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  • The STEM Nanny Company

Perks of Independent Play and How to Encourage it

Children learn best through play! The American Academy of Pediatrics sustains that developmentally appropriate play fosters the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills necessary for executive function and prosocial brain development. Additionally, it promotes good physical health and stable and nurturing relationships with caregivers and peers, helping children thrive.

In a world where children are constantly engaged to prevent boredom, it can become challenging for parents to juggle work, household duties, childcare responsibilities, and make time for self-care.

Now, imagine a world where you have the time to accomplish your daily goals and enjoy a cup of delicious coffee while keeping an eye on the children. It is possible and even beneficial for both, children and caretakers! Independent play is the answer!

What is Independent Play?

Independent play occurs when a child plays on their own without intervention from adults to guide their playtime experience. During this time, also known as free play or unstructured play, a child is left alone in a safe environment to utilize their imagination to develop their own forms of entertainment.

What are the benefits of Independent Play?

There are many! Playing alone gives children an opportunity to use their imagination to experiment and learn on their own. During this time, they can develop cognitive and motor abilities, boost their creativity, stimulate exploration and discovery, learn self-regulation, and practice problem-solving.

Children are challenged to come up with strategies to make decisions and troubleshoot with no one there to guide or correct them. As a result, they are compelled to think logically or creatively, trust their instincts and build a sense of mastery and control. Furthermore, children learn valuable life skills such as independence, patience, self-reliance, and self-control.

And for adults, independent play allows time to get work done without interruptions or taking a breather from the stresses and demands of the day. You're welcome mental health!

How to encourage independent play?

Now how exactly can you repeat these amazing rewards? Encouraging independent play is easy! Consider the following tips to start your journey:

Add Independent Play to the Daily Routine

The best method to encourage independent play is to assign a specific time of the day for it. And guess what? It can be incorporated into a structured or flexible daily routine!

Start by introducing short bursts of autonomous play, increasing the amount of time or frequency based on the child’s interests and schedule. Another option is to organize independent play around the times of the day when you need to get something done. For example, if you need to prepare lunch or dinner, have the child play with their toy kitchen and ask them to create a meal using their pretend food.

Provide a Safe and Distraction-Free Environment

Assign areas of the house where children can safely be left alone to play. Child-proofed rooms like their bedroom or playroom are ideal! Other areas like the living room or kitchen table are wonderful places to supervise children from a distance.

If cleanup around the common areas is a concern, encourage order by using carpets or mats for the floor or tables to reasonably limit the space they can use.

Make sure the assigned areas are hazard-free and free of distractions such as computers, tablets, tv, or other electronics that may entertain rather than engage.

Make Open-Ended Toys Available

Open-ended toys are toys that are not bound to one form of play and are designed to stimulate the child’s imagination and creativity.

In other words, open-ended toys offer playtime without rules. Children do not need to follow instructions to operate the toy, instead, they have the opportunity to question how things work, test, and experiment.

Lego blocks, wooden building blocks, magnetic tiles, realistic toy animals, cars, dollhouses, play-doh, plastic cookie cutters, or even a sandbox are all examples of open-ended toys.

Encourage Role-Playing

Role-play helps children express themselves! Provide the child with access to costumes and accessories to dress up and pretend. Dressing up as a Veterinarian or Police Officer, and pretending to bandage the family’s dog paw or to issue a ticket to their nanny for crossing the living room when the red light was on is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon. Role-playing boosts creativity and imagination providing quality entertainment. It also makes children curious about the people they observe during everyday interactions.

Is your child lacking inspiration? Keep a list of ideas!

There are times when children need a little push to initiate play alone time. To stimulate their interest, keep a list of suggestions on hand and challenge them to try a few! Listed below are a few fun ideas to encourage children to engage in independent play:

  • Build a fort with the help of blankets and pillows.

  • Use train tracks to create a route from the playroom to their room.

  • Use playdoh to build their favorite animals, shapes, objects, foods, etc.

  • Create their ideal city using magnetic tiles.

  • Use legos to build a model of a scene, animal, food, vehicle, or other objects.

  • Build the tallest tower or biggest bridge using wooden blocks.

  • Create a painting, sketch, collage, or sculpture with pieces of construction paper.

  • Make up a story while playing with plastic animals, dolls, or toys.

  • Organize a puppet show to perform after dinner for family night.

  • Create a story by writing or drawing.

  • Use an empty box, dress up, and pretend to be a pilot.

Avoid Guiding or Controlling Independent Playtime

Playing alone means free time! No control, structure, or intervention should be in place (unless requested). Supervise without intervention. Be present but be absent!

Watching children play while sitting down on the couch responding to emails or folding the laundry challenges them to innovate so avoid making comments, suggestions, or correcting the child during alone playtime.

Remember, the primary goal of independent play is to allow children to experiment, adjust, practice problem-solving, and ultimately LEARN!

You may be asked to join to play and this is a-okay! Let your child lead, dictate the rules of the playtime, and follow their lead. When unable to join, kindly remind the child that it is their time to play alone and that you look forward to seeing their creation once they are done.

Get Involved!

Make it a habit to inquire about their experience when they are done playing. Focus your questions on what they did, how they accomplished it, and what they learned or mastered as a result of their experience.

Children are prideful of their work, so it is logical for them to have you witness their accomplishments. Show your appreciation by giving them your full attention! Provide feedback and point out what you find most interesting or creative about it. If a child pretending to be on a building site uses a toy fishing pole to help the construction crew move the bricks, praise their inventiveness and ability to design a crane out of other materials.

There are instances when you cannot give their creation your full attention. If this happens, ask them to prepare a show and tell and agree to a time and place where they will be the center of your attention. We have a date in the living room at 5:00 PM ;)

Think of unique ways to be part of their success without their creativity requiring your presence.

Independent Play Should Feel Natural

Some children adapt quickly to a routine inclusive of independent play; however, every child is different. Independent play should come naturally to a child and should not be imposed. If the child is not ready to engage in independent play, suffers from anxiety, or is rather uncomfortable being alone, try initiating playtime together, slowly transition to an observer and then progress to leave the room completely. Start by letting the child know that you are there for only a few minutes to get them settled, then stay in the same room observing them playing and slowly leave the room on occasion letting the child know you need to use the restroom, get your phone or grab some water. Extend your absence building upon the time the child is left alone. This process takes repetition and patience but eventually pays off!

A win-win for all parties involved! Independent play is an invaluable resource beneficial for children’s growth. Taking advantage of this option will not only improve children’s physical, emotional and cognitive development but can afford you time to prepare dinner, meet your daily goals or enjoy your morning coffee!

Nannies, discuss all introductions of independent play with parents! Establish clear boundaries and maintain open communication.


Let us help you!

Our Nanny Program offers a unique style of educational nannying where our specialized caregivers facilitate a learn-through-play environment! Are you interested in our Nanny Program? Learn more about it here! Are you a nanny who enjoys providing a learning experience to their nanny families? Apply here!


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