RTD: Fostering Independent Play in Children


If my hunch is correct, this is an area that many of us struggle with these days.  I know my wife and I struggle with it and many of our friends express the same frustrations.

A toy room full of a toys and backyard full of the same and yet our boys constantly want one thing — us.

Somewhere along the line, “Be home when the street lights come on” and “Get lost!” became extinct.  Previous generations simply believed that kids did not belong underfoot.   Kids belonged out.  Most everyone reading this would agree that when we were growing up the world was our oyster and we were expected to explore every nook and cranny until it was time for dinner, and in the summer months, again after dinner.

But somewhere between the Internet and 24/7 news coverage the world became a very scary place.

When I was a kid, I used to walk to elementary school with the older kids who lived across the street from me.  It was only about a mile, but we still had to walk along, and cross, a double yellow-lined main road.  The walk from where I live now to my son’s elementary school is very much the same, but police escort aside, there isn’t a chance in hell he is walking to school unless he is walking with an adult.  No, I don’t agree with this, but the world, or at least our perspective and exposure to it, has changed.  This is the world we live in now and we simply don’t have that free and easy trust with it anymore.

Even though we try our best to act normal, are our kids subconsciously picking up on this new, “protect them against the evils of the world” nature of ours and clinging to us more as a result?

Perfect example — we took a vacation last month to the beach.  A family beach.  A wide and flat beach.  The boys were playing wiffle ball a little ways off with their cousins by the sand dunes and nowhere even close to the water, so naturally, this was book reading, suntanning, and relaxing time for us parents.  But, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to turn my chair towards them and glance up from my book every once and a while to make sure everything was on the level.

They surely picked up on this, and while I wish I didn’t feel like it was necessary, I wouldn’t change it.

So, on a sunny Sunday back at the homestead, as I yearn for my kids to leave me alone for 20 minutes so I could watch some NFL football in peace, is it any wonder that they are clinging to my wife and I and not in their playroom or the backyard?  Have they really picked up on those subtle cues, not those of a “helicopter” parent, but those of a watchful one, and subconsciously feel weird about playing away from us?

Are you successful at fostering independent play in your children?  If so, what do you recommend to those of us struggling with this?  If not, what challenges are you facing?  Do you find yourself performing these watchful acts that your parents would probably never have dreamed of doing?

Join us this Wednesday night as we hang out and chat with you about fostering independent play in children.  Use the #DadsRT hashtag to follow along and participate.  

We are online at 6pm PST / 9pm EST.  


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About Brad the Dad

Enjoy a unique, fresh and entertaining perspective on parenting as Brad the Dad learns what it takes to raise 2 boys in today's world. #DadsRT co-founder.

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  1. Al says:

    So your main theory is that a kids inability to play alone has to do with a parent projecting concerns onto their kid?

    I think you’re onto something – kids are always more perceptive than the parents (let’s face it they have less to crowd out their brains, i.e. ‘did I pay the cable bill?’ , ‘God I hope he’ll stopping crapping his pants”, etc.). But that concern isn’t going to go away so I’d ask people how they could minimize it….can we? or is the genie out of the bottle and we’re just going to be a generation whose kids are closer to us while they’re young. I’m not sure that means anything bad in terms of their future development – aside from us being frustrated – though everyone ears raising a kid who can’t be their own person. .

    Should we reflect on those times when they are able to play independently? I noticed this weekend my boy was able to sit and entertain himself while my mother sat nearby and did the same activity as him but didn’t talk to him. Why was that? Welcome anyone’s suggestion….if forced to guess I’d say it was because he felt he was on the same level as her, He needn’t be the center of attention as long as he felt like he was doing like everyone else. If you watch kids they seldom play together so much as in the same area at least until later development, they don’t really care about their “peers” just that they not be left out. I feel like part of that is at play.

    Which takes me to the next point: I have a sneaking suspicion we have an ‘independent play” issue in my house because even when we are there, we are often not actually “there”. More often than I’d like to admit this happens: I’ll look up from a phone or newspaper and the boy is sitting asking us a question – and we are both are thinking the other parent is paying attention. And yes i blame the damn phone, as much as I love it. Or more accurately, I blame our behavior patterns with the phones. I’ve never been so present as when i busted my iPhone a month ago..it amazed me what i felt I needed to stay on top of on an hourly basis. of course that’s not the answer anymore than moving to Pennsylvania and becoming Amish would solve your tech worries. Ditching modernity is a total cop out, not to mention I’d be out of a fun & lucrative job. But I feel like I need to practice some ‘austerity’ and I’ll get some ROI in the form of junior being more self sufficient. because if we’re staring at an interesting flashing thing, he’s going to have less incentive to make his own fun. Kids are hardwired to learn by observing right? .

    As a fun aside: I’m tempted to say our parents never had that kind of device always demanding their attention – the ever-present smartphone with Internet & realtime media saying “don’t miss out! look now!”…, but that’s malarkey. Our folks had more devices (just non-disposable appliances) demanding their attention, combined with fewer modern conveniences….so it seems the real difference between us was that they couldn’t attend to those issues while sitting right next to their kid. After all, it’s harder for a kid to ask his dad to play with him when Dad’s on the roof cleaning gutters or mom’s sterilizing baby bottles for her youngest. Maybe that’s why they just accepted their kids would be out of sight?

    • I couldn’t agree with you more about smartphones, but you also bring up a good point about it all being relative. Maybe our moms were busy organizing their newly purchased items from last week’s Tupperware party while dad was reading the newspaper with his pipe in hand. And yet, to my point, even if our “distractions” are relative (to your point), were our parents more open to say “get lost” to us as they were doing these things, while we harbor some weird guilt and/or fears?

      Beyond the whole scary world thing, I know since my wife and I work all day that we definitely feel guilt on some level with regards to telling them to beat it.

      “Should we reflect on those times when they are able to play independently?”

      Definitely. I always try to think on the rhyme or reason behind when they actually play nicely together on their own and often come away just as confused. A toy or game that worked one day is the source of a major screaming match the next. A suggested craft that results in 30+ minutes of independent, creative play one day lasts 5 the next. Seemingly, it’s when they play by themselves in separate “corners of the world” is when I find we have the most peace.

      “Maybe that’s why they just accepted their kids would be out of sight?”

      I keep coming back to the thought that they didn’t accept this as much as they demanded it. I don’t think we need to be as extreme as our parents’ generation was, but I don’t think we need to be as extreme as this current one is either. We need to start pulling back some on this attachment/over-protective thing and giving our kids back to themselves.

This is what I think...