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Marie Forleo introduction

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I'm Avital.

You want a present, peaceful and playful family life? I'm here to help you make that a reality.

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Encourage Independent Play!

Play is one of my favorite topics to read about, talk about, and think about. To me, play is the spice of life – the ingredient that makes any endeavor worthwhile, satisfying… fun.

But today, play is often tainted with boxes to check and points to score. So often teachers will say things like “they think they’re playing, but really they’re learning” to which I think: “What’s the difference?!” and further: “Why isn’t playing enough? Why does there have to be a quantifiable, measurable end”?

Play IS the point.

To me, the type of play that has a parent or teacher hovering, commenting, evaluating, praising, encouraging and of course, teaching, isn’t really play at all. Or at least not the deep flow that I’m thinking of. To me, true play is what I do, as an adult, when I’m lost in creative flow, when I’m marveling in nature, when I’m deeply absorbed in cooking or painting or writing. It’s when time is forgotten and I can be a creator, safe in the hub of my own imagination and authorship. That’s why organized sports don’t qualify as the type of play I’m thinking of here.

I believe that all children are born with the capacity, and the drive, to get lost in their imagination. To create worlds in which they are the masters and the directors, and in which they can truly find themselves. But I think that our culture is slowly knocking this type of play out of childhood and instead replacing it with “enrichment”. We’re no longer respecting time spent lost in play. and therefore, we are losing play. We feel that if they’re not being taught their shapes and colors, their ABCs… or if what they’re doing can’t be documented and evaluated, then it isn’t time well spent.

But independent play isn’t just important for children’s sense of agency, I think it’s vital for parents, too. Today, when so many of us have no help or extended family around, we need a few moments to shower, to cook, or to work. Having a child with a robust inner world is a gift to us, as well. It means they needn’t be always pacified by a screen. They can “just” play. So, rant over, and without further ado, some tips to cultivating this independent play.

  1. Set up the right type of playspace.
    I refer you to my earlier posts about playspace design and about toys to get rid of, but the basic gist is this: passive toys encourage active play (an idea brought to us by Magda Gerber). So ditch the battery operated singing-dancing-lights-flashing extravaganza in favor of the tried and true blocks and dolls, and see that your child can create their own fascinating scenarios when they’re not being programmed to sit silently and watch.
  2. Consider separating screens from playspace
    I’m not anti-screens. In fact I think screens are a vital tool to a 21st century life. But passive watching can discourage active play, especially when a TV is on in the background, or a game is available right there. Perhaps having screens available at a separate time or in a separate space than the play area can counterbalance their allure. I still haven’t got the whole screen time figured out, but in my own children I can definitely see a link between having the option to watch a movie, and a diminished interest in play. So in our home, we have set and consistent times and places in which we use screens.
  3. Don’t overpower your child’s play
    When you yourself play with your child, remember that you are the assistant and they are the director. Do not send them the message that your ideas are better, that you can teach them, or that you will make it “more fun”, “more educational”, etc. You follow their lead as passively as possible without being disconnected or detached. This trains their muscle to take the lead in play and to be the authors, so that they aren’t reliant on your inner world, but rather on their own. And they learn that their ideas have value and are worth pursuing, and they don’t need an adult to give them direction.
  4. Create a space where they can be alone
    Make sure their play space is childproof and they are safe to be left alone. If you are constantly hovering and watching that they don’t bump their head or play with a plug, you will be interrupting their play and not allowing them into the flow of play. This will also allow you to go put in a load of laundry or take a shower, once they are immersed in play, without worrying (although best to always be within earshot and to make sure your child knows where to find you).
  5. Have only age appropriate toys on offer
    If you’re leaving them to play with a puzzle that’s simply too hard, they will inevitably seek you out because they can’t master it on their own. Then, when you come and help them, their idea that they can’t do it alone will be reinforced. Save the more difficult toys for when you’re on the floor with them, but when you – and they – are in for some independent play, make sure they can manage the toys or activities without you. A bit of help here and there is absolutely fine. A lot of help is fine, too! But if you want to encourage longer stretched of independent play, they also need to have interesting activities or toys that don’t need your assistance. (see toys I love here)
  6. Examine your expectations
    If you think your child doesn’t know how, or is uninterested in playing on their own, you are probably communicating that through your tone of voice, your body language, and the way you set up your space. Our expectations often become self fulfilling prophecies. So try to actively cultivate a sense of trust in your child’s competency and agency. I believe all children have a robust inner world if they’re given the opportunity to develop it.
  7. Consider keeping them close to you
    Many children cannot immerse themselves in play unless they feel secure that their caregiver is within earshot or even in sight. The idea isn’t for children to be alone. It’s for their play to be left alone. So, despite what I said in number 4, consider having the space close to you. It should be a safe space that they can be left alone in. but we never want a child to feel banished or isolated (often what they feel when sent down to the basement or to their rooms).
  8. Use storage that your child can manipulate
    If your toy storage is too heavy, too big, or too cumbersome for your child to manage alone, they will inevitably be calling you over for help all the time. Make sure your child “owns” his play space so that he can navigate it with mastery, without help. (see design in shop)
  9. Treat play as the natural birthright – not a chore or punishment!
    Be cautious about your tone of voice and the words that you chose when you discuss play. Instead of making a whole long speech: “Now I’m busy, you need to go play by yourself, don’t disturb me…” try to keep it as light and airy as possible. “You can play now!”. Just something that is an easygoing thing, a choice that the child has control over. They can chose not to do it, of course.
  10. Don’t praise, comment or evaluate
    Praise inhibits intrinsic satisfaction and meaning. Which means that if you tell your child that they’re ‘playing so beautifully’,  that is actually going to minimize their interest in playing by themselves. Do not praise it, do not reward it, certainly don’t punish it. This is not an emotional exchange. This is a birthright that your child has, and you just need to allow it to happen without disrupting it.

In his incredible book Free to Learn, Peter Gray talks about the importance of independent play. He talks about the idea that children, for the most part, have their happiest and most fulfilled moments of flow when they are immersed in play, by themselves. Where no one is watching them or evaluating them. Generally speaking, evaluation and monitoring inhibit intrinsic interest and satisfaction. What that means is that if you are watching your child and offering praise or feedback for the way they are playing, or even commentary, that will inhibit the independent play. So when your child is immersed in something, my #1 rule is – Do not interrupt. Do not even make eye contact. Allow them that flow, allow them that concentration, without somebody… yourself… disturbing them.

In order to do that, you really need to have a very strict rule that when a child is playing, everybody tiptoes around the house. Nobody talks to them until they are done. This is the equivalent of someone who’s writing a novel, and you keep coming over and saying: “Oh I like that paragraph. I like how you did that.” or “That looks great! Look at you, working so hard!”. It’s the most annoying thing anyone can do when you’re really in the deep flow of important work! Which is exactly what children’s play is. So please, if your child is playing, even just for a few minutes, or just for one minute, don’t say anything. Do not evaluate.

One more point on this is about siblings. If your child has a young baby or an older sibling that disrupts their play, that interrupts them, you might want to consider creating a space that is safe for them where no one can interrupt. Not you, their sibling or a pet. If someone keeps breaking what they’re building or moving the pieces that they’re in the middle of using, they can get very frustrated and they will give up on the independent play. So protect them as much as you can. If it’s putting what they’re playing with up on the table so that the baby can’t reach and they can sit at the table, or in a different room, or using a baby gate, consider this the holy work of the child, that really is his sanctuary to be protected and preserved by us, the parents.

Do you have tips for encouraging independent play? I would love to hear in the comments below!

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COME FIND ME ON INSTAGRAM!

Imagine that instead of brushing your kid’s teeth every day, you decided to wait until they’re 16. ⁣

The side effects of this choice would be…⁣
😝 Bad breath⁣
😬 Plaque build-up and discoloration⁣
🦷 Toothaches and cavities… ⁣
and eventually, BIG $$$$$ at the dentist for treatment.⁣

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!⁣
Of course, this is not a good plan!⁣

I'm going to assume you would rather create a small, manageable daily habit that invests in our child’s oral hygiene to last a lifetime.⁣

Because we know: ⁣
It might be a pain to get started and stay consistent, but over the long haul, it will save you so much pain, $$$, and grossness.🤢⁣

And it's the same with, independence.⁣

If you invest a little bit in your child’s independent play right now - taking small, manageable steps every day to maintain and establish healthy habits - you will reap the benefits over time.⁣

A tough-love moment here - it’s not realistic to wait until your child is 16 and then suddenly expect them to be independent enough to drive or get their first job or figure out a plan for the summer.⁣

These are skills you’ve got to build slowly and gradually.⁣

It’s also not desirable to spend the next decade suffering through burnout, exhaustion, clinginess - because you’re not making the little investment that it takes to establish healthy independent play habits (just as it’s not awesome to endure cavities, toothache, and bad breath for years - rather than invest in establishing healthy brushing habits early on).⁣

So I guess my message is: Don’t wait with this. ⁣
When we neglect our child’s need for independence - it gets worse, not better.⁣

But when you take the time to follow along with the small, daily, doable actions that are outlined in the Reclaim Play Challenge - it will pay off in spades years later! ⁣

That’s why you’re here.⁣

You can do this. 💪⁣

It’s SO worth it. The small actions you’re taking now are going to pay back dividends... forever.⁣

Reclaim Play is all unlocked! Link in bio
...

“𝗗𝗿𝗮𝘄 𝗺𝗲 𝗮 𝗵𝗼𝗿𝘀𝗲!” my daughter said. Not gonna lie, I draw a mean horse. 🐎 So I did. She watched me, wide-eyed, so impressed. So excited. So grateful! A beautiful moment, right?⁣

I thought so. “𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘈𝘷𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭!” I thought, patting myself on the back.⁣

After she colored it in she said: “𝗖𝗮𝗻 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗱𝗿𝗮𝘄 𝗺𝗲 𝗮 𝗺𝗲𝗿𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗱 𝗻𝗼𝘄?” 🧜‍♀️ ⁣

“𝘞𝘩𝘺 𝘥𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘸 𝘪𝘵, 𝘮𝘺 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦?”⁣

“𝗜 𝗰𝗮𝗻’𝘁 𝗱𝗿𝗮𝘄 𝗮𝘀 𝗽𝗿𝗲𝘁𝘁𝘆 𝗮𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂.”⁣

oomph.⁣

My heart sunk just a little bit. 😟⁣

In my well-meaning attempt to answer my daughter’s sweet request - I had undermined her own creativity. ⁣

I had shown her that I, the adult, was more developed, more skilled, more capable - so much so that she might as well not even try. ⁣

Why try when she could never measure up to the mermaid that I can produce? ⁣

Look, it’s not a big deal. I’ll still draw for my kids from time to time - but I really try not to. ⁣

I try to say, 'No', to playing with them or for them - because I want to say, 'Yes', to something else...⁣

I want to say YES to their: ⁣
❤ Creativity⁣
❤ Independence⁣
❤ Personal Satisfaction⁣
❤ Development⁣
❤ Resilience⁣
❤ Problem-solving⁣
❤ Focus⁣
❤ Attention⁣
❤ Concentration⁣
❤ Inner World⁣

I want to step out of the way of THEIR self-expression, curiosity, exploration. And as an adult, if I interject myself (even if they’re begging me to!), I’m totally likely to overshadow and overpower - even with all my best intentions!⁣

So, my friend, if you ever feel guilty for letting your kids play independently, for saying “no”, stepping away, or becoming less involved, know this:⁣

𝗜𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗽𝗲𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝘆 𝗶𝘀 𝗸𝗶𝗱𝘀 𝗯𝗶𝗿𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁!⁣

We owe it to them.⁣

I hope this is a liberating thought for you, as it was for me. ⁣

#reclaimplay #independentplay⁣
#childhoodunplugged #motherhoodthroughinstagram #letthembelittle #playpandemic #presentplay #intentionalmotherhood #intentionalparenting #loveparenting #enjoyparenting #parenthood #parentingwisdom #childdevelopment #playisimportant #playislearning #playisachildswork #independencebaby #toddlerdrawings #toddlerdrawing
...

Want results like Stephanie? Want to look back in a few years and think: I did it! I became the parent I knew I could be and showed up for my kids’ childhood.

Then I hope you’re taking the first (tiny, easy, doable!) baby step and follow along with Week 1 of the challenge! *Simplify*

Do you believe your kids are capable? Do you believe you’re capable?

Remember: “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t: you’re right.” (FREE www.theparentingjunkie.com/challenge) #reclaimplay #presentplay
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2 comments

2 Replies to “10 Ways To Encourage Independent Play”

  1. Grandparents tend to comment a lot while kids are playing independently. Any suggestions on how to talk to the grandparents without let them feel we are too strict or bossy?

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