Independent Play

People (often older people) like mentioning that my kids are good at entertaining themselves. That may or may not be the case. Imp 2 can certainly spend a long time staring at a branch or chewing on sand and imp 1 will happily sit in a corner and drop cat food into the cat fountain. But ultimately I have nothing to compare it with and it’s definitely never long enough to read an entire chapter in a book or cook a meal.

I don’t think we need to try to make kids be as independent as possible, I think we should embrace their dependency. That doesn’t mean I don’t dream of being able to do yoga uninterrupted or take a shower without someone standing outside and demanding I draw faces on the fogged up shower doors.

What I do find puzzling, however, is the disconnect between parents complaining that their kids need constant entertainment and those same parents constantly “helping” their kids play.

The baby room

I am the kind of mum that likes sitting on the sideline, watching, and reading a book instead of playing with the children. I don’t follow imp 1 around on the playground unless specifically asked by her and I try not to offer my hand when she climbs. That’s just what comes naturally to me. But I was unsure if I was neglecting her or whether it was okay to just watch. Husband, in fact, has complained a few times that he needs to ‘do all the work’ on the playground because he will follow Imp 1 around and help her play.

As it happened, my favourite place to take imp 1 (and soon both imps) to play was offering a workshop. So I booked it. The place is a Pikler playroom and it’s just absolutely beautiful. It consists of three rooms, the sand room, the straw room, and the baby room. And everything is so beautiful and inviting and inspiring that the kids basically walk in, toss off their shoes, and begin playing. In my imp’s case I can honestly say that she doesn’t play as calmly and concentrated and independently anywhere as she does there. It’s obviously also rather beneficial for me that the parents in Pikler playrooms and groups are encouraged to sit on the sidelines and observe. They are not supposed to try to interact (though obviously they wouldn’t ignore the child if it came and asked for attention) and they are not supposed to be otherwise distracted. In theory, you just sit there and watch the children, in practice there is obviously some light chatting going on, because our kids are finally playing by themselves and we have some time to catch up. 

The straw room (without straw)

So here I am, at this workshop, together with about seven other parents (it’s been a while, I don’t remember details), but without kids. And then we are asked to pick a spot and spend 20 minutes playing by ourselves in the sand room. At this point I am breaking into sweats, I really don’t do well in these situations, and I was so stressed about the two Pikler pedagogues observing me pouring sand into a small coffee grinder over and over again. About ten minutes in I have found my grove and it has become quite meditative pouring the sand into the grinder at varying speeds and from varying heights and whatnot.
And then they start going around and start offering suggestions to us or praising our play. “Oh, don’t you think this would be really fun if you tried this spoon as well?” “It’s so pretty how you arranged these little teacups in a pattern.” “I think it would be easier if you tried grinding the wheel faster.” “Wow, great job.” And then they let us play another five minutes.

Afterwards they asked us how we felt when they commented on our play. All but one (the only man – go figure?) felt extremely irritated by the interruption and felt that their flow had been disturbed. Some reported not being able to concentrate on what they were doing before, some felt silly, some even a bit angry.
Now we are adults, but I imagine that kids would feel the same way. Which was obviously why they made us participate in this exercise. And it stuck with me. It’s been a year and I still think about this exercise whenever I am tempted to offer unsolicited help or commentary to my child (alas, husband would be glad if I applied the same standard to him).

Making eggs

Husband, however, was not so impressed by this lesson. I think he understands it, but he seems to have this almost compulsory need to interrupt the imps when they are playing. He will be engaged with something himself, not paying the kids any attention, and the second they find their jam and are deeply concentrated, he will suddenly call out to them or suggest some other activity.
And yet when I say ‘I’m a little afraid of the winter, it will be harder to spend as much time outside and to entertain the children all day,’ he’ll be the first to suggest that maybe by then Imp 1 will be better at independent play. But she is, my friend, she is! (Husband, if you’re reading this: I love you. But you know it’s true.)

Inspecting a shelf

In conclusion:

Children, toddlers especially, are not supposed to be fully independent. That’s why we, the adults, take care of them.
But a lot of them can and will play by themselves, even if only for short whiles.
We just gotta let ’em!

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