Updated: Mar 27
Want your children to be doing something educational? Then let them play! Play is the natural way children learn. It’s one of the best ways for children to develop and strengthen their mental and physical abilities.
But not just any kind of play. Children need lots of independent, unstructured play. This type of play does not include watching TV, playing video games, or using any type of technology. Independent play is simply when your children play alone or with siblings or friends, but without adult intervention.
Research shows that play literally develops strong and widespread neural connections in a growing child’s brain. One study found that brain connections in animals actually sprout during periods of play, and believe that the same kind of brain growth occurs in human children when they play.
Play also develops:
Mental skills such as problem solving and cause and effect
Creativity and imagination
Fine and gross motor skills (physical coordination)
Unfortunately, many children today don’t know how to play and entertain themselves because they’ve never had to learn. They’ve always had some type of technology to entertain them. Therefore, when they can’t use technology, they get bored.
But unstructured play is so important to the development of children’s basic competency skills. That’s why independent play time should be part of your children’s daily routine—whether they want to or not.
Through play children actively learn about the real world by investigating and experiencing it directly. They learn problem solving by interacting in their environment and figuring out how things work. They learn cause and effect by doing something and then seeing what happens.
I remember when my son Skyler was less than 18 months old. He would walk around the house and investigate everything. He would open and shut the door over and over. He was figuring out how the doorknob and latch worked. He would get on his stepstool and turn the faucet on and off. Then he would look under the sink to see where the pipes led. Today, Skyler is an engineer. He is so good at problem solving and fixing things. Every time he fixes something, I think about all the hours he spent investigating as a toddler.
Play also develops good verbal skills. When young children play, they frequently talk to themselves. They talk to their dolls, their stuffed animals, or just themselves. This practice talking hones their verbal development.
In addition, play develops children’s imagination, creativity, and resourcefulness. When children play, they make up scenarios with their dolls or stuffed animals. They create things out of blocks or cushions. They invent toys out of sticks and boxes. Creativity and resourcefulness are important skills to develop for future endeavors.
Children also need to learn the skill of entertaining themselves. Without the skill of self-direction, kids get bored easily. And when children don't know how to occupy themselves productively, it can lead to trouble. One researcher writes that as kids get older and are unable to entertain themselves, they look to other things to amuse themselves like drugs, alcohol, and sex.
Learning to entertain themselves is a skill that can be developed. Kids just need down time away from screens and adult organized activities to develop it. In the book, More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting, author Serena Miller notes that Amish children can sit and play quietly by themselves for hours while their mothers work. They’ve been trained to entertain themselves.
So make sure your children have at least an hour or two of unstructured, independent play each day. Schedule it into your children’s daily routine. For instance, you might schedule independent play for the 2 hours after school.
For older kids, independent play looks a little different, but they still need to have it. It’s just a time with no screens for an hour or two a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens get at least an hour of physical activity a day. So make your teens go outside and go for a walk, or play basketball, or ride their bikes. For inside entertainment, they could play cards, or lift weights, or create a scavenger hunt for friends. Or here’s a good one: They could look for a job. But the point is, they need to learn how to occupy themselves productively without screens.
Let me warn you though. In the beginning, it’s likely your children won't want to play by themselves. But remember, think long-term. Children need to learn how to play independently and entertain themselves in order to develop their basic foundation for learning.
And here’s an added bonus. Once your children develop the skill of entertaining themselves, they won’t walk around bored, bothering you to entertain them. Win, win! Good for the kids. Good for mom! I scheduled in outside, independent play every day starting when my twins were toddlers. Every day, I MADE them play outside in my fenced-in backyard. Once they learned how to play outside, they generally played outside most of the day for the rest of their childhood!
In the beginning, you might want to introduce play time in small increments. For instance, on the first day, make your kids play for 10 or 15 minutes. Set the timer, and tell them they have to play until the timer goes off. Then increase the time by 5 or 10 minutes every day. The more they play without screens, the longer they’ll be able to play.
This play can be in their room, outside, or somewhere away from you. Just make sure it's childproofed.
For babies and toddlers, this independent play can also be in the same room with the parent. Just go about your business while your young children play near you.
When Skyler was little, he would follow me from room to room and play. If I was in the kitchen, he would bring his toys in the kitchen and play. When I went upstairs, he would bring his toy upstairs and play near me.
Teach Them to Play
In the beginning, you may need to spend some time teaching your children how to play and entertain themselves. For instance, teach your children how to give a tea party to stuffed animals. Or, demonstrate how to put a blanket over a card table to make a tent. Here are just a few ideas of things to teach your children to do during independent play:
Cut and paste
Glue and glitter
Make paper airplanes
Build model cars or airplanes
String beads for necklaces
For developing the imagination, have lots of costumes on hand. Garage sales and thrift stores are great places to shop to stock the pretend center. My boys could spend hours playing and pretending in their costumes!
So don't be afraid to make your children temporarily unhappy if you're doing what's best for them. And the best thing for them is, to turn off the TV, put away their devices, and learn how to play.
Learn how to put your children on a structured routine with Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.