During the COVID-19 Pandemic, quarantined parents have a lot on their plates. The internet is full of wonderful activities to use to teach and amuse young children. This is great, but not completely necessary. Children have the innate ability to play, and it's in that play time that they learn endless skills such as problem solving, independence, confidence, and self-regulation. Their play can soothe them and help them process their thoughts and feelings about everything they're experiencing during this global crisis. They need to play. Parents need a break. No time like now to help your child happily entertain themselves.
As a play therapist, I'm trained to support a child's natural ability to process and heal. I don't tell them how to do it, I notice what comes naturally to them, and I support them through it. I use this same approach to encourage independent play in my three young kids.
Here are some tips to get your kid playing happily on their own:
1. Fill them up with your attention first. Children need your attention. This does not make them needy, this is just a developmental fact. Give them heaps of your attention before they can start begging for it. Know your child and what kind of attention they crave (physical affection, talking with you, playing with you?). When their need for your attention is met, they will be more able to separate from you and play independently.
2. Set the stage for play. Think about it: what does your kid play with the most? Trucks? Dolls? Books? Art? Leave those toys out and hide the others. Too many toys can actually overwhelm children and keep them bouncing from one toy to another, rather than focusing in and playing for a longer amount of time. Open ended toys (not just one "fixed" way to play) as they give ample room for a child to decide how to use them, rather than asking a parent to show them what to do. Blocks, dollhouses, PlayDoh, and train tracks are examples of open-ended toys. (Here's a post about my favorite open ended toy!)
3. Explain to your child that you have something you need to do, and make a plan to do something with them afterwards. We are nearby during this quarantine, but we still need to do Zoom calls and complete work. Teaching your child to wait teaches delayed gratification, which is something we're all leaning into right now. You can say, "I need to do a video call, and I need you to play quietly. After my call I'll push you on the swing." And really follow through with your promise. This builds trust for the next time you tell them to wait on you.
4. Trust your child's ability to figure things out on their own. If your kid isn't use to playing independently, they will ask you for a lot of help or continually ask them to play with them. Return the responsibility to the child. Rather than, yes, let me fix that LEGO for you, try, "Oh no! Your LEGO set broke! You want me to fix it but I bet you can figure it out on your own. Give it a try."
5. Notice and praise your child for doing things on their own. "Whoa, you did it yourself! You thought you needed my help, but you fixed it on your own!" Notice how proud your child is of themselves. This fuels their desire to continue to try to do things on their own. They may even come and report to you when they solved their own problem, and celebrating their success with them will continue to promote their independent problem solving skills.
6. Every once in a while, verbally notice what your child is doing. "I see you feeding your doll, you're taking good care of her." This gives your child a bit of your attention, but asks nothing of them. This kind of minimal verbal tracking can encourage them to keep playing on their own, as their need for your attention is still met. (I explain more about "Tracking" in the my free mini course here, if you're interested)
Children need to play. Keep nudging your child back to their playtime by supporting their independence and "noticing" them from your perch at your workspace. And give yourself lots of grace. If you're in need of self-care during this quarantine, reach out to me if you want online counseling for yourself. It's convenient and private, and can be done while your child plays in the next room. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your kid, too.