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When schools were closed this spring and my partner and I were working from home, our children had such a difficult time entertaining themselves while we worked. Do you have any tips for helping kids play by themselves?
I’ve been asked this question a lot over the past few months. A few things to consider before I dive in to offer solutions: What are your child’s age, temperament and experience level? Generally, children get better at playing alone as they get older and have more experience finding things to do on their own. Some children are just born better at entertaining themselves. Other children, even if you try all the suggestions below, have a much harder time. Try not to think of it as something you or they have done wrong and keep working on it.
Start with connection
Children are always more willing to play alone when their connection needs are met. Start the day playing with your child: “I’m all yours for the next 30 minutes before I start working. What would you like to play?”
Keep them near
Generally children will be happier to play alone if they can be physically near you. They might have a play area in the kitchen while you are doing food prep, or you can set up your home office and a play area in your living room.
Use a visual timer
Start with small chunks of time, like 15 or 30 minutes, and use a visual timer so they can see how much time is left.
If your children are playing independently, let them stay in the flow. Don’t ask questions, get involved or interrupt unless you absolutely have to.
Provide an environment conducive to play
Get rid of everything your children don’t play with. Put some toys in rotation so that when they make an appearance after a few weeks away, they feel new again. Have labelled bins and shelves to make it easy to find something to play with and put it away. You might spend more time tidying up, but you will be rewarded with more uninterrupted time.
Play audiobooks, podcasts or music to keep them company
My daughter would play for hours with her toys if she had a good audiobook to listen to. Most libraries have apps for borrowing audiobooks.
Put together some special “play alone” materials
Assemble some lidded bins with different activities in them. One parent in my community shared that she enjoyed quiet time every day by employing this strategy. She changed out the contents of the bins daily with things like “rocks, shells, washable markers, playdough, picture books, old magazines, puzzles, spoons with containers for scooping pom pom.” Stickers, small notebooks, tape and pipe cleaners would also be great additions.
A bath in the middle of the day (unsupervised is safe for kids age 6 and up) or a sink full of water with bubbles, scoops and funnels will keep kids busy for a long time.
Try some sensory play activities
Playdough is an old favourite that never goes out of style. Modern takes on playdough are goop or slime that can be made with household ingredients. Think indoor sandbox.
It takes some effort and advance planning on your part and you might need to call on your reserves of patience, but if you start small, support them and keep insisting, most kids can learn to love their independent time.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, ages 12, 15 and 18. Do you have a parenting question? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.