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Solitude isn’t a dirty word. Allowing your kids to play by themselves is a valuable experience. Here’s how to encourage your children to play independently.
When you’re a parent, you’re almost never alone. By day, you’re a frantic chef, chauffeur and referee. At night, you’re often sharing your pillow with a small, restless person or getting up to tend to their needs. Even showering with an audience becomes the status quo.
But here’s the thing: even though most babies and toddlers crave our constant attention, from 12 months on, kids can actually happily play by themselves, if only for a few minutes at a time. Short bursts of solo play are actually beneficial for development and creativity. Start putting it into practice and they’ll reap the rewards of independent play.
Playing alone, when balanced with periods of social interaction, teaches kids independent play and self-reliance. Regular solitary time encourages them to feel comfortable in their own skin and means they don’t have to rely on other people for support or commendation. This sort of social confidence is a valuable skill to take into adulthood.
In fact, the skills you’re teaching your child while they’re playing alone can be applied in all aspects of life, at home and at school. Having periods of alone time actually bolsters your sense of identity, which is critical for kids who are still developing theirs.
The classic solo-play activity? Colouring, drawing, scribbling and doodling. Whether they use pencils, crayons, markers, chalk, or even pastels, this is a solitary winner. While it’s great to set them up with great colouring-in books, you can help boost their creativity by taking away the guiding lines: a blank drawing pad is canvas for pure imagination.
Solo play boosts children’s ability to solve problems, develop patience and maintain focus on a task. When kids engage in some independent play, they’re working towards becoming self-regulating beings who can make their own decisions, exercise self-control and master their emotions.
Solo play also encourages imagination and creativity. Without you calling the shots, kids have to figure out a way to entertain themselves. Hopefully this leads to them feeling less bored in the future – they can literally make their own fun! By being on their own, you’re teaching your kids to explore and make discoveries. They can bend the rules, think outside the box and discover new ideas and feelings.
In the modern world, where we suffer from overstimulation, a bit of time playing alone can be a balm. It’s quiet time that allows for reflection and connection back to self, without other people around to excite or upset. The benefits of regular solo play can be seen in a child’s mood.
After busy periods at school or the local playground, playing alone, even just for a few minutes in the living room, encourages peacefulness and calm. It allows the brain time to decompress and replenish itself. A US study found that just 15 minutes of solitude was enough to reduce the intensity of feelings such as anger and nervousness in adults. An ongoing Harvard University study is finding people even form more lasting and accurate memories if they think they’re experiencing something alone.
When there’s plenty of textures, shapes and sounds, kids are easily absorbed. Making their own music might be frightful for you – but they’ll love it. For sensory solo play that’s a little quieter, try building blocks, sensory sand, playdough and modelling clay.
Encouraging preschoolers to play by themselves prepares them for school, where they will have to work independently at times. Frequent sessions of solo play, as part of a balanced lifestyle, makes for well-rounded, resilient kids.
After playing alone for a short period, a child will feel more confident and successful. Accomplishing something on their own (such as building a block tower or completing a lovely drawing) promotes good self-esteem and makes kids feel happy and satisfied. Alone time also gives children the opportunity to better know themselves and develop a rich inner life.
One of the greatest solo-play activities ever made is the jigsaw puzzle – and it’s particularly good for older kids. Preschooler and younger primary kids will likely need some help but older primary kids can take a puzzle box and spend an afternoon fully absorbed.
Added Bonus You’re boosting their problem-solving, reasoning, concentration and memory skills all at once. If they're already puzzle aficionados, up the ante with a 3D version.
When your child plays individually they’re developing their cognitive skills just as much as when they play with others. You’re teaching your child to solve problems, strengthen their concentration and persistence, and stimulate their creativity and imagination. This is where they’ll practise and then crystallise things they’ve learnt, such as counting, recognising letters and shapes and building their vocabulary. Some time spent alone can also enhance their empathy and social skills, for instance, when they role play situations with toys.
A US study found teenagers benefit greatly from periods of solitude. It found they were less self-conscious and had more positive emotions when provided with some free time away from their peers. As social creatures, humans can’t help but be distracted and influenced by the people around them and this can be particularly taxing for older kids and teens, who are self-conscious and concerned about what others are thinking. So some alone time can allow the mind to enter a relaxed state.
For kids who love storytime and reading, get them to write their own short stories. All they need is a pencil or pen, and some blank paper (coloured is always more fun). This clever solo-play activity is great for imagination and helps them practice basic writing and literacy skills. Older kids might also like to try journalling, too. Nothing beats a couple of blank notebooks, begging to be filled with diary entries, daily jotting, or even just notes to friends.
Modern-day parenting is hands on and so often we put our kids first and foremost. It’s not always a bad thing but when children can’t entertain themselves, they are more and more at risk of becoming spoiled. With their every wish fulfilled and every second scheduled with engaging activities, kids aren’t used to dealing with life’s small problems: things like feeling bored or having to wait their turn.
In this way, having some unstructured solo time, where kids are left to their own devices, is helpful in that it reinforces the idea that life is not a constant party or smorgasbord of activities. By taking time to themselves, parents are also showing that they have other interests and responsibilities that don’t include the child. This is healthy and helpful for all.