I’ve read about parents trying to encourage their children to play on their own more frequently, but have found a child (or children) struggling to find their groove and instead keep checking back with the parent, complaining of being bored, or constantly asking the parent to play with them. While I have not experienced this too often, I can sympathize with how frustrating it can be when it does happen. Once a child finds his groove in an activity, he can become completely immersed in it and have such fun, be so engaged, it is such a delight for everyone!
Getting there is easy! If you want to encourage this kind of engagement, consider creating an “invitation to play.” The term, used often by early childhood educators, is most widely known in the Reggio Emilia circles, but is also found in the way Montessori materials are set up in a classroom. The idea is that a small, inviting set up of materials or toys will draw a child in and inspire him to play independently and imaginatively.
You do not need to go buy new toys or materials to do this; on the contrary, it’s best to use what you have around the house in creative ways. This can mean simply moving blocks from a different location into a new room and placing them in a new spot. It can also mean combining toys or materials that weren’t previously used together, such as animal figures with natural wooden blocks in a little scene. You can pile a bunch of wooden blocks in a pile next to the animals, or you can create an inviting scene (maybe half done) for your child to stumble upon. Half the fun for me is to hear the squeals of joy when they find the little surprise, or to notice the long silence that accompanies complete immersion in play (which used to send chills up my spine, as I dreaded what toddler silence meant – often trouble!).
The idea here is not to avoid boredom at all costs, but to spark creativity. I do not stand by, watching my children play. I have things to do! I also do not set up invitations to play every day. It’s more of a treat reserved for long days inside when the weather is cold, wet, and windy.
It is spring break here, and we’re not having the glorious hiking weather we had in February. So this week, along with some planned outings with my boys, I’m setting up invitations to play. There is so much joy and peace in this! I also find it fun for me – it’s a moment to reminisce about my own preferred childhood activities (which were mostly drawing, painting, working with clay found in the creek down the street from my house, climbing trees, playing with my cherished toy horses, and exploring the woods for hours on my own).
It is fun to think up new little scenes I can create for them: setting out all the stones they have collected over the years next to a bunch of differently-sized containers (for sorting), putting marbles next to a pegboard (they end up balancing the marbles in as many holes as possible), placing different lengths and colors of yarn on the floor (they make an obstacle course with booby traps!).
It doesn’t take long to set up an invitation to play, but the resulting quiet, creative play that occurs is amazing.