Teaching Independent Play a Win-Win for Children & Parents
Teaching Independent Play A Win-Win for Children & Parents
Ethan returns home from school after a busy day of structured activities. His mother, Andrea, spends some time snuggling with Ethan and asking him about his day and then decides she needs to start a load of laundry, check messages, and get dinner underway. Within a couple of minutes, Ethan is begging her to play and “getting into things”, making it difficult for Andrea to finish anything. This pattern defines their afternoons together and is frustrating both Andrea and Ethan. Ethan is bored and unhappy; Andrea ends up not finishing household tasks, taking shortcuts (e.g., getting fast food), or putting things off until Ethan goes to bed. Andrea cannot remember the last time she took a bath or read for pleasure.
It is often said that the job of a child is play, but, we tend to focus primarily on teaching children with special needs academic, social, language, or motor skills – unintentionally making independent play skills a secondary priority. Leisure skills are important, not only, because they allow children a greater level of independence, but also, because they provide an opportunity for children to explore their environment, develop their interests and cognitive and motor skills, and enjoy “down time.” Leisure skills can also help enhance relationships with other people as their mutual preferences and unique forms of self-expression draw them together. For parents like Andrea, helping children develop leisure skills may provide a much-needed break to attend to their own needs. For all these reasons, teaching independent leisure skills is a win-win solution for everyone.
Finding Activities that Capture a Child’s Interest
The first step in developing leisure skills is to assess your child’s interests and abilities. This may involve asking your child what he, or she, likes or by observing your child in action. Pay attention in situations when there are no demands on your child to determine which activities or materials your child naturally gravitates toward. Ask people who spend time with your child outside your home; you may discover interests that surprise you. To identify activities, the following questions might be helpful:
- What types of activities does your child enjoy – indoor, outdoor, active, or sedentary? Do the activities involve imaginative play, construction, sorting or collecting, games or puzzles, arts and crafts, or stories?
- What types of materials draw your child’s attention? Does your child like particular characters, dolls, or action figures? Does he or she prefer blocks, building materials, household objects, or clothing, make-up, or accessories? What about toy vehicles, tools, or sporting goods?
It may also be beneficial to consider what types of activities other family members or friends enjoy, including what other children your child’s age are doing. If your child shares similar interests with people close to him, or her, you may have easier access to the materials and better teaching opportunities. Also, encouraging age-appropriate activities could provide a foray into socialization opportunities.
If you are unsure of your child’s interests, or are unable to identify appropriate leisure skills, try sampling. This means exploring or introducing new activities or hobbies and assessing your child’s interest and participation in them. It helps to build from your child’s strengths and preferences. For example, if your child likes to build things, you could introduce a model kit, or if he or she enjoys dressing up, you could gather a variety of items from a consignment store and see what happens.
How to Teach Leisure Skills
Once you have identified some preferred leisure activities, you will need to determine what type and level of participation is reasonable to expect of your child. This includes whether your child can initiate, or choose between, activities, follow directions or imitate other people, and perform the required skills unsupported and safely. You also need to determine how long your child can currently play alone before becoming frustrated or bored. Based on this information, you will be able to decide what to teach and where to begin.
Simply identifying activities that interest your child is just the beginning. Unless you teach your child how to play, he or she may interact with the materials briefly and then discard them. Teaching leisure skills requires some consistency and patience; the following steps will be helpful.
1. Establish a routine for the leisure activity.
If the leisure activity is available at home, determine when it may fit logically into your family’s schedule (e.g., by identifying “down times” in which your child may often be bored). If the activity must occur in the community, identify times for those outings.
2. Make related materials easily accessible.
Assemble materials needed for the leisure activity and store them in a particular place. For certain activities (e.g., collections, crafts), it may be helpful to have sectional bins or books. Presenting the materials in an organized and enticing fashion may encourage their use.
3. Define activities and break them down.
Determine what skills your child needs to participate fully in the leisure activity, making a list of steps or options. If appropriate, create some type of picture menu to guide participation in. If your child must ask to initiate the activity (e.g., because it occurs in the community or requires supervision), decide how your child can make the necessary request.
4. Practice the leisure activity with your child.
TEACH your child how to participate in the leisure activity. This means telling, showing, and possibly physically guiding your child how to play. Make sure you use the ‘least intrusive’ teaching method (e.g., just playing with the materials beside your child instead of talking through all the steps) that works.
5. Reward your child for independent play.
If the activity is immediately enjoyable for your child, there is no need to provide additional encouragement or rewards. If, however, your child is not initially motivated, you will probably want to follow periods of independent play with praise or rewards. If you have selected the right leisure skills, they will be enjoyable in themselves – making it easy to reduce these rewards over time.
6. Fade yourself out and encourage elaboration.
Keep in mind that the goal here is to encourage leisure skills, not necessarily social interaction. Therefore, gradually reduce your presence and participation – and extend the length of time your child is expected to play alone – in the activity as your child becomes independent. Teaching more elaborate routines will allow your child to stay engaged longer.
Helping your child build leisure skills has multiple benefits. It makes your child’s life more enjoyable, reduces the expectation that you have to constantly entertain your child, and may produce interests that will lead to social connections in the future. In order to be successful in developing these skills, the activities must match your child’s interests and abilities and be consistently accessible. The time spent helping your child learn the skills to independently participate in leisure activities will certainly pay off in the long-run.
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This post originally appeared on our July/August 2013 Magazine