If you knew there was one thing you could do that would lead to your child’s ultimate physical, intellectual, social and emotional wellbeing and success, you’d jump on it, right?
What if that one thing was simply leaving them alone?
That is, leaving them to just play. Not 24–7, of course. Not leaving them alone in the park. Not abandoning them at home all day while you go gallavanting.
Just a healthy dose of independent play, in the safety of your home environment. Every day.
Independent play actually begins in infancy, even though we might not recognise it. Independent play doesn’t necessarily mean playing alone — babies and toddlers are pretty big on having mom or dad in the vicinity for emotional security, and that’s a need we shouldn’t try to program out of them. What it does mean is that a child takes the lead in their play— in other words, without the direction of a parent or other adult.
While the parenting experts may disagree over sleep training methods and discipline strategies, this is at least one thing they all seem to agree on: independent, or child-led play is one of the most effective, holistic and certainly most natural ways for kids to learn, grow and develop their independence.
“When children have adequate freedom and time to play, they develop all of the basic skills that human beings everywhere must acquire: physical skills, social skills, emotional skills, constructive skills, creativity, and logic” ~Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology, Boston College (source).
And of course there’s the added bonus for parents — the more our kids can keep themselves occupied without a screen, the less pressure and guilt we’ll have to deal with, and the more opportunities we’ll have to get some work done or steal some ‘me time’ to fill the tank.
Kids Today Have Less Freedom to Play than Ever Before
I think most of us intuitively realise the value of play. It’s not just about the developmental benefits. It’s about being a kid. It’s about the memories they’re forging, the worlds they’re inventing and living in.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, structured activities and so called ‘enrichment’ activities are taking over our kids’ school and home schedules. According to a 2018 survey:
- On average, American children between 3–12 years old participate in 5 structured activities per week.
- American children today spend 35% less time in free outdoor play than their parents did.
- Nearly one in five kids today play outside only once a week or less.
Once a week or less? That’s just depressing. Of course, there are real concerns over safety that play a role in the decline in free or unsupervised outdoor play. But the above study showed a bigger culprit to be our culture’s obsession with achievement —an obsession we can easily fall into as parents.
The effect isn’t just causing our kids to lose out on a key aspect of their childhood. It can become totally exhausting and all-consuming for parents as well.
I think it’s time we got back to the ‘default’ settings, back to childhood 101. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to parent smarter, not harder. If there’s an easier way to get my kids ahead the natural way, without trying to pack more into their schedule (or mine), then I want that way.
So let’s get down to nuts and bolts. The next time you see your little one dawdling and daydreaming and you’re tempted to step in with another adult-approved enrichment activity, here are 7 incredible benefits of independent play that should stop you in your well-intentioned tracks!
7 Vital Benefits of Independent Play
1. It’s the soil of imagination
I consider myself a pretty creative person. I’ve been known to build a mean spacecraft out of a cardboard box. But leave that same box with my 4-year old, and she’s going to turn it into a magical unicorn dragon rainbow cave (described by her in great detail for her imagination-impaired mom).
When it comes to the child’s mind and play, there isn’t a whiff of thinking ‘inside the box’.
Studies have shown that letting children take the lead will lead to their play being more creative, elaborate and sustained—without adult interference, a child is free to fully explore the world through their own imaginative lens.
Research has also shown that immersive, imaginative play contributes to children’s ability to solve divergent problems — those that yield to multiple solutions, vs. convergent problems which simply have one solution. I don’t need to tell you that our world is chock full of divergent problems. Figuring out the solutions can start right now, in our own living rooms and backyards.
2. Instils a sense of adventure & stretches them physically
You see, those living rooms and backyards are where our kids get to explore, to be the pirate, the astronaut, the magician, the volcano diver, without a case of adult logic getting in the way. In independent play, kids have the freedom to push the boundaries of what they can imagine, and what they can physically accomplish, whether it’s jumping the Grand Couch Canyon, or traversing Lava Lake via the monkey bars.
“In adventurous outdoor play [children] build not just their heart, lungs, and muscles, but also their courage and resilience” ~Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology, Boston College (source).
One study showed that free play actually stimulates the fight-or-flight response in children by causing the brain to release adrenaline, but without triggering the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, during play, kids get the opportunity to take risks, practice handling danger and learn from their mistakes, without the negative feelings or effects of stress. This naturally builds their courage and resilience to keep trying despite any setbacks. Play literally turns our kids into the brave heroes they want to be.
3. Improves language skills
At the age of 18 months, my daughter, for no explicable reason, decided that snails were called ‘Nuku’s’. I still have no idea where she got this word from. She had close to a 100-word vocabulary at the time, and by age 3 it had blossomed into a case of full-on verbal diarhhea. At age 4 she thrives on offering her own unique vocabulary for things at the slightest prompting or opportunity. I can only envy the linguistic creativity and self-abandon of a preschooler!
Watch any vocal 4-year old immersed in play and you will see this linguistic exploration in action. Studies have revealed definite links between fantasy play and linguistic growth. It may involve plenty of literal nonsense much of the time, but there is no doubt this stimulates creative thinking and actually motivates kids in learning new (legitimate) vocabulary. (Yes, my daughter does call them snails now!).
4. Helps your child learn to ‘self-regulate’
When your child is playing on their own, they’re not only deciding for themself what to do and how things should go, they also have to rely on their own judgment and internal feedback when things don’t go quite as planned.
You’ll probably notice that when you’re sitting playing with your child, there are much more likely to be emotional outbursts directed at you the second that tower falls or the picture isn’t panning out as desired. They immediately turn to you for emotional support or affirmation. But when your child plays on their own, they are being directed by internal motivation, rather than external. This helps them learn to manage and self-regulate their impulses and emotions as they focus on achieving their own goals.
5. Builds confidence and security
The more kids create and follow their own course of play and learn to problem-solve by themselves, the more confident they become in their abilities, building their self esteem. It also helps them figure out what they enjoy and what they’re good at — which not only makes childhood richer, but lays the foundation for a more fulfilling adult life pursuing hobbies and passions, and getting into a career they’ll actually enjoy.
It also makes sense that a child who gets used to playing independently early on learns to be comfortable and secure in their own company. This helps a young child cement their own sense of identity, creating a stronger centre from which to reach out and connect with others. Instead of being motivated by insecurity or a fear of being alone, they’ll be confident to connect and make friends out of curiosity and genuine interest in others.
6. Primes your child’s brain for academic learning
Of course, our kids do need to get round to structured academic learning at some point. And the great thing is that unstructured play is an excellent primer for both structured and creative work. According to a number of experimental studies, school kids fresh from recess pay much better attention in the classroom. Chinese and Japanese schools, who are known to produce the greatest achievers, have clearly tapped into the value of this play-work balance —it’s standard practice for learners to have a recess every 50 minutes.
7. A practice ground for real life
When kids play independently, on their own terms, they’re essentially practicing for independent adult life. Their playground is a place to trial run a mini version of ‘real life’ in a safe environment, where the rules, dangers and concrete consequences of adult life are not yet in play, or only on a small scale.
Your child is free to practice what it will feel like to be the master of their own universe — to explore creative possibilities, make decisions and take risks. And as they do so, they can experience failure in a safe space where there is always the chance to try again, and experiment with new approaches.
Play may seem trivial from the outside, but that couldn’t be further from reality. Allowing our kids to put their independence into play now lays the foundation for confident, healthy independence through the rest of their life.
Takeaways for the road home
The long and short of it? If you want a simple, nature-approved, holistic and effective way to support your child’s all-round development, just leave them to play!
The next time you see your child building blocks and you’re tempted to step in with a geometry lesson… freeze…bite your tongue. Quickly and quietly, step away from the child. (It’s the smart thing to do).
BUT — you ask — surely parents still have some sort of role to play here?
Yes, we do. But not in the usual hands-on way. The nature of our role in encouraging and supporting independent play is to simply help create the right conditions to allow it to flourish.
If you want to know what this looks like, or if your child’s independent play just isn’t kicking into gear and you’re not sure why, take a look at my ‘troubleshooting guide’ on Independent Play Pitfalls.
You can also check out these 20 Simple Low-Cost Ideas to Kickstart Independent Play.