Encouraging Independent Play: Why Unstructured Play Matters and How to Foster It - Happy as a Mother

Encouraging Independent Play: Why Unstructured Play Matters and How to Foster It


with Susie Allison, Founder of Busy Toddler



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • The Importance of Independent, Unstructured Play
  • The Real Purpose of Play
  • Intensive Mothering and the Pressure to Play
  • How to Start Backing Out of Play
  • How to Let Our Children Play Without Judgement
  • The Value of Open-ended Toys

What if I told you that you didn’t have to play with your child all day? Moms put a lot of pressure on themselves to entertain their kids. They believe that “good moms” play with their kids as much as possible. But when we learn how to encourage independent play, we not only remove that pressure—we also give our children room to create, grow, and blossom. 

Today, I’m joined by Susie Allison, founder of Busy Toddler, to discuss what play is, why it matters, and how to encourage your children to play independently.

“Playing” As a Perfectionist

I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. While I have come a long way, I still prefer structure and order in many areas. 

So when my three boys want me to play with them, I don’t always enjoy it. Unstructured play can make my skin crawl. It feels like a chore that I do not enjoy doing. 

When I do “play” with them, my instinct is to act in a way that makes sense—using the kitchen set for pretend food, having action figures behave predictably, pretending the sea creatures are swimming in the water, and so on. 

But when my kids are playing on their own, they come up with more creative, adventurous scenarios, using things in ways that I would never think of. Their imaginations work completely differently. And they would happily play for hours, engaged in their own little worlds. They don’t care about the mess or logic or what makes “sense.” 

When I noticed how hard play felt sometimes, I started wondering if what I was bringing to the table—my logic and linear thought—was actually standing in the way of their creativity. And the more I researched, the more that suspicion was confirmed. 

That’s why I was excited to welcome Susie back to the podcast and pick her brain about what play should really look like, how to foster independent play—and whether we actually need to play all the time with our kids. 

The Importance of Independent, Unstructured Play

Susie pointed out that children have been learning through play since the dawn of time. As hunters and gatherers, kids weren’t sitting around with flashcards and worksheets—they were outside playing of their own accord. 

This type of play—independent, unstructured, creative play is a child’s highest form of learning

But in modern times, the idea of play has shifted quite a bit. We’ve replaced a lot of that free play with clubs and sports—organized activities with rules, guided by adults. 

Susie said that while those structured activities can be fun and playful, they aren’t on the same level for child development as unstructured play. 

The most valuable play happens when we are not involved. Sometimes, we think we need to have our hands in all the pots for our kids—we need to direct everything. But when we put our hands in the “free play” pot, we actually change the play—and our kids end up learning fewer skills than they would have if they had engaged in the play on their own. 

Susie pointed out that one of the defining characteristics of play is free will. But studies have shown that when an adult is present, even when they enter the play with the best of intentions, their presence impacts the child, making them stay and do something longer than they would have chosen to on their own. Ultimately, the child feels pressured to stay and engage in play, rather than exerting their free will to move on to something else. 

That’s why it’s important to take a step back and let your child be in control. When you do play with your child, resist the urge to steer the play–and make sure you are providing opportunities for them to play without you as well. 

The Real Purpose of Play

There is an idea that we must be playing with our children at every available moment. For many moms, it can feel like sitting and playing is the only way to build a relationship with our kids. 

But Susie said that isn’t the case. We can build relationships through other interactions—puzzles, board games, crafts, and other structured activities. The purpose of play isn’t relationship-building. It’s to give our kids the opportunity to explore, engage, and learn on their own. 

She believes that it is not our job to play with our kids. It is our job to put them in charge of their own play and give them opportunities to play on their own. 

We often feel guilty when we aren’t playing with our kids. It feels like we’re not doing the right thing. We think we have to accept every invitation to play and engage in play as often as possible. But in reality, when we encourage them to play independently, we are doing one of the best things we can do as parents. 

Susie said that if we RSVP yes for every moment of play, our day gets filled, and nothing else is getting done. This ends up putting a burden on our shoulders because we have donated all of our work time to our child’s work time. 

Instead, what we should be doing is thinking of our time as separate from our children’s time—they can engage independently in play, which is their work, while we engage in our own work. We can separate and do our own tasks, then come back together for connection time. 

It isn’t always easy to get to that point, but Susie believes it’s a journey worth taking, both for our children’s sake and our own.  

Intensive Mothering and the Pressure to Play

So, if independent play is better for our children, why do we feel the pressure to play with our kids? Susie and I agreed that this expectation ties into intensive mothering—the idea that we must sacrifice all of our time, energy, and resources for our children. 

It becomes an ideal of martyrdom—we believe we need to give all of ourselves all of the time, and if we aren’t, we’re “bad moms.”

But Susie pointed out that when we constantly intervene in our child’s play it creates a vicious cycle. When we always play with our children, they don’t learn the skills to play on their own, leaving us trapped in a cycle of dependent play. But that doesn’t give them the confidence or skills to be independent and be in charge of their own work. 

When we set our children up with the skills to play independently, we give them the opportunity to work and learn on their terms at their own pace—without us guiding them. 

How to Start Backing Out of Play

Susie said that if you’re ready to start changing how play happens in your home, the first thing to remember is to not feel guilty. You were given these intensive mothering scripts and messages—it isn’t your fault. It’s never too late to change the way you and your child play. 

It’s also important to remember that shifting the way we play is a marathon—not a sprint. If you have never fostered independent play, you can’t expect your child to wake up tomorrow and play independently for hours. 

Instead, you can start small. Susie recommends choosing a time of day to schedule in play—like after breakfast. It can feel counterintuitive to “schedule” play, but routine gives our children the safety and security to feel confident when playing. 

Pick a task you can do while your child plays, or set a 5-minute timer. Prep your child in advance by saying, “We’re going to eat breakfast, then you’re going to play while I load the dishes in the dishwasher,” or “You’re going to go play until this timer goes off in 5 minutes.” 

After the task or the time is done, go check on them right away. Build up the time little by little—this makes it less overwhelming and more secure for your child. 

Susie also said to make sure you are really giving them space to play without you. Even if they are too young to be unsupervised, you can still let them play without hovering too closely. Space without you gives them the opportunity to make their own choices and feel truly free. 

She also pointed out that we sometimes want to jump in and ask our children questions when we see them playing independently. But that is the equivalent of interrupting an adult mid-conversation. Resist the urge to interrupt their play—wait until after they are done, then chat and engage with them. 

Susie also recommends building a culture in your home that values play. You can have conversations, pointing out that your child’s one job is to play. Show your children that unstructured play has value. 

If you enjoy clubs and extracurricular activities, just make sure that you show as much importance to free play and carve out space for that too. 

How to Let Our Children Play Without Judgement

As you start to encourage independent play, your child will develop their own interests. My youngest loves to create complex adventure play setups. My middle son enjoys focused activities, like a Rubik’s cube. My oldest loves Minecraft. 

Each child plays in a different way, at different ages and stages. Susie pointed out that it is not our job to judge the play—whether that looks like picking grass blades or building structures. Our job is just to let them have the opportunity to develop their own play style and engage with it. As long as they are choosing it on their own and enjoying it, we don’t have to understand it. 

Susie also pointed out that while screen time gets vilified, there are benefits to it–and not all screen time is created equal. There are wonderful skills kids can learn from playing video games–which is why Susie values her kids’ video game time as much as any other play. 

However, screen time can sometimes become a crutch when children struggle to play independently, trapping them in that cycle of not knowing how to play on their own. Instead, Susie recommends making it part of your routine—using it as a part of your play schedule instead of replacing play. 

The Value of Open-ended Toys

Susie also said that if play is the work of childhood, toys are the tools. We want our children to have the best tools for their play. But the best tools aren’t always the most expensive or flashy ones. 

Instead, the best ones are open-ended toys—toys that put children in the driver’s seat. These toys are ones that can be changed and used in different ways. For example, modelling clay can be used to build, or it can be used to create pretend food. This gives the child a chance to experiment and engage. 

The closed-off toys that only have one way to play—like electronic toys with a button, don’t spark imagination or creativity. Susie said that those toys are great at playing—but what we want is for our children to play. 

She also pointed out that we often buy new toys for the sake of buying toys. But if we can reframe our thinking and look at ourselves as the gatekeeper of toys, bringing in toys with purpose and thought, it becomes less overwhelming. 

As we become more selective about our toys, it also helps us reduce overstimulation—we can have fewer toys (and less noisy toys) and still encourage great independent play. 

Toys and play aren’t about quantity. Your worth as a mother isn’t measured by how many hours you spend playing with your child or how many toys you provide. You aren’t a “bad mom” if you don’t enjoy playing or if you don’t accept every invitation to play. 

When we can give ourselves grace and understand that encouraging independent play is good for both us and our child, we can start to view play as it should be and let go of the pressures around it. 

If you’re struggling with sensory overload due to mess and toys, our workshop, Managing Overstimulation in Motherhood can help! Register now to learn how to overcome your triggers and be more present with your family.

Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 1.8 million followers on Instagram. She’s a parent of 3, former teacher, and has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education. Susie is known for her easy kids activities, parenting support, and education tips.

  


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