How Letting My Kids Play Saved me

independent play

When I started working, I was terrified that my children would suffer for it. At the bottom of my fear, I discovered, was a little idea I had picked up somewhere after peeing on a test for the first time: my children wouldn’t realize their full potential if I wasn’t constantly educating, playing, and communicating to them.

No wonder I was exhausted! What I discovered, however, is that all that “educating” (playdates and classes and educational activities) was just another form of entertainment, and that I was going to entertain my children to death.

Now that I don’t fill up my children’s time with education and entertainment, they’re free to play independently from me, and learn on a much deeper level than they would have before.

1. Play helps kids process emotions

My children’s toys often act out scenarios from our life. When we talk about big, grown-up concepts like bad guys or death (why does this see to come up so much?!), I’ll often find my kids processing and exploring those concepts through their play. As an adult, I know how dangerous unprocessed thoughts and feelings can be, so I love that my children have so much safe space and time to work through these big emotional topics. They are more peaceful and less anxious as a result!

2. Play helps children learn to work with others

Working at home forces me to stop hovering over my children. I step in when somebody starts hitting, but for the most part, I leave my children free to sort out conflict on their own. They’re able to learn the natural consequences of fighting (nobody wins) and taking toys from each other (when you take a toy, your sibling will take your toy). It sounds a little “Lord of the Flies,” but it’s actually a valuable lesson for my kids in human behavior, and doing unto others.

3. Play helps children grow their imaginations and learn to solve problems

My children have spent their happiest hours with tinker boxes (boxes of random household items), a sandbox in the backyard, and water in the bathroom sink. Something about the freedom to make messes and try new things encourages the problem-solving parts of their brains to just light up. They are able to think more creatively and out of the box, and grow their sensory and tactile skills.

Tips for encouraging screen free play:

Wean off the entertainment

It’s so tempting to turn to screens or play dates or park trips when kids get whiny (been there, do it all the time), but if you’re trying to foster long-term play, your kids have to get past the point of boredom. They have to live in the discomfort for a bit until they’re really motivated enough to develop new rhythms of play! Sign up above for 55 screen free play prompts to help get post the point of boredom. 

Anticipate sibling conflict

Yep, kids fight. It’s not inherently evil to have conflict, but I coach my kids a lot before the conflict ever begins, by praising them to their siblings (“You have SUCH a good brother, don’t you?” “Your sister is going to be your best friend for life!”). I also am prepared to separate them when I need to--sometimes we all just need a quiet morning in our bedrooms, don’t we?!

Timers + audiobooks are my secret weapons

Note: some of the links below are affiliate links. This means SFM gets a very small commission if you make a purchase (though you don't pay anything extra!). You can learn more here.

Timers are great tools for helping kids countdown periods of learning to play. This one-minute liquid timer is a great distraction tool ("can you play for one minute longer?"), and this timer is longer but very visual. 

Audiobooks are my other secret weapon: they are FANTASTIC at helping extend play! My kids are too young to sit still and listen to an audiobook by itself, but if I play one in the background while they’re playing, they’ll often play for quite a bit longer. Plus, they get all the fantastic benefits of reading aloud--I’ve literally seen my children’s vocabularies grow as a result of the books we listen to!

We listen to Audible audiobooks daily, and I’m a fan for two reasons: 

1. Easy returns. You just never know what kids will end up liking, so it's a relief to be able to EASILY return a book if they don’t seem to be listening. We’ve done this often and it’s (thankfully) no hassle.
2. Audible works across devices, thanks to the app. I don’t have to worry about chasing down the CD or finding an available CD player. We have a Kindle that the kids use to listen to. You can try Audible now and get two free audiobooks.

Here are a few titles we love (my kids have enjoyed these between 3-5 years): 

Winnie the Pooh: The House at Pooh Corner (This is dramatized MARVELOUSLY by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, etc.--I find my kids really respond well to dramatized stories) 
Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales (another dramatized collection) 
A Bear Called Paddington (read by Stephen Fry. SO funny.) 
The Mouse and the Motorcycle (good 'ol Beverly Cleary) 
The Cat and the Hat and Other Dr Seuss Favorites (read by a variety of great voices, such as Kelsey Grammar) 

Ready to learn more about independent play & working at home? Check out Equipped