Think back to your own childhood and teen years. Did you enjoy independent play, perhaps in a special place outdoors, in your room, exploring your neighborhood or town, or with siblings and/or friends? How did your child self feel when you played games that you and your friends made-up with your own imagination, and explored on your own? For most children, independent play–defined as play directed by children without input or direction from adults–is a joyful and magical experience. As it turns out, it’s also an essential part of childhood and the teen years because it fosters well-being and self confidence in children. Unfortunately, independent play is less common now than it was a generation ago, and this decline in independent play is harmful to our children and teens.
School aged children and teens are experiencing an all-time high rate of anxiety and depression. Psychologists believe that many factors have led to this crisis, including social media and the pandemic. Another cause they cite is the decline in independent play. The silver lining is that independent play is easy to foster. (If your child is exhibiting signs of anxiety or depression, please consult your healthcare provider).
Parents can support independent play in elementary age children by encouraging them to play in a different room in the house, outdoors, or by simply engaging in other tasks, such as reading a novel or doing chores, while children play nearby. Provide children with toys, such as blocks, dolls, play kitchens, and dress-up toys that allow for open-ended play.
Older children and teens also benefit from independent play. Consider identifying safe outdoor spaces that give older children and teens a feeling of independence. Direct the young people in your life to take time away from devices so they can stretch their imaginations. Provide art supplies, tools, and craft materials. Make sure your young people know that they are welcome to have friends visit, and facilitate those visits.
Most importantly, know that it’s ok for your child to play on their own, and to experience boredom. While play and quality time with adults is important for child development, children thrive when that time is balanced by the opportunity to develop their own imaginative worlds free from adult input. Click here and here for more ideas about how to foster independent play in younger children, and if you're looking for ideas for older children and teens, click here, here, and here.