How to have a summer filled with independent play

An article in the New York Times spoke to me recently. As a busy, full-time working parent of three young kids, I couldn’t resist clicking on Now’s a Good Time to Teach Your Kids to Play on Their Own.

Early last summer, when most camps and activities were cancelled, I worried about how I would keep my kids entertained all day for two long months. And then I quickly realized something: I can’t. And I didn’t have to. The reason? They could play on their own. But I needed to do something first.

I had to let go!

Summer 2020 was the season of independence. It was forced upon me.
Because I had to work, and my kids needed something to do, at the start of each day, I took a deep breath and let my kids loose into the outdoors for a full day of unsupervised, unscheduled play

As a parent who was nervous about letting my kids go, I’m not sure I would have given them so much freedom at such a young age if I didn’t have to. But the result was that my kids survived and, in fact, they had one of the best summers of their young lives.

This summer, no matter what happens, I plan to do it all over again. As the New York Times article states, “Independent play is a skill your kids will use for the rest of their lives — and a way to claim some time for yourself during quarantine.” If you’d like to know just how to achieve that kind of freedom, here are a few tips.

Start together and start small

In the article, Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen has advice for any parent with a child not naturally inclined to play on their own. Cohen recommends starting the day with some high-quality connected play.

“Set a timer for 20 minutes, put away your phone and say to your children, ‘I’ve got 20 minutes just for you. What would you like to do?’” The idea is, after spending time together the connection will give your kids the confidence to continue on their own. The takeaway will be that Mom or Dad enjoys being with them, and that they’re good at what they’re doing. And, if you tell your kids you can do it again later, you’ll likely be able to slip away to do your own thing for a while.

Get creative with presentation of toys

When the same toys are left out for kids, they can appear boring. When those toys are put away for a while, or presented in a new manner, suddenly they’re enticing. Try rotating out a few toys to keep things fresh. Or present them differently: Lego that’s half-started, for example, smaller toys put out on a baking sheet, or an empty muffin tin for them to fill.

Go outside and make a mess

If you can, take your chores or work outside with you. And if you have the space, let your kids make a mess. Messy play is so fun and engaging, your kids might just entertain themselves for ages before you know it. Try water with soap suds, sand, paint, or even a dash of colour

Create space for movement

If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, try building an obstacle course, pitching a tent, or setting up some sleeping bags for them to tumble on. With a bit of imagination, you can bring the outside indoors. Clear a bit of space, add some household items like some pillows and let your kids enjoy. 

Give them ideas to choose from

Although we want them to be independent, your child might equate your request for them to try independent play with being shoved out the door and being told to go figure it out. Cohen suggests that instead, you should try challenging your kids to do activities you can take part in later, like creating a piece of art for you or building their own obstacle course using cushions and chairs.

If you ask them to come show you once they’re done, it’s still about connection, even though they’re playing independently. Even better, you can tell them you’ll time them in the activity for a fun challenge. Here are 30 activities they can get started with on their own, but you can participate in later.

If you’re still stuck for ideas, the articles below will get you going. And while it may take time for your child to be ready for independence, once you get there, you’ll be helping them build an important life skill, while also having fun. Good luck! 


Learn more about independent play:

These parent-tested tips will help kids play by themselves

42 easy activities to keep kids busy while parents work at home

5 tips for allowing your child out of your sight outdoors

One piece of chalk, 8 active games

Keep kids busy with Active for Life’s summer “day camp” — at home

One response to “How to have a summer filled with independent play

  1. I have a four year old grandson that we have every Monday and are looking for different activities for us to do with him or him alone.

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