Independent Play: Flourishing Creativity Beyond the Playpen

Some of the earlier posts on this blog have laid out great examples of independent play and how to get started in it. When we first learned about independent play in the Prep for the Toddler Years material, one of the things that really appealed to us was the long-term benefit – we were laying foundational skills that would carry into their school years and beyond.

As our children sleep less during the day, we wonder how to fill the looming hours with an active toddler or preschooler roaming the house. This is when filling the week with activities outside the home or using screens becomes very tempting! Neither of these things are wrong but it is very tempting to overuse them.

Is it possible to survive a day at home with 3 children under 5 without screens?

Is it possible to enjoy it??

The preschool years with our kids were some of my favorite years as a parent. I loved being at home with them (most days!), watching and encouraging their curiosity, developing skills and personalities. I think one of the greatest enemies to our children blossoming through these years is over scheduling of activities outside the home.  Being at home with your kids is not so common these days and it takes effort. We did have some activities outside of the house that we went to, but I tried to make sure we were home more than we were out. Their days were filled with blocks of time that had a balance and rhythm to them. Playpen and roomtime, outside time, helping with chores and cooking, puzzles, music fun, story time, making forts, rests and snuggles. Sometimes I did an activity with just one child while another was sleeping or playing independently. Sometimes all the kids had independent things to do while I was doing something else. We gradually changed the rhythms as new babies joined the family and the older children grew. All this was an extension of the teaching we took ahold of from our earliest parenting days.

As mentioned in the “waketime activities” chapters throughout the On Becoming series, part of being a thinking and intentional parent means you understand the benefits having a balance of free-time and parent-directed activities in your child’s day. Both have a place in their development. Lessons learned in the playpen can be extended far beyond room time and blanket time.

Independent playtime is a combination of direction and freedom for the child. Given directed time, a place (playpen, room, blanket, highchair, table, or sandpit), and a few play items the child is then free to imagine, create, and try new ideas.  One of the valuable skills learned in independent playtime is self-play adeptness. It is the ability of a child to be creative and entertain themselves, but it is a concept that can seem very foreign in this age of entertainment. The easiest option for parents since the invention of TV has been to keep a child occupied in front of a screen. The only difference in the last 50 years is that screens have just gotten more and more sophisticated, alluring, and portable. Your child doesn’t even have to entertain himself in the car or shopping cart anymore.  But there is a better way. Taking time to develop self-play adeptness will help our children develop to their full potential.

We sometimes used a timer for structured playtime, but often it was the length of a tape or CD they were listening to. The fanciest logic game apps do not give the problem-solving skills that the hours our three boys spent listening to the Hobbit or other wonderful adventures while creating Lego constructions did.  These are some of their favorite memories, alongside their outside adventures in the sandpit or back yard. As our children got older, playpen and roomtime creations with blocks and Duplos became amazing Lego creations and then woodwork or sewing projects, music compositions – the list goes on. This is when sitting and focusing skills, and self-play adeptness really pay off and reap future dividends.

The common denominator in our children’s growth and development was intentional time set aside to create and develop skills.  Start carving out independent playtime today to begin fostering creativity and self-play adeptness.


Linda and Jeff Gage have 4 children ages 16 to 23.  They have lived in New Zealand and Missouri and are now living in the heat and dust of Riverside, California.  Jeff is a Professor of Nursing. Linda is transitioning from homeschool teacher back to nursing, working with new mothers and babies. They have used GFI principles in their own family from the birth of their first child and have mentored many families over the years through teaching classes and providing Contact Mom support. They are now also using the principles to support young and at-risk parents.
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