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.

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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,



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.

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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?

Why having fewer toys may bring more happiness to the family

Sometimes as your little love looks up at you, it is tempting to give them whatever they want. ‘A new toy car? Sure!’ ‘A new all singing, all dancing play-kitchen? Oh, my kid would just love that.’

Hey, I love to see my child happy as much as the next mum but I have found an alternative route to this joy which involves not having all the toys. Here are my top reasons why:

  1. Not owning all the toys she loves, means my daughter gets super excited when she finds one of her fave play things at a friend’s house or a play area. The look on her face is priceless and she really enjoys the novelty of playing with a toy she doesn’t have at home. If I were to buy one of everything that is recommended for her age or all things she likes playing with, some of this joy of finding something new and exciting when you are out would be diminished, I would guess – wouldn’t you?
  2. Less toys means less clutter in my small apartment. I love the sense of calm that comes from a tidy environment. Both me and my hubby are messy by nature, so we can use every help we can get in keeping our space neat. Less toys, less toddler debris, as I call it.
  3. Buying fewer toys is good for the environment (especially cutting down on those plastic toys). Of course toy exchanges and buying second hand are good for this, too, but the first commitment of living green is to ‘reduce’ consumption and buying less toys is one step in that direction.
  4. It saves money.
  5. There is something to be said for leaving some toys at the toy store. It feels like there is something important about that moment when a child asks for something and you say ‘no’, not out of meanness or even because you are trying to ‘teach them a lesson about life’ but just because you look inside yourself and you are confident this toy is not needed. You feel strong in your decision that this is a time to walk away from this. And your kid – while they appreciate the fun they had with it in the store – say bye-bye, knowing they have enough. We have enough. Our life is abundant and complete with or without that piece of tat – just sayin’…
  6. Not having every toy means you have to fill the gaps with your own imagination. My baby is only one and a half and I already see that is true for her as it was for me, growing up. She has turned the mini-basketball hoop into a swing for her toy koala bear and she pretends her rainbow toy is a phone. If you have a dolls’ house your dollies can live in that… but if you don’t, then, well, you have to build your own doll’s house. I remember using mikado sticks to delineate rooms for my ‘barbies’ when I was a kid, books made great beds. To this day I do really well on ‘how many things could you turn this paper plate into’ type tests (at interviews and the like) so I do believe it builds a lasting creativity. Plus not having all the toys means you have EVERYTHING you need. Need a castle? you build it (not buy it); want a kitchen? make one up out of a box and use some old pans (you don’t need special multi-coloured ones ‘just for kids’). The examples are countless – you get the gist.
  7. Fewer toys translates to more time and focus on each toy. I had read this but now I have really seen it. If there is a box of toys Anya’s tendency is to pull them all out and treat it like a “take ’em out and throw ’em on the floor” game. The more toys there are in a room, the more likely that she will run between them spending little or no quality time with any of them. When things are tidy and organised and each toy is clearly showcased, she seems to be invited into its world and to want to really project a ‘life’ onto that one toy. She will spend ages with it. I achieve this partly through toy-rotation (keeping some of her toys and books, say a third, in play at each time, and the other two thirds out-of-sight and out-of-reach for a month or so till she seems to be growing bored of the current selection and then swapping them up, over night, as a surprise). But part of it comes from just keeping it simple and having a few quality toys that she really plays with, rather a mountain of neglected things.
  8. Not only does buying less encourage your child to develop their own imagination, it can also push you to find new ways to connect and be creative as a family. Not buying everything leaves a lot more empty space to fill with crafty projects that you come up with together. Sometimes you may lead the way and offer inspiration to your child for fun arts-based play ideas, other times you may be a sounding board for your kid as they think of creative ways of solving ‘problems’ they encounter in playing the games they want to play without having all the store-bought apparatuses and accessories.
So, next time you are thinking about that toy that your kid doesn’t have that they really, really like… breathe. Take a minute to feel inside of yourself and notice whether this is something that feels good to buy – really – or whether it is just a knee-jerk ‘more is better’ kind of response or, worse, a quick attempt to try and connect and make your child ‘happy’ by buying more stuff. There are other better ways to connect that involve spending time and energy (rather than just money) and there may be better ways to honour the integrity of each toy and really get the best out of it (rather than them becoming a mountain of disrespected, throw-away items). Most important of all, it might be best for your child, to help them develop a longer attention span, increased creativity and a sense of valuing and being grateful for what they do have. Less is more, when it comes to toys, I think. Have fun, have toys… and have the courage not to have all the ones you can afford (or are given). Let some go.

Watch me and learn, mama: a ‘less is more’ approach to supporting optimum child development.


Image by courosa via Flickr

Magda Gerber’s Resources for Infant Educators (RIE) is an approach to childcare which I find very similar to my own: watch and learn from your kids, let them take the lead and show you what they are interested in. Plus that is proven to be how kid’s learn best.

Here is an amazing little introduction to the RIE philosophy, if you have not heard of it before:

I first came across RIE kind of by accident. A new momma I had just met invited me to a play date at a group near where we live. She never turned up – yep, she stood me up! And it turns out this group was just starting out and Anya and I were the only ones there – hah. That probably sounds better than it was, one-to-one attention from the group facilitator. In actual fact this is the kind of group where you don’t say much you mostly watch what the kids are up to, what new tricks they are learning, what takes their interest, what habits they have picked up (good or bad), etc. Parents ask questions and you get to benefit from the answers to all the questions, not just your own… but all that doesn’t work so well when you are the only parent in the group. Oh, well. We stayed anyway and then we came for a few more sessions and slowly fell in love with this quiet way of looking at babies’ ways. It turns out we did rather well out of the whole incident, really.

I find this approach to childcare refreshing. It is so organic and natural, somehow. It is based on trust: trust that your kid knows what to do, what skill to practice, that their instincts will drive their will to learn – no adult or gadget intervention needed. I am very much of this belief. I have been amazed over and over by the fact that Anya just knows what to concentrate on next. First babies wave their arms and legs about, then they learn to twist and finally turn. This is basically baby-pilates – as they build their core strength ready to crawl. Crawling in turn builds co-ordination (essential for the brain and for walking). You see them pulling themselves up, practicing squats to strengthen their leg muscles. It is like the DNA encoded its very own fitness trainer into a baby’s brain. Then, when they are ready, they walk and they become more and more obsessed with stairs – the next frontier.

RIE sees and respects this. It gives parents the confidence to trust this process by quietly observing and supporting the baby’s own pace of development. It was a RIE instructor who first suggested to me that I should stop sitting Anya up until she was able to get in and out of this position unaided – because by just ‘artificially’ sitting her up (which she could do, unsupported) she was not lying on the floor, working those core muscles, reaching for things and really getting ready to crawl. If you remember Anya started crawling literally days after I started lying her on her back again – like she just needed that extra little bit of practice to get going.

And it turns out I am not the only one who is into this kind of back-to-basics approach, a whole load of celebrities are, too (who knew?):

RIE is also all about fewer toys and toys that have unlimited possibilities. It was from RIE that we borrowed our ‘toys that aren’t toys’ philosophy – i.e. we started to give Anya bowls and spoons and cloths to play with and those keep her entertained for hours, often.

Magda Gerber’s also urged us to keep our praise natural and minimal: do not get the kid hooked on praise rather than the process of what they are doing. You want them to want to do what they are doing for its own sake, to do it even when you are not looking – not to only do things which please you, for the attention. This is powerful stuff which has repercussions over the person’s life – and super interesting, maybe I’ll post more about another time (if I can find the praise studies, which are so interesting).

At its core, as I see it, RIE is about self-directed learning and exploration. It is a gentle way that puts kids at the centre of their own lives from the start. It nurtures curiosity, self-reliance and determination by simply letting them be, freely, naturally who they are and who they want to be.

Don’t push the milestone river

Shiny and colored objects usually attract Infa...

Image via Wikipedia

Have you heard of Magda Gerber? Neither had I. She came to my attention through a ‘Discover Your Baby’ group I occasionally drop-in on. Her philosophy in childcare seems to sit comfortably alongside many of Steiner’s insights. She is, above all, insistent that we listen to and respect our children as full human beings already, now. She says that if we enfold them in our love they will unfold in their own time and so her teaching gently reminds us not to try and mold our children or push them to learn and grow at a fast pace that suits our ‘parent egos’ more than our child’s developing sense of wonder.

Rather, Magda Gerber (in no way related to the Gerber baby food company) urges us to sit back and observe our children’s natural development (especially aged zero to two, I believe). She says parenting and childcare are being overriden by a ‘faster, more, better’ culture that clutters our children with excess attention, toys and general interference. In contrast, “she urged parents to observe their babies and wait for their cues, never rushing them into sitting, walking, eating, or talking before they signal their readiness to do so.”

This totally resonates with my inner feeling. With eating we very much followed Nica’s cues and waited for her to signal to us that she was ready to start eating and I feel confident that was the right thing for her. With walking, likewise, I have a very relaxed attitude predicated on the fact that I have long been sold on the benefits of crawling for brain development, co-ordination and building core-strength (of the torso). However it was at one of these ‘Discover Your Baby’ classes that I was shown a blind-spot of mine.

Just like so many parents are in a hurry to see their kids walk and put them in walkers, bouncers and other upright devices (most of which are not only not beneficial but arguably even detrimental to children’s overall wellbeing) modern parents often seem in a hurry to see their kids sit upright, too. Okay, I never bought or even experimented with putting Nica in a Bumbo. I thought they were very silly and pointless – even though others seem to get super excited by them. But I did get very enthusiastic when Nica started to be able to stay seated if I placed her there, upright. And at that point, I started sitting her up and leaving her like that because it was cute, because it gave her access to play with toys in a new way, because it gave me a break from having to hover over her when she was rolling everywhere. There was a downside. She would often crash backwards onto her head. Thankfully we have nice, plush carpet and I quickly learned to put a big pillow behind her when I sat her up…

Well… the Magda Gerber inspired ‘Discover Your Baby’ instructor set me straight. I mentioned to her Nica wasn’t crawling yet (this was at about 7.5 months). She asked if Nica spent much time lying on her back (and belly) or if she spent most of her time sitting up. I said I was sitting her up. She then asked if Nica was able to get from her belly to a seated position and back down again by herself or if I had to sit her up and put her back down? I answered (rather sheepishly, by then) that I sat her up, usually between my legs, because she couldn’t keep herself up indefinitely, yet. ‘Ahh’ she said… According to this philosophy you shouldn’t ‘artificially’ sit your kid up (even if she is able to hold herself there) until she is able to sit up for herself and that the fact that she wasn’t crawling was probably related. While Nica was spending all this time sitting up, she wasn’t practicing leg movements (waving her legs from side to side, etc) that exercise her belly and back muscles getting her ready and strong for crawling. ‘Oh…’ I said.

I took Nica home and immediately started putting her on her back and belly and letting her roll and move around on that plane again. Within two or three days Nica started to belly crawl. Aha!…

It definitely feels related and not coincidental – I saw Nica really practice reaching and pre-crawling for those few days. I guess she was ready and just needed that extra stretching and work-out time.

Generally this approach is reminding me to slow down, to look, listen and feel: look and listen to Nica and her cues; feel what is instinctive and intuitive to me. Breathe.

While I am generally quite laid-back and trusting of Nica’s unfolding into the person she is with her unique talents, temperament and passions, I realise that my parenting approach can still do with re-balancing. I get into my little parenting projects, like signing, and though with everything I do with Nica my aim is to be child-led (where possible), a reminder to see what is there is always timely.