How to Help Your Kids Engage in Independent Play

Helping kids engage in independent play also provides parents a much-needed break
Photo by Jennifer Murray from Pexels

As director of an after-school program for elementary school students in Northern Virginia for three years, it was my job to keep 60 kids on task five days a week. So I know a few things about keeping little ones safe and occupied.

What follows are a few suggestions to help your kids engage in independent play so you can maintain a modicum of sanity while trying to juggle all of your new responsibilities in this time of social distancing.

Encourage Expertise

Children of all ages love to show off. Ask your child what he or she is an expert in. Maybe it’s math, singing on key or inventing dramatic dialogue for a few stuffed animals as they sip fake Earl Grey from plastic tea cups.

No matter your child’s talents or areas of interest, if you tell them they’re excellent in a given area, you just might find them more likely to toil away in an engaged manner. Maybe they’ll even teach a few things to their bored siblings.

Let Them Lead

Putting a child in charge of a task can buy you some much-needed downtime. Children love to be bossy, so why not make them the CEO of some simple item you’ve been meaning to tick off your to-do list? Or put them in charge of an activity that’s frivolous but will keep them fully occupied?

The kids in my program absolutely loved it when I asked them to be the boss of organizing a bookshelf or cutting letters of the alphabet out of construction paper. It’s a bonus if the task takes something off your plate, but it’s okay if the goal is to just keep your child focused for a while.

Read about what distance learning has been like for one local teacher.

Promote Creativity

My students loved to build little hanging bridges out of Popsicle sticks and masking tape, or finger-knit necklaces out of yarn left over from knitting projects. Try to think of household items or materials that can be turned into craft projects and games. You’d be amazed at the masks kids can make out of paper plates and shoelaces, or the castles they’ll build from egg cartons and paper cups.

Gamify Everything

Whether it’s drying dinner dishes or determining who can write down the largest number of red things in the house, one of the best ways to keep kids busy is to give them a challenge that encourages healthy competition and yields some sort of reward. The prize doesn’t have to be big, nor does it have to come in material form. My students were happy to get ten extra minutes of screen time or a simple certificate for winning a challenge or applying their best effort.

It’s hard to come up with a variety of ideas to occupy idle little hands, especially when we are all itching to get back to normal. But when you help your kids engage in independent play, you’re not only supporting them—you’re also helping yourself get through this difficult period.


Amy Lyons has written for The Independent, Washington City Paper, Lenny Letter and more. She is an experienced high school English teacher and elementary after-school site director.


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