Fostering independent play is more important now

Temporary school closures are forcing kids into instant distance learning environments for the remainder of the school year. Parents are trying to work their day job while simultaneously educating kids. For most, there isn’t ever enough time in a day to handle both. They’re stressed, and in the scramble to pick up where teachers left off, the whole family’s emotional well-being is taking a hit.

Parents – and kids – could use a break from the pressure of outsized expectations. And, during this time, there are hands-on life lessons we can give kids that build lasting social, physical and cognitive skills. These same lessons can nurture their curiosity, strengthen their ability to problem solve, and give them the tools to push through whatever challenges they face as a learner.

“Every parent is looking for reliable ways to occupy and engage their kids during the day, and we all want our kids to learn and thrive,” says Meghan Fitzgerald, co-founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten based in the US. “Well-designed play experiences provide an ideal way for children to learn a whole range of skills. And, when kids get lost in play, they can maintain joyful focus and give us the free time we need.”

Fitzgerald and her team of educational experts at Tinkergarten, offer ideas for parents to foster independent play and promote stable mental health at home.

Set up your home for independent play

Learning isn’t all worksheets and tests. Research shows children learn best through play, especially in the first 8 years of life. Parents and children also need some time to themselves, especially when sharing close quarters. Independent play can provide that time and, even better, can provide an enriching balance for kids in conjunction with high-quality screen resources.

Best of all, there are simple, powerful things parents can do using what they already have on hand to inspire independent play. For example, stacking a few blocks in the block area creates the start of a design that children won’t be able to resist finishing off. Set up a play tent with household items inside (spoons, bowls, blankets) and – ta-da! – instant kid camp-out. Or, just start with a bin of water, some measuring cups and lots of time to pretend they are “at the beach.” A small corner of the house or yard can inspire a wonderful afternoon of independent play with a bit of strategy and imagination.

Teach what you want them to learn

Most parents are not professional teachers and it is neither fair nor possible to become one overnight. But, shift the goal and realise that some of the most important things to teach children can be extracted from daily life, and these are lessons for which parents are the best teachers. Think about what to do each day and the skills needed to do it. Then invite children to learn in age-appropriate ways.

Cooking, for example, is a marvellous way to connect with kids, activate their senses for learning and sneak in a variety of math concepts as the parents measure. Small children can mix or even just play with their own set of ingredients alongside the parent, while older kids can learn from following a recipe. Choose a passed-down recipe and add a dash of family history in there as well.

Enjoy the outdoors

Even if families can’t go to popular parks, they can still enjoy more quiet nature spaces in their own backyard to learn and support their child’s (and the parents’) well-being. According to a study by the University of Exeter, a total of just two hours per week outside helps adults and children experience the stress-reducing, healing benefits of nature.

Outside not an option right now? Bring the outdoors in. Tinkergarten’s simple definition of nature is it’s anywhere earth, sky and other living things can be found. No matter the setting, parents can provide kids with a connection to the outdoors, even while practising social distancing. Don’t underestimate how exciting little changes can be to kids and lean into that. Move the craft table outside, turn on a recording of nature sounds during the day or make a new habit of cuddling on the stoop each evening. Just make it feel special.

Pick something positive each day

Every family is weathering a storm right now, and one person’s rainstorm could be another’s devastating hurricane. When possible, parents should ask their kids what they’re grateful for. Write down each family member’s contribution and display it in the kitchen or use sidewalk chalk to design a positive message and artwork for neighbors to see.

Some days will be easier than others. As you are navigating the unknown, every parent deserves a break from the guilt of not being their best self every day. Remember, it’s the climate, not the weather in your house that matters in the long run. This storm, too, will pass.- BPT