A mom asked this terrific question in response to Independent Infant Play – Make It Happen:
I was reading this and wondering if you have any suggestions for older children who may not have had “independent play” as infants?
Unfortunately I was in college for my son’s first 18 months (he’s 3 1/2 now). Happily my mother wanted to and was able to watch him while I finished my degree, however, between school and my absolute inadequacies as a new mother and him being her only grandchild, I cannot remember how much independent play he really had.
My mother and I both intrinsically parent similarly to Magda Gerber’s way (which is why I am so crazy about your site!), but my son has difficulty being left alone in a room and prefers to be with my husband or me when we are at home. He does not have difficulty focusing on a task or paying attention, but I do think he should learn to be happy to play or be alone more.
If you want to encourage more independent play, all you have to do is ease off a little when you play together — try to stay in a more responsive mode and do less. This can actually be a fun challenge. Work on facilitating your son’s self-directed play rather than playing with him. Avoid showing him how to do things with blocks, Legos, puzzles, drawing, etc. Help him enjoy the process rather than going for a result (like a tower, a drawing that looks like something, a completed puzzle, etc.)
If he’s used to you assisting him, say, “I know I usually help with the puzzle. Now I’m going to let you work on it yourself for as long as you like.” Bounce the action back towards him. If he says, “Draw a house for me,” respond with something like, “How should the door look? Show me.” Be a patient observer when you play with him, just as Magda Gerber suggests we do with our infants and toddlers.
When we join in, our presence can easily take over. Without us even realizing it, our child’s activity can become all about us. I’ve personally enjoyed the challenge of stifling my instincts to help with or add on to my children’s activities with my ideas, and instead allowing things to unfold. Even after doing this for 17 years, those instincts don’t go away! Inevitably, the children end up doing something far more interesting when I stay out of the action and “wait”.
Staying out of your son’s play this way will help him become more self-reliant. He’ll begin to enjoy his independence and won’t need the constant presence of the adults he loves to be happily entertained. And although some children are less tolerant of spending time in a room alone than others, when he wants you nearby he won’t need your attention as much. You can be in the same room, or in an adjacent area, doing your own thing.
You’ll probably enjoy hanging out with him even more than you do now when you let him do all the “work”. You’ll learn more about him, too.
Thanks for asking, and please let me know how it goes.
All the best,
(This post: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/ Becoming Unglued, is my reponse to the mother of a 2 1/2 year old dealing with a somewhat similar issue.)
I share more advice for fostering child-directed play in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting