By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations
Nowadays, children’s schedules tend to be highly regimented. For many, free play has been replaced by extracurricular activities, sports and planned playdates. Recess hours have also been reduced in favor of structured learning activities. The reduction in free play throughout the day can delay or interfere with the development of independent play and time management skills. Unfortunately, with schools and childcare centers now closed, our children may not know how to use all of the extra time they now have.
I have two young children – a preschooler who is generally an expert at independent play, and a first grader who needs a lot of structure, support and attention to fill his time. Unfortunately, with much of our attention turning toward working from home and remote learning, even my formerly-skilled independent player is now overwhelmed with the amount of unstructured time he has, resulting in some new and not-so-fun attention-seeking behaviors.
Sound familiar? I am guessing this is the experience many families are facing. Both parents and children are trying to navigate life without any clear time boundaries (What day is it, anyway??), and this is stressful. When kids are stressed, they look to their caregiver to help them regulate – “attention seeking” behavior is their way of saying “I’m stressed out and don’t know what to do with myself – help!” The question is, how do we help them play independently (buying us time to get things done) while still supporting their emotional needs?
The experience of navigating the stress of unstructured time and teaching independent play is addressed in Kate Rope’s recent New York Times article titled “Now’s a Good Time to Teach Your Kids to Play on Their Own.” In the article, Rope discusses ways to embrace this new opportunity to teach independent play – a skill that encourages time management, executive function and self-regulation skills. Some of the strategies she outlines are similar to those that we have attempted at my house in the past few weeks. Here are some that have worked for us:
- Get outside: My kids’ capacity to play on their own is markedly better when outdoors. Allow them to dig in the dirt, explore the woods (with supervision), build a fort and roll down the hill. This will not only keep them occupied, but the physical activity and fresh air will make them better-focused once inside.
- Make an activities menu: Kids often have so many toys that they do not know what to pick. Slightly structure “free choice” by making a single-page picture “menu” of activities, reducing the amount of time they aimlessly roam around looking for something to do.
- Start in their play: Children often do not know how to get started. After they pick an activity, say “I have 15 minutes to play,” set a timer, and give them your undivided attention. Comment on what they do and encourage their imagination, rather than making up the play for them. When the timer beeps, say you had fun playing but need to go do something. Hopefully, your child will continue their play without you.
- Show your interest: Saying “find something to do” is way too vague and not particularly helpful (I’m very guilty of this). Instead, give a “challenge” and convey your interest in it. For example, say “Why don’t you go get the blocks and build the tallest tower you can. Come get me when you’re ready for me to see it. I can’t wait!”
- Set up new ways to use toys: The same old toys can get boring, so mix things up a bit. Find a spare storage bin, bucket or large container. Each day create a new, multisensory “set-up” for some toys. For example, construction trucks can dig in dried beans; baby dolls can take a bath in soapy water; dinosaurs can play in water beads; or kids can build fine motor skills by just cutting up a bin of scrap paper.
- Be patient and loosen up: Let your kids guide the play, take some risks and make mistakes. The more you guide them, the more they will need you later. Also, messy kids are happy kids. Use messy activities as a way to teach daily living and self-care skills (e.g. how to use the broom to sweep up beans; how to get mud out of your finger nails; etc.).
- Make remote learning fun: The more fun your child has with you during instruction, the less attention they will seek from you later. Find way to use your child’s interests to aid teaching. For example, we used my son’s love of hockey to reinforce long A spelling skills – hit the puck into one net if the word was spelled with /ai/ and another for those with /ay/. Because he viewed this as special one-on-one time, he was able to continue playing hockey by himself afterward.
Finding the balance between providing support and teaching independence is not an easy one, but these are some ways to start. If you need guidance on how to create structure and manage your child’s needs at home, NESCA has providers available for remote consultations. Email email@example.com for more information.
About the Author:
Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (603) 818-8526.