The key is getting out of your child’s way! 

by Martha Tyler 

You love your child and want so much to do what is best for them. This is clear because you’re currently reading this article, trying to learn how to better serve your kid! I have some really good news, letting your child play – especially independently play – is one of the best ways to help them grow and learn. Independent play is a skill that children must have time and opportunity to practice. And, especially for the first 7 years of their lives, play is far more important than any academic work.

Lisa Sunbury from Regarding Baby said it really well when she said, “as soon as you define a ‘learning goal’, and begin to actively ‘teach’ your child through using worksheets, or introducing planned activities and materials that are to be used in a prescribed way to teach number and letter skills (for instance), your child is no longer engaging in free, experimental, self-guided, creative play, and the learning is no longer her own. It’s just not necessary to expose your daughter to ‘early learning skills’ in a structured, artificial way, because your two-year-old is constantly learning everything she needs to know just by being involved in her daily routines, actively exploring her world at her own pace, and engaging in relationship with you, the rest of her family, and the children at your local playground. All she needs is play to learn what she needs to learn, and to see her through to the time in her life when she is ready for more structured learning and instruction (ideally, sometime after the age of seven).” [1]

Even once a child is past the age of seven, they still need a very healthy balance of play with their academics. Play is the main course and academics are the side dishes.

 I know it is still tempting to think, “but my child also needs to be ready for kindergarten/1st grade/etc.! If we don’t spend some time on academics, they won’t be ready!” And so, activities and cute crafts that focus on counting or letters help with that worry. Here is some evidence from Scientific America, “The article concludes, ‘Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains.’ Yes, you read correctly, there is evidence to indicate early exposure to academics may actually damage developing brains. Not what any parent wants for their child, by any means.” It goes on to say, “…parents might be surprised to learn that ‘just playing’ is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life. Decades of research have demonstrated that their innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration—that is, through play.”[2]

How to foster this independence though? Start with setting some boundaries around when you are available to the children in your care. If you find yourself needing to “entertain” your kids and you’re putting off your own needs to do so, that is a huge red flag. When your child says “play with me” while you’re folding laundry or meal prepping, do not drop what you’re doing and run to join them immediately. Simply tell them, “I’m doing ________ right now. I can join you when I’m all done. Why don’t you get started on something and I will join you in a few minutes?” It is ok to allow your child to be bored. Respectful Parenting expert, Janet Lansbury, says it well, “What appears to be boredom is usually tiredness or the healthy bit of inertia children need just before the next good idea materializes. Boredom, imagination, and the ease with which children once played independently are all one, and they are becoming extinct together.”[3]

So, when you hear calls of “I’m bored!!!” do not panic! Allow your child to struggle with that discomfort. Make a “boredom” jar with your child and include ideas of things they can do during times of independent play. You could even color code it to have quieter activities for work hours or ideas that are to be done with a sibling vs. individually. There are a lot of good ideas for how to help children work through their boredom in this podcast episode. 

Caregivers, I know you want the world for your child. The good news is one of the best ways to help your child grow is to get out of their way and let them explore. It’s scary to simply meet your child’s needs and then let them play, but I promise it’s the best thing you can do for them right now. Take the pressure off yourself and your child. Even Magda Gerber said, “Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs, and leave them alone.” [4]   Play with your child and let them play it out on their own. More resources are included below! 

Let them play, caregivers! You’re doing a great job.  

Additional Resources

“The Power of Play” (podcast episode)

“No Equipment Needed Games” (podcast episode)

Article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Independent Play: Five Hints to Get the Ball Rolling

Stop Entertaining Your Toddler (In 3 Steps)

Four Surprising, Science-Backed Benefits of Free Play