When parents need to work from home, they rely on their children being able to play on their own, especially if screens are going to be kept at bay. To that end … here’s what I know about play:
Children won’t play alone if they don’t feel well-tethered to the adults around them.
Children won’t play alone if they are out of rhythm.
Children won’t play alone if the environment is a “no” environment.
Children won’t play alone for long if the toys are “active” or only work one way.
Children won’t play alone if they are used to being entertained.
1) Before expecting a child to play on their own, make sure there was something you just finished together that had to do with their care. The most likely thing is eating a snack (but it could be helping them get dressed or washing up). Not a snack you set out and let the child eat alone or eat wandering around the house, but a snack you both sit down and eat together because of the joy of getting to be together. Notice all the details. Where do they wipe their hands, what food textures bother them, where does their attention go? And be there in full presence, going slowly, responding and attuning. This is like a deep well that gets filled up so the child can now play. If a child whines or clings, this connection is what they need.
2) If children have been too long in an outbreath (exhausted) or too long in an inbreath (bored) or is in any other way out of rhythm (hungry, tired, overwhelmed, lonely) they won’t play. Notice where these markers are in the day, and plan ahead for breaks from your work so you can bring everyone back into rhythm. It might mean a quiet time for cuddles and a story, a walk outside, a meal together or something else entirely. It depends on the unique rhythm of you and your child.
3) Create a “yes” environment if you want your children to play. This means take out (or put out of reach) every single item you don’t want them to touch or play with so the whole space says “yes.” Jerry-rig doors and drawers and rooms you don’t want opened. Let the environment say “no” so you don’t have to.
4) For children to play alone, the play materials need to be “passive,” meaning, they don’t do anything on their own. No lights, no motors, no switches. Active toys create passive, limited, short-lived play while passive toys create active, unlimited, longer play. Sometimes passive toys can be too simple all by themselves. Passive materials put together in interesting combinations spur the longest lasting play. What are your favorite play material combinations? Let us know.
5) Children want what they get, and if they’ve been entertained, that’s what they’ll want. As a rule, I suggest not getting started with entertaining your children from the very beginning. (Let them play nearby while you do other things.) But if it’s too late, and they can’t play alone without you, or won’t, you can begin to wean them off of adult-engaged play by sitting with them, and perhaps starting something. Then follow their lead and only do “play” that is their idea out of their initiative – without adding anything or improving anything. Eventually, they may be able to play with you nearby, bringing you into their play imaginatively, while you are in the room working on your own projects, and you just need to nod now and then and say, “yes, I see that.”