I want to preface this confession by saying that I absolutely adore my children. I love spending time with them – I love reading books to them, playing games, cooking and baking with them in the kitchen, dance parties around the house, taking them places to explore and do activities all around town. However when it comes to sitting down on the floor to play with cars, trains, Legos, dolls – that is just not my thing. Will I put together the train tracks to make an awesome path for them to play on? You bet! Can I build a really sweet Lego mansion for them to add onto and play with? Heck yes! But actually playing with them is where things get a little dicey for me.
I think part of it comes from me not really knowing how to play with them. I never know what exactly I’m supposed to pretend or make believe. It all feels super forced to me. When it comes down to it, I just don’t enjoy it. I would rather have the time I spend doing activities with my children filled with mutual joy and happiness, and doing something we both love – not this forced version of “fun” just because people say I should play with my kids.
Those times I get down on the floor to play, I feel as though I am essentially taking over whatever it was they were originally playing. To me, this feels a little like I am squashing their creativity. I want them to be able to use their imaginations how they see fit, which usually puts me into more of an observer role. I inadvertently did this with my son from a very young age. I would let him lay on his activity mat and play, then when he was a little older I’d put him on the floor so he could crawl around and explore. That kind of naturally grew into his time to play however he wanted to – basically helping him to learn to play independently. We naturally did the same thing when my daughter was born.
So what exactly is independent play? To me it’s time for my kids to play on their own (or with each other) without me there to guide them in an activity. I am still in the same room, but they are directing their own activities and playing how they want to play. I am often doing something like folding laundry or working on dinner in the kitchen. I can supervise and watch what they are doing, but not dedicating 100% of my attention to them. The area where the kids play is totally safe, so I don’t have to worry about them getting hurt. They regularly come to me to show me something cool they made or call me over to share in their excitement. I also make it a point to pop over to their play area occasionally (like when I’m done with a task) to ask them about what they are playing with and sit with them for a little bit.
One big component for why this is so successful for us is that we don’t have too many toys. Every couple of months we go through the toys together and get rid of any they haven’t played with in a while. I have found that the less toys they have, the more they play with what they have. I also try to fill their play area with toys that encourage creative or constructive play. I noticed that when I cut down the number of toys and was more intentional about what toys they had, that they are able to play independently for longer periods of time.
So what happens when my kids don’t want to play by themselves? If I’m not working on a task that needs to get done, I will sit down and play with them. I usually suggest we read a book or do something that still encourages them to explore their creativity. If I happen to be doing something that I just need to get done, I suggest that they help me with whatever I’m working on. If I’m cooking dinner, I give them the option to come help me in the kitchen – I’ll ask my 3 year old if he wants to help me measure ingredients or build a cool Lego tower before we eat dinner. Giving them the option to help keeps them happy and they can still get that mom time they are craving.
Photos in this post were taken by Shannon Worley Photography