Photo credit: emerille)

  2. Once he gets into something don’t interrupt. It is VERY easy for us adults to do. In fact, I see it all the time: a child finally gets into a groove and is doing something on their own for a minute and immediately an adult will step in with ways to ‘improve’ or replace what they are interested in: ‘look at that plane in the sky’, ‘why don’t you do this with that sand castle’, ‘why don’t you play with this, instead, it looks more fun’ – and hey presto you have pulled them off their simple but absorbing agenda and onto yours… Really, we need to make this a rule for all times, even outside this intensive half-hour, we have to learn to respect what they’re interested in by not interrupting to show (or worse still teach) him something ‘more interesting’. We all do it… and we could all benefit from doing it LESS. There are exceptions of course but your job, during this boot-camp phase is to REALLY, really tune into what turns him on, right now and follow that. Again you are helping strengthen his confidence in his inner compass. He knows what he wants to play, what he wants to explore – you are now showing him that you see that and think what is interesting to him is worth being interested in.  :)
  3. So,  in play, we enter our kids’ world – show him you ‘see’ this world he is imagining for and with you and that you believe in it. Wait to be invited in and take your cue from him as to what role he wants you to play in his game of choice.
  4. When in it, describe his world from his point of view. These are two really important points: first follow their gaze and actions to see what is important to them on a moment by moment basis – what is really interesting them in this toy/activity? Try and put yourself in their shoes and see it from their point of view. Secondly, put it into words. This ‘shared focus’ where you are talking about what they are thinking is huge. In a sense you are helping him build an inner dialogue about what he is doing (a practice he can continue without you, once you have helped him strengthen this muscle).
  5. Keep the environment simple. Waldorf educators have long been observing that the fewer toys you have the longer your kid will play with each one, by and large. If you find you have always a lot of toys about, consider starting a toy rotation where you remove and store some/most of the toys and leave out only the most current ones. If you pick ones he is not really into at the moment and remove those, he may not even notice or care but I bet he will be super excited to see some of them come back!
  6. Allow him to bow out of an activity whenever he wants to. Yes, sometimes he will flit from one activity to the next. That is okay. What you are primarily trying to develop is not long periods of playing the same thing… what you are trying to develop, really, is their ability to connect with their own desires and follow those freely, for as long as possible. Once that muscle is strengthened they can go for hours on end – but it comes from being natural and following their heart (even when it is acting like a summer-drunk butterfly).
  7. But likewise, allow him to stay with something for as long as he wants to (don’t judge it as too long in one game/song/pattern). Of course if you need to eat or if it is bedtime or the like, you need to interrupt. If so, do it sensitively, empathically as you would with any adult deeply engaged in something they love: give them fair notice (say a one-minute warning?), allow them to stop at a moment which is a natural pause, if possible, let them bring something of that play into the next phase of their day, if appropriate (e.g. let them bring a stuffed toy into the car… or a car into the bedroom) – and do let them negotiate appropriately around any of those (a courtesy you would also undoubtedly afford a grown-up)
  8. Switch off the TV (and the radio) – this is incredibly important. TV saps focus, it is constantly competing for our attention and often gets it. Background TV is the worst (especially for kids under about 2 – as they find it hard to distinguish background from foreground noise and it all becomes one big mish-mash of sensory overload). At least for that intensive half-hour where you are following his play-cues, switch off all background noise (well, not airplanes and traffic… but whatever you can) :p  More on the effect of TV on kids here. 
  9. Create emotional safety and freedom of (full) expression. This is SUPER important. Play is like a barometer for kids’ internal wellbeing. With my 2.5 year old I see that when she is stressed she ‘needs me’ practically all the time. When she is really relaxed and at ease within herself she plays independently for the longest periods. I observe that after a real, cathartic cry or rage is when she is at her most relaxed. It is like she has totally unburdened herself, she has emptied herself of all that emotional junk and now she is really FREE to play. You can learn more about that here, for example (with Hand in Hand Parenting – one of the leading lights in this understanding of how play and emotional expression reflect off each other and bring real learning and healing for children). I have also blogged about it here.
  10. Expect this process to take time and know that it may get ‘worse’ before it gets better, in other words, yes, you are going to have to invest time in going deeper into their world, for now but, you know, that might just become the high point of your day. And in the long-run you’ll be giving him skills that set him for a childhood, a life of knowing and following the rhythm of his own drum – giving him independence, creativity, self-regulation

But here is the thing, in many ways, you are re-training yourself – more than him. Most of us have developed habits which, though well meaning, actually do not serve our ultimate aims (of fostering kids who joyfully engage in self-directed play, for example). So, in a way this ‘boot camp’ is for you – so that if you have any of the habits that interrupt or weaken his play instincts, you can now ‘unlearn’ them.

As good as my kid is at entertaining herself, for her age… as soon as I do something interesting (in her eyes) she will abandon what she is doing to come and ‘help’ me. Doing the cooking is classic in this regard – and that is also a good thing (though the stuff of another post, no doubt). So, yeah, even trying our best, we will unwittingly interrupt them.

Plus, all kids go through phases in this regard, right? And still, even on a good day, as I have said before, my kid and my interactions are very much like a dance of independence and reconnection. She will play a little, then check in and gently demand interaction or ask to breastfeed… and then she is off again.

Boy playing with bubble wrap

Boy playing with bubble wrap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a sense helping a child to become confident with self-direct play is much like helping them develop a healthy relationship with food. They need to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. You as a parent can get out of the way and help them recognise their own inner drives, in this case hunger and satiety, as well as build on their healthy appetites. Now, translate that to play. Let them recognise their own drives and desires when it comes to play, to trust them and follow them, to start what they want to start and stop when they are done with that game. It takes time and patience for them to really believe that they can lead in play – and that you trust them to create the best fun themselves.

— — —

Finally, if you are in the mood for more reading, do check out one of the internet’s gurus on self-directed play, Janet Landsbury who rocks and has written about toddlers, here, for example:

But she has many great articles and she comes from this philosophy that has also inspired me so much: Magda Gerber’s RIE.

There are also lots of other awesome links sprinkled throughout the text. Enjoy those at your leisure.

Thank you again for reading and do come back with me with any more questions and I will help in whichever way I can (an invitation that goes out also to anyone reading this). With love, joy and thanks for sticking with me through such a long post,



26 thoughts on “Fostering Self-Directed Play: ten tips to help pre-schoolers entertain themselves

  1. Pingback: Stepping Back and Letting Them Take The Lead « Visibly Engaged

  2. hi! I love both articles and I was just contemplating on what I wanted to focus for this month on my new blog. Thanks for the insightful posts and I am sure your daughter will benefit much from the efforts that you are doing now.

    Will definitely be following your blog and looking forward for your next articles :)

    warm regards,

  3. Wonderful! I especially like #4 – Describing it from his point of view. Although the concept isn’t new…somehow your words, in this moment gave me a deeper a-ha. Thank you for that.

  4. I love observing from the sidelines when my children get so into their play! I really enjoyed this post, great ideas for parents to support children as they learn and discover self-directed play. The no interruption piece is so important, and yet so difficult at times. Not too long ago my four year old became very frustrated that I had as he put it: “disconcentrated” him.

    • Yes, we all do it but if we are tuned in our kids quickly tell or show us they do not appreciate the interruption – hah. Glad this resonated. Love your work, as you know (so sorry I never got that guest post to you. I really have been bad on that front. SORRY).


  5. I found you through Amy at Let’s Explore — this is such a beautiful post and I’m glad to know about you and your blog! When my first child was a baby I was VERY attached to her because she was demanding, but I’ve since learned a lot about RIE and have changed my parenting style accordingly. At times she’s still very needy of my attention, but all of the efforts I make toward instilling her with independence are paying off.

    • Ahh, my child is the same. I shared on facebook (but not here, I think) that though she is extremely independent and self-led in play… she likes to have me close (like so she can see me, even if we are each doing our own thing). From when she was a baby, she has met the ‘high-needs’ baby definition. She gets very anxious if we separate unless she is with her daddy or her grandmother (who lives abroad, alas). So, the separation thing is a different issue for us and one we are still working on (through using Hand in Hand Parenting tools, among others) and it is shifting but I am following her lead on this to an extent, too. But in terms of play she does not need me to initiate something, to play with her or to entertain her (most of the time, at least). She is 2.5. She does check-in with me often and she does of course love having me as a play-pal, too, but it amazes me how long she can completely create her own fun :)

      Sounds like your kid is a very similar mix of temperament. One beautiful thing of her being so ‘attached’, though, I notice is that she does seem pre-disposed to forming strong bonds with others, too. She is shy and takes a while to get to know people but she does seem to get very bonded to other friends, too. I think that is a blessing and I hope one that will continue to serve her all her life. She is also very sensitive and empathic and I totally think this is connected, too. She is very tuned in to others’ feelings and needs, already, so young. Again, I think this is one of the other ‘flip sides’ of being so sensitive and putting such a high value on close relationships. It is hard going on me, often, of course. I rarely get time off. But I do think it is primarily her in-born temperament that shapes this side of her and my style of parenting has evolved as I respond to her needs.

      Thanks for commenting and nice to ‘meet’ you,

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  9. I love your specific tips and ideas! I recently discovered Janet’s blog and the RIE approach and love it. My son is almost 4 and is the most extraverted and engaging person I know- he always wants to be with people. I am playing a little “catch up” in fostering the independant play, but I do think a lot of it is his personality. (my daughter is very different!) We don’t have battery operated toys or a TV and I’ve always made unconventional play objects available to him. Yet, he would still rather hang around me trying to engage instead of playing with toys on his own, if I say I’m unavailable. My main question though, since I am trying to follow your bootcamp guidelines, is how to incorporate these concepts when all he wants to do is imaginary play? I totally get how to use these concepts when my child is playing with blocks, legos, playdoh, etc- but my son is always wanting to PRETEND. He wants me to play specific roles and interact. I try to follow his lead, but it’s hard to “not interupt” and be an observer when the whole basis of the type of play he wants to do requires back and forth engagement. Suggestions?

    • Hi Ninarose (what a beautiful name),

      Thanks for your comment and again I am sooo sorry it has taken me so long to reply to these wonderful questions. I am glad you enjoyed and got something from the article, though. Great!

      Okay for starters I think imaginary play is AWESOME and definitely something to be encouraged in spades (as I am sure you agree). I wrote a little about how it works for us here:

      As I mention above, I think the beginning stages will involve you playing more with your kid, rather than less – even though the aim is to back out gracefully and gradually hand over the reigns for the play to him. Your son sounds wonderful, btw.

      It also depends to an extent what age they are. Around age 3, I notice the drive to play with someone really increases. And this makes total sense. By playing make-believe with you they are learning and rehearsing all the skills to play prettend with their peers a lot more in the future. You are the perfect learning partner. If all goes well, you will soon be replaced and they will totally want to go off and play make-believe with their little friends more than with you (starting from about age 4, usually). In fact that might already be happening. So, I think there is a real value in them playing with you. Your cues are gentler and way more supportive than most of their peers will be, they are practicing collaborrative play with a partner who is really very encouraging and responsive. This is perfect… this said, I still think the adult’s role, most of the time, should be one of starter-helper. Join in just long enough to get the game going and then when they are in the zone, see if you can step away, perhaps encouraging that they strengthen a particular part of the game at hand. For example, say they want to play ‘birthday parties’. Go for it. Have fun (if you have the time) but announce up front that you can only go to, say, three parties and then he’ll have to go to a few on his own. See how he does with that? Again, depending on age, I would get his verbal agreement up front that this is how it is going to go. Be willing to compromise. Offer two parties, let him barter you up to three. :) Even let him be the one to enforce the agreement (toddlers and preschoolers are often terrible at following rules but extremely good at enforcing them). Ask him to remind you when the three parties are up (if you think that will work – but by all means remind him if he lets it slip).

      As for following rather than leading, yeah, it can be tough. My suggestion would be to just be silent a beat longer. Ask more and tell less. ‘What do you think we should say/do next?’; ‘what kind of reaction would you like from me on that?’ Or you can experiment with more than one response (assuming the game repeats ad infinitum, as they often do in our household) and see which gets the most giggles or the biggest reaction from him. My kid likes to play this separation game in which she goes to work and leaves her ‘baby’ (actually a dog-toy) with me. I have tried making the dog react in different ways to her leaving – happy or very sad/mad. She did not like those experiments. She now tells me in no uncertain terms that she is going to leave Reggie (the dog) with me while she goes to work and Reggie is going to be VERY sad about it. She is still directing! [This particular game is also a huge insight into what she is processing emotionally, of course].

      I’d experiment with a few of these, give them a few gos and see what works for you, too, as a dyad… and generally cultivate an attitude of trust that he will be able to entertain himself.

      And if boredom comes up for him, when you first ask him to play by himself, remember that boredom is the mother of invention. If you can bare him being bored for a minute or two (or more to begin with) and bare it with grace and trust, you will convey to him a feeling of confidence that he CAN do this. He can push through this uncomfortable feeling and create some unexpected and I bet highly rewarding, fun thing to do… but being a leader in one’s own play is a skill that takes practice. Sometimes lots of practice (if the muscle has really been underused – to mix my images there).

      You can do this… and so can your son. In fact, I truly believe that ‘whether you think kids can entertain themselves or you think they can, you are probably right’. If we give them space, time and trust, they will (eventually) step up.

      Please let me know how you get on with all of this. Much joy and gratitude for the dialogue,

  10. Love the article, can you recommend some “open-ended” toys that would be good to have instead of toys that do the “playing for them?” Or some resources for these kinds of toys and how to encourage your child to play with them? My son is 2.5 and is used to some toys that “play for him” so I’m looking for some different toys that will foster his imagination and independent play and be more open-ended. Thanks!

    • Hi CallieBrooke, thanks for your question. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I have been really tied up with some big projects in real life.

      I am glad you liked the article, though. For me, I tend to turn to Waldorf, RIE and even Montessori authorities for ideas for open-ended toys. Wooden blocks are great and can be turned into anything from buildings to people or anything in between. Cloths can be used as capes or to dress a table or to swaddle a baby. Honestly, I love simple stuff from nature, too: sticks, shells, stones, leaves, coral, etc. Again they can be anything! Simple household stuffs can amuse for hours, too (pots, pans, wooden spoons, etc). On that front, I’d follow your child’s lead. And of course, all toddlers love helping out with chores!

      While what you have out for your child is important, how many things are in his play space is equally important. Less is more, ime. And how you store it also has a huge impact on how children play with toys. Large bins tend to get toys treated like ‘a mountain of stuff’ where as having things arranged in simple little scenes that invite the child to imagine life into them can be inspiring and will engender respect for these toys. They are not just ‘one of many’ to be tossed out and rumbled through. They are something to slow down and enjoy, deeply. I have written more about this here among other places.

      Then again, equally important again is what you don’t have at arm’s reach, imo. If you have a lot of plastic ‘entertaining’ toys at hand and you are committed to simplifying, then it might be that some of these just have to be removed. Yes, your kid will react. I would too if someone took away my laptop or something else I am addicted to. :( If you go the cold turkey route I would consider following something like Janet Lansbury’s ideas for helping children wean off TV (applied to whatever the toy at hand is): Full disclosure: my 3.5yo watches some TV (30 to 60 mins a day max) and our toys are not ALL wood – although frankly a lot are. My point is, I am far from the perfect Waldorf/Montessori playspace keeper… but what steps I take in that direction I find really benefit my child and ultimately our whole family.

      If you haven’t already, I would totally read ‘Simplicity Parenting’. The other book that influenced my thinking in this regard was ‘You are your child’s first teacher’ – beautiful.

      Hope this helps. Good luck on your journey to a simpler, slower childhood for your kid – we have certainly found this a fulfilling path!

  11. This is such a great post! I love how advice is given without ever placing blame. Not “You did this and this all wrong”, but instead, “You obviously care a lot, and here’s a way that may help even more.”

  12. I have 3 kids (4.75 yr, 3 yr & 7 months). I love these ideas but not sure how to do it with multiple. My son, the oldest, challenges me the most with getting into productive play, like focusing on building or drawing, or anything for an extended period of time. It is easier when we are outside. When we are inside he has trouble finding something that is quiet focused play (it is often loud & annoying or getting into things that I don’t want him getting into). We are pretty deeply involved with hand in hand tools. My children get special time every day & I listen to their feelings regularly & set limits when necessary. I am challenged on how to support them when I am with both the older ones together. It’s almost like I can’t get anything done because they require me in some form constantly. They go from playing together to fighting in seconds. Can you translate your awesome advice in this article into working with multiple children? For me, it’s my 3 & almost 5 year old. Thank so much!! ~ Amy

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