During busy times of year, like a school vacation when the kids are at home, independent play can be a lifesaver. In addition to giving you a break to get things done, catch up with other adults, or just relax, independent play is highly beneficial for kids.
“Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills,” writes Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, who serves on the Center for Children and Youth’s Expert Panel.
Try the following activities to encourage and foster independent play, from items you likely have around the house.
Build a Blanket Fort
Let kids drape an old blanket or sheet over a sofa or chair backs to make an instant fort or tent. Perhaps let them bring a comforter or pillows inside. Kids might read, play games or pretend they’re camping. Some just have fun building and adding to their special space. Give your child a flashlight and encourage them to make shadow puppets with their hands.
Make a Mud Pie or Garden Soup
If you have outdoor space and it’s warm enough to play, give kids used measuring cups, pans, cupcake and pie tins, and pails, and let them fill the vessels with dirt to make pretend food. They can decorate with leaves, petals, twigs and rocks. Or pour water into cups and bowls and have kids add flower petals, food coloring, paint or glitter to make pretend potions and soups.
Put on a Show
Gather old clothes and accessories and let your kids play dress-up and put on a show for you later. Or give children some old socks to make into hand puppets. They could draw or glue on fabric eyes, but that’s not even necessary. Something magic happens when you simply put a sock over your fisted hand and give it a name and a voice. Experiment by moving the “mouth” in different ways. Kids can perform puppet shows from behind a couch or low wall or between two sheet or tablecloth “curtains” under a table, and make construction paper tickets for the show.
Make a Juice-Box Train
With a few simple craft supplies, your recycled juice boxes can become boxcars. Kids can cover the boxes with construction paper and tape it down before decorating, or draw, write and tape/glue objects right onto the boxes. When they’re done, you can help the youngest kids poke holes into the tops and bottoms of the juice boxes (the sides of the train cars) and run string through them to link them together to form a train.
Decorate a Milk-Carton “Gingerbread” House
This one’s good for hours of play, if you have time to help set it up. Cover a short milk carton with store-bought frosting and let kids stick candies and other items on to decorate. (If you’d like, cover a piece of cardboard with tin foil for a base before starting, to control the mess and provide more decorating area.) Imaginations will go wild—small licorice pieces can become bricks, pretzel sticks can before fences and logs. Younger children might just stick some items onto the house and then engage in pretend play with it. For more inspiration and candy decorating ideas, see Build Your Gingerbread Dream House.
Make Paper or Doily Snowflakes
Have kids follow these directions to make paper or doily snowflakes, which can decorate your home or gifts. Perhaps they can string many together on a piece of ribbon to create a garland. Or admire the fact that, in paper, as well as in nature, no two snowflakes are alike.
Compose a Vertical Poem
Have kids write their names, or an interesting longer word, vertically down the left side of a piece of paper. Then write a line of poetry using each letter of the word as the first letter of a line in the poem. If children write their names, they can think of a quality they possess for each letter in their name.
Play I Spy
This is a classic. The first player chooses on object in their vision and says, “I spy with my little eye .. something that begins with the letter A” or “I spy with my little eye .. something that is blue.” Other players take turns trying to guess what the object is. When players run out of guesses, the first player gives another clue, and the others guess again. The person who guesses the object gets to be the next spy.
Create a Secret Code
Most kids love codes and sending and deciphering secret messages. Have yours try this number code. Write each letter of the alphabet on a piece of paper. Next to each letter, write the numbers, 1-26. Find the first letter of your message and write its corresponding number. Continue writing the numbers that correspond to the letters in your code until you are finished. Put a dash between each number to avoid confusion between, say, 1, 5, and 15. See if someone can read your message. For a more advanced activity, assign numbers to the letters in a random order.
Make Invisible Ink
Did you know that you can make invisible ink out of lemon juice? Juice a few lemons into a cup. Dip a toothpick or cotton swab into the juice and use it to write a message on the paper. Once the paper’s dry, hold it up to a flashlight, light bulb or the sun to reveal the hidden message.
Is your child bored with their car toys? Reenergize their play area by laying washi or masking tape on a hard surface to make road lanes and curves. Small recycled boxes can be added to create buildings. And then let the race begin!
This is a good physical activity for indoors. The rotating leader oversees choosing and playing music. The leader starts a song and everyone starts dancing. The leader stops the music and the dancers freeze in place. If anyone moves, and the leader catches them, they are out. Music and dancing continue until there is one person left, and then they become the new leader and the game starts again.
Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun and grew out of her blog, Slow Family Online. Slow Parenting and the book were named a 2012 Top 10 Parenting Trend by TIME Magazine. Suz has written for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog, and many others. She is a consultant for the Center for Children and Youth.