How To Get Your Child To Play Alone When They're Used To Having You Around

Our kids have been with us 24/7 through lockdown – here's how to finally get some time to ourselves.

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Lockdown for parents has been... intense. We’ve been left trying to juggle homeschooling with working; all while struggling to entertain our children at home, for weeks or months on end.

Our kids have got used to us being around... all of the time. And now that schools have broken up and we’re left staring down the barrel of the long summer holidays, it can be hard to imagine ever having time to ourselves, again.

It can also be tempting to think that we, as adults, have to provide our children with ideas for entertainment. If you’ve ever heard a child say, “I’m bored” (and, with most schools out since March, who hasn’t), chances are you’ve automatically suggested something for them to do – whether it’s “draw something”, “go outside”, or simply, “watch TV”.

But according to mum-of-two Clare Caro, founder of company Nature Play, which organises weekly ‘pure play’ sessions in safe, outdoor environments, that’s exactly where parents are going wrong.

“Children’s play has incredible benefits for development,” Caro tells HuffPost UK, “but there’s a lot of confusing information out there about what ‘play’ is.

“A lot of adults have ideas about play, and what the child ‘needs’ – and that’s why we love to buy children toys. But there’s so much play that doesn’t involve objects.

“There’s physical play, imaginative play, exploratory play – loads of time spent playing that doesn’t involve anything provided. The kids will find what they need in their environment, whether it’s out in the woods or at home.”

Caro says that parents facing the long summer break should think more about how to facilitate ‘pure play’ – by giving their kids a safe space without objects, screens or time limitations. “When experts are talking about the benefits of play, they’re not talking about toys and encouraging colouring-in sheets,” she says. “You can’t grow your imagination and creativity with those things.

“You don’t have to suggest or even encourage activities – you just give kids the time and the space to develop their own imaginations. You provide the time. Parents don’t even have to be actively involved in the child’s game. We are not actually there to be in their play at all, we are there to make sure everything is safe.”

Caro adds: “Take a step back, and just observe your child at play. When we start observing, we see what they’re capable of, and what they’re interested in. When we direct it, we miss out on that.”

If you’re struggling to think of ways to encourage your children to go off and play independently, Caro has 10 techniques you could try.

Don’t just leave them alone in a room

“It’s a huge thing, wanting children to play ‘independently’,” Caro says. “I like to rephrase it to: ‘interdependent play’. The child needs to know they’re safe, before they can play freely. Some people think that means blocking kids into a room with a stair-gate, or play-pen, then leaving them to play by themselves. But playing ‘interdependently’ doesn’t mean isolating your child in a designated play area. It means giving them a safe and open place to play, with you nearby.”

Eat a meal together, first

“Only an emotionally satisfied child will go and get engrossed in play,” Caro warns. “They’re looking for for full connection with their parent or carer, first. To do this, take time to read a book with your child, or have an uninterrupted chat, or a cuddle, or a drink. If you have a shared meal together – such as breakfast – most parents will find the kids will go off and play well together for a couple of hours, afterwards.”

Stop ‘content-feeding’ your child

“Some kids will find it difficult because they’re used to being entertained and ‘content-fed’ with TV, or video games, or designated ideas from the parent,” Caro points out. “Sometimes parents have five minutes to spare, and will interrupt whatever the child is doing to “come and play”. But if you want your child to be the one who is confident to go off and play by themselves or with other children, put all your effort into emotional connection first, and then they’ll be happy to go off without you. Think of it as a child who needs their battery charged – once they’re full up, they’ll have energy to play.”

Limit screentime

“If your child is used to being passively ‘content-fed’ with TV or iPads, they’ll get into the habit of it,” Caro warns. “Studies show that the behaviours of children who have their screens taken off them is very similar to addicts who come off drugs. So, limit the amount of time they spend on screens. Giving them time to go outside and be away from those addictive sources has so many benefits.”

“Think of children as needing their 'battery charged'”

- Clare Caro

Give them your full attention

“Listen to what your child has to say,” Caro advises. “Hear what they’re really asking for and what they need. If they’re hungry, give them a snack. If they want some quiet time, read a book together. If they want connection, have a face-to-face, full eye-contact conversation. When we’re feeling fractured or stressed out, our kids mirror us and might become more whiny and demanding.”

Have a morning meeting

“In my family, we have a morning meeting and discuss what we want to do, and then we go off and do our own stuff,” Caro says. “Later, we come back together at lunch or at tea to discuss what we’ve done, and how we’ve found it.”

Try keeping a ‘family log book’

“We write what we’re going to do each day,” Caro says. “We each have our own pages and for the kids, it can include things like... building a den. To facilitate that, we give over the living room to them and let them get on with it. Sometimes, that activity will stretch on for not just one day, but two or three, and they’re perfectly happy doing it.”

Structure your own day, too

“Often we think, ‘must work, must work’, and we go for 10 hours without a break – but that’s not good for us, either,” Caro says. “So, implement more structure into your own day – break it up with walks or snacks or drinks. We run our own batteries down, working ourselves down to the bone, simply because we can. It’s not the best idea and we think we’re getting loads done, but it’s counter-productive.”

Ringfence activities

“If a child is reluctant to go outside, set them time limits – and then hope they extend them themselves,” says Caro. It doesn’t mean having to have any private outdoor space, either. If you can, take your kids to a forest or park and let them play.

Set challenges

Caro says that providing resources isn’t completely off the menu – but let your children decide how they want to use them. “Older children love challenges,” she says. “You can have a load of resources, but don’t ‘feed’ them any other ideas than the basics: “walk, paint, draw, make a game”. Provide them with the raw materials. They are the directors. There’s no need for prescription. You don’t need to say, “paint a flower”, because as soon as they’ve finished, they may well ask, “what do I do, now?” Instead, try saying: “Do you want me to set up the table for painting?” and let them decide.