Updated: May 2
* ENCOURAGE INDEPENDENT PLAY ^
Our kids are born initiators. On the other hand play is gold.
It is through play that we develop language, critical thinking, problem solving, pre-reading, and math skills as well as lateral thinking.
It is also one of the major ways that children adapt to their circumstances, and it can help children to process their feelings and challenging situations around them - within the family, and later at school, and the wider society.
It is through play that children learn how to get along with people, develop focus, harness longer attention spans and hone their natural love of learning.
Research has also found that children show increased emotional regulation, empathy and cognitive ability when engaging in play and activities designed to elicit imaginative responses.
At home we started encouraging child-led play from day 1.
As a parent, it is one of the things I did that I am most grateful for .
A gift for my sons but also, for us as individuals.
- Our sons’ creativity oozes out of their bodies
- Very rarely have I felt I have 'no time' for me (I wrote my first book while my kids played happily by themselves!)
- My sons are 8 years 11 months and 6 and they watch only one to two hours per week. When time is up, they resume their play easefully.
Do they often ask for more? Yes, but we as parents keep the boundary and they respect it.
So how can we encourage independent play?
Our baby’s first ‘toy’ is their hands and feet and the floor the ideal playground.
When we designate an area for play, which is safe, enclosed, clean (wooden floor or a blanket, carpet or non-toxic mats) and place our baby on their back -
rather than in positions they can’t get themselves out of - they’ll have plenty to
Add abundant time and you are set.
I used to place my babies on the grass sometimes in our backyard or on a
blanket outside and I would lie down by his side and we would look at the sky and
the birds and the trees swaying for long periods of times, we would also feel
the wind on our cheeks and often leaves would landing on our faces or bellies.
Sometimes my son would reach out his hand and find mine, sometimes he would
start exploring his hat or play with the blankets.
Sometimes I would have a lid and a square of cloth nearby. I wouldn’t hand them to him but I would place them close so he would discover them and explore if he chose to.
Janet Lansbury says:
Play is enough. Play is enough. Play is enough. This should be our educational mantra for the first 5 years.’
^ (Independent play is also sometimes referred to as: inner-directed play, child-initiated, free play, self-directed play, un-interrupted play, solitary/solo play, un-structured play, unoccupied play, active exploration, hands-on)
* WAIT TO INTRODUCE SCREEN TIMES
When babies are allowed and encouraged to play independently they won't be looking to be entertained, at least not all the time.
My recommendation is to wait for as long as you can to introduce screen times. Then wait a little longer.
We waited until our eldest was 3 years old when we had our second son but I soon realised screen-time was something I didn’t want to do, and he didn't 'need' it!
So we waited another year.
My son watched his first movie when he was four on the plane to Mexico. It was a 17-hour flight but he was content for most of the flight - in fact he asked us to turn the movie off half way through!
If you do decide to introduce screens earlier, take screen-watching similar to reading a book to your child - watch it together - make it about connection.
A note on toys
It can be very tempting to show our kids how a ‘toy’ works, or to bring attention to it by showing it to them, specially if they don’t seem to be ‘interested’ in it.
But our ‘excitement’ can get in our child’s kid’s way unintentionally.
Does that mean we can’t be excited?
No, it simply means we can share in the excitement with our kids.
Part of witnessing creation, is allowing for discovery to happen, for the sake of
the discovery but also for the joy of discovering.
Think of at time when you were totally, truly surprised. That’s the essence of letting our kids ‘discover’ the world by themselves.
When choosing a play object for my babies I would ask myself:
- is it open-ended? and
- is it toxic?
Some open ended play objets examples:
Blocks, balls, big rings, baskets, cardboard ‘bricks’, containers (different shapes
and sizes - not glass), stacking cups (the kind that come in a range of sizes
and colours so that each cup nests neatly inside the next-largest cup), cubes
that are similar to the stacking cups and easier to find them in wood, pieces of
cloth different textures and colours, lids, small bags (nothing that could make
a child suffocate!), baby dolls, play food…
Most of these things you find at home or pre-loved shops (I’m big on sustainability!)
If I needed to press a button or something popped up it was a no-no for me (an electronic, or a toy that needs a button to be pushed, or has loud music or sounds, or pops up is an ‘active toy’ which means, the child won’t be the one creating and
little by little the child becomes ‘passive’ vs being an initiator and starts expecting to be entertained.)
A Passive object = active child
An active object = a passive child
Ideally we strive for an active (creating, innovative) child!
* ENCOURAGE OUTDOOR PLAY
There are many benefits for this:
- We ensure their connection to Mother Earth and admiring, respecting and protecting the planet, their planet.
- Kids learn through their senses and they get stimulated. Outside they get to
see, hear, touch, taste (!) and smell things they can’t find indoors.
- Their eyes would need to adjust to the various intensities of sunlight (‘the
outdoor light stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain that regulates
the biological clock and it’s vital to the immune system, and makes us feel
- Our babies can ‘crawl on and touch both rough and smooth textures such as
grass, sand, concrete, leaves and grasp items such as sand and leaves
using fine motor skills'
- They get to inhale fresh air (yes, I know this might not be the case in some
countries- hello China!)
- They get to fully and freely experience motor skills like running, leaping, and
- Movement helps prevent obesity, a heart disease risk factor and increases
balance and flexibility.
Exercise helps prevent hypertension and arteriosclerosis
- Playing and inventing games outside makes use of their imaginations and
promotes autonomy, independence and communication skills
- It’s fun! Kids get to be 'loud and messy and boisterous'. (Jumping on muddy puddles anyone?)
- It reduces stress and irritability while increases joy and self-esteem
- Strengthens immune system and overall physical health.
- Encourages social interaction and promotes a sense of belonging
Our boys have spent their childhood by the ocean playing with sand and water but you don’t need to live by the ocean to expose them to Nature.
If there is a park, a tree, a blade of grass, a pot plant, it all helps.
Holidays camping by the river, in the bush (forest), mountains. Going to the park and follow the birds after having a picnic?
Paul Tough says:
‘No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets’
*LOOKING FOR MORE INSPIRATION?
Watch this gorgeous 7-minute short, animated film called Alike by Madrid-
based animators Daniel Martínez Lara and Rafa Cano Méndez.
The film encourages men and women to go beyond the modern society ‘rat race’ that ‘tells us to do well in school, work as hard as we can, and eventually teach our
kids to do the same.’ This ‘rat-cycle’ saps the life out of life!
The film is also about parenthood ’and the importance of letting kids forge their own journeys.’
Here's to healthy habits!
Resources and further reading:
The importance of play
The importance of outdoor play