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.”
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:
- 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 (Photo credit: emerille)
- 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. :)
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!
- 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).
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (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.
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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,