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Need a Second to Breathe? Here Are Some Hacks to Foster Your Kids’ Independent Play

by Meghan Fitzgerald

No matter how we each structured parenting before COVID-19, our world is rocked. Maybe you are adjusting to working at home and parenting simultaneously — and without help. Or, maybe you’ve been parenting full time, but suddenly all of the social networks and out-of-home activities that used to support you and your child are gone. No matter from where we’ve arrived, parenting in quarantine is a tough gig. 

And, whether you need time to catch your breath or to join a meeting, we all need to find reliable ways to keep our kids entertained and engaged during the day. And, even though nothing is ideal right now, we’d love for that which keeps them busy to also help them to  thrive.

Enter independent play. First, play is the ideal way for children to learn a whole range of social, physical and cognitive skills. Second, when kids get lost in play, they can maintain joyful focus—and give us the free time we need.

The Tinkergarten team generated this list of seven independent play hacks—tips and tricks from people who spend their careers engineering playful learning. We hope they hook your kids too, and set them up for long stretches of valuable, independent play!

Start simple.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but basic elements like an empty cardboard box, a sheet or blanket, or a bowl full of water give kids many, many more directions to go with their play than ready-made toys do. Starting in a streamlined way allows kids to invent imaginative ways to use the materials and iterate as they go. 

Invite rather than direct.

Kids are different from us in many ways, but all humans play longer when they feel like they are the ones directing the action. One simple way to make sure kids feel “in the lead” is to give kids invitations. What do invitations to play look and sound like? First, they can be literal, like, “Would you like to build a fort?” They can also be more subtle, such as, “I wonder if we/you could build a cozy hideout with this blanket…” Or, you can just start doing something (begin building the fort) and that example will be enough to get kids to dive in. Once they are really into it, you can step away, and they’ll be much more likely to stay engaged for having entered in on their own terms. 

Set up an inviting environment.

There are really simple ways to set up your play space that will invite or suggest a starting point for play to your kids. For example, pull the blocks out, and stack just a few to suggest the start of a new building. Place the pieces of a puzzle on an area of the floor and start one corner of it. Place muffin tins, bowls, measuring cups and a whisk on the table in the living room and you’ve given just the right welcome to bakery play! Or, our favorite, get a bunch of loose parts (small objects, tape, buttons and pieces of paper) together and leave a little note addressed to your child(ren) to invite them to engage. The note could read, “Hello, friend! We found these just for you. Please use them to make a…” but the note is ripped! We don’t know what to make?! What can we do?! Who can resist an inviting setting like that?

You can also use containers to create distinct and inviting play spaces. For example, lay a blanket or sheet to create an “area” for play, and put different games or toys in that area—they immediately become more inviting. Place your loose parts on a cookie sheet and offer it to kids with a welcome simply to create. If your child likes this, consider putting a different selection on the tray each night before you go to bed—the morning surprise will become a thrilling part of the day for your kids.

Release new materials or “ingredients” slowly and only a few at a time.

It’s often our instinct to put out as many materials or toys as we can in order to keep kids busy. In fact, though, the fewer the toys, the more creative and focused kids become. Lots of different options can easily overwhelm kids, and they lose interest and focus. So, rather than bombard kids with too many choices right off the bat, hold onto new materials and release them one or two at a time, just when kids seem like they might need a boost in their play. 

For example, kick off block building with just blocks. After a while, hand your child some action figures and wonder where they could live in the block tower. Later, grab some bowls and even towels from the kitchen and welcome kids to incorporate these new objects in their block building. Wonder how it might sound if all of the blocks came crashing down...then wonder what to make next.

Pick a “project” for play that can last all week—or longer.  

One way to get independent play going for even longer is to set up a “project” or theme for pretend play. Try to think of themes that genuinely excite or interest your child and can are imaginative play-ready. A few recent themes in our house include pizza shops, rocket ships and big cats. To set it up, designate part of your home for project play. Last week, we turned our living room into a pizza shop, complete with a fireplace oven and coffee table pizza-making station. Our couch cushions are often reallocated and joined by a blanket to form a lion’s den.

To kick off the play, you can say something like, “Hey, what would we need to open a (pretend) pizza shop right here?” Then, together with your child get the basics set up so kids can start pretending. Kids can add more to the scene over time. They can spend hours adding props, decorating the play area, and enjoying the pretending. You don’t need to play with them the whole time, but you can continue to spark new ideas for them. Ask questions like, “What is the name of your pizza shop?” “Could you make me a chocolate and green bean pizza?” or “Do you deliver?” to give them new play ideas to explore (and keep things plenty silly).

Read more about “project play” and see a list of universally loved project themes here.

Find resources that give you lots of ideas for child-led, playful learning.

The more you can inspire your child to play, the more you’ll get to that happy place of an engaged child and a satisfied you. That need we all share to support our kids with purposeful play is what drove us to start Tinkergarten—and this incredible time we are in is what pushed us to start Tinkergarten At Home, a free set of activities and resources to support parents and fill the week with purposeful, child-led play. 


Let kids lull.

Perhaps the hardest part of fostering independent play in our kids is letting them get idle or worse, letting them struggle. Most of us are our own worst enemy on this one, undermining our mission to get our kids independent by stepping in too quickly and too often. If we step in whenever things get quiet or whenever they ask for our input, we teach them to come to us, and we reinforce the message that they do not have what it takes to be independent. Plus, really enriching play is full of lulls—those moments of pause or even of boredom are when the real inspiration hits! When you feel the urge to jump in, or when kids ask for your help, count to 10 or so before you respond or ask them, “What could you do now?” 

“Play is also the original school, far more effective than anything society could invent.” — Dr. Gordon Neufeld

No matter how you navigate through, we wish you weeks smattered with moments of joyful, focused play for your child and a few extra moments to breathe for you!

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