Ezra,  Special Needs Parenting,  The Preschool Years

Encouraging independent play (with children who hate being alone)

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If you have a very extroverted child, especially if that child is an only child, you might be frustrated by blog posts that talk about how easy it is to keep children occupied with busy bags, closet toys, or blanket time. Claims that your child can stay occupied for 30 minutes or longer just seem ridiculous when you have a certain kind of child who absolutely hates to do anything alone.

{see also: My Child Hates Busy Bags (and Other Differently-Wired Child Realities)}

That’s okay – remember, what works for their child might not work for yours. Realizing that your child simply isn’t wired to play independently for that long and adjusting your expectations of what he or she CAN do is half the battle. Then and only then will encouraging independent play become less of a battle.

We are working hard to help Ezra lengthen the amount of time he can play on his own. We are using several strategies to accomplish this.

Encouraging independent play (with children who hate being alone)

Strategies to use during independent play:

Visual boundaries. I discussed this strategy in my last post, Visual Boundaries for Children.

Use of a visual timer. I have a smartphone, so I use both the Time Timer app and the Children’s Countdown Timer app. For playtime, I prefer Countdown as it makes a ticking noise while it’s running, which is helpful to remind children of the passing of time even if they aren’t looking at the timer. You can also find timers for kids.

Thinking smaller. Instead of saying “go play in the playroom” or “go play with your toys,” we’ve had to think smaller and focus in on specifics. When we started independent play training, I stayed in the room, outside of the boundaries. Other ways to think small are to have the child pick one toy to play with so he doesn’t get overwhelmed, and to start with very small increments of time and work up to longer playtimes.

Use of edible incentives. When I notice Ezra playing well on his own during an independent playtime, I will give him a small edible, such as a Teddy Graham, a marshmallow, a fruit snack, or a chocolate chip. You could also use non-sweets such as goldfish or Cheerios.

Using social playtime as a reward. (ie. 5 minutes of play by yourself, 5 minutes of play with mommy). (It’s also a good idea to spend some quality time with the child BEFORE starting an independent playtime so that he feels loved and secured, instead of lonely or ignored.)

Breaking up play time with gross motor breaks. We have found this to be crucial to helping Ezra play independently. He has to be able to get up and move around. If he’s not active, his brain gets overwhelmed and he can’t focus.

Putting it all together:

On a morning when we are really going to focus on independent play, here’s how things might go. (This is what we actually did on a morning back in November):

  • Gross Motor: 5 minutes of jumping on the bed
  • 5 minutes of independent play within the boundary (taped square on the floor) (Toy: cars) {Mommy upstairs}
  • Reward (1 chocolate chip)
  • 5 minutes of playtime with Mommy within the boundary (cars)
  • 5 minutes of riding tricycle around the basement

Encouraging independent play (with children who hate being alone)

  • 7 minutes of independent play within the boundary (puzzles) {Mommy upstairs}
  • Untimed play with Mommy to do puzzles again
  • Reward (1 chocolate chip)
  • 7 minutes of riding tricycle around the basement {Mommy upstairs}
  • 7 minutes of independent play within the boundary (puzzles) {Mommy upstairs}

Encouraging independent play (with children who hate being alone)

Encouraging independent play (with children who hate being alone)

If it seems tedious, you’re right. It is. But by doing this only a few times over the course of a few weeks, now, Ezra does much better at playing on his own. In fact, two days last week, after school I told him to go play in the basement. Each time, there was fussing at the beginning, but once he got focused on playing, he stayed occupied for nearly an hour. Yes. He really did. (I was shocked!)

Other tips:

  1. Some days your child is just going to need more of your attention. That means the housework won’t get done and that just has to be okay.
  2. These things take time. These strategies aren’t going to work overnight. Keep trying it. Try different variations, different toys, different locations. Don’t forget to think small.
  3. If you are rewarding your child with playtime with you, ask them how they want you to play. Ezra has very set ideas of how he wants playtime to go. Giving him a little bit of control in playtime can make it more enjoyable for both of you because you aren’t frustrating him unnecessarily.

I hope this helps. I’m not an expert and have had much frustration over this issue. So if independent playtime doesn’t come easily to your child and you find yourself frustrated, you are definitely not alone. I’m not going to claim that these things will work every time for every child. Take what works, and leave the rest.

How do you encourage independent playtime with your child?

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