It’s a sobering fact that our primary goal as parents is to make ourselves completely and utterly redundant. Our job, after all, is to raise strong, independent, fully functioning adults.
When you think about it, most of the things we teach our children are aimed at giving them the gift of independence, whether we’re helping them to use a spoon, tie their shoe laces, or manage their finances.
You have around eighteen years to support your children in acquiring the many skills and qualities they’ll need as fully-fledged adults, so don’t panic. But starting young will give them a strong foundation to build on. And independence can be fostered during a natural and enjoyable activity all children love: the simple act of playing.
Your kids might look like they’re just playing, but they’re actually doing many other things at the same time. Here are just four of them.
They’re Using Imagination
It’s great to play a board game with your kids or encourage organized games and sports. This teaches cooperation and an understanding of rules and strategy. But free play is also vital. Children learn independent thinking when they use their imagination to create something new. Never be surprised if the tree fort becomes a magic, floating, haunted castle, or the stuffed animals appear to be having a board meeting. Encourage imaginative, open ended, anything-can-happen play scenarios that inspire independent thinking.
They’re Making Decisions
Play involves making one decision after another. Something as simple as playing with a pile of blocks means your daughter is deciding whether to build a tower or a bridge, whether to use all red blocks, alternate red and blue or multi-colored. When she sits down to an art session every brush stroke and color choice is a new decision. When her decisions work out well she feels proud. When things don’t go so well she learns what she could do differently next time. This is powerful stuff on the road to independence.
They’re Learning Self Sufficiency
Before I had kids I imagined loving them so much that I would want to spend all day playing with them and enjoying their company. My powers of imagination let me down, on both counts. I loved them even more than I could ever have imagined, but I also had days when the last thing I wanted to do was sit and play with them. I wanted to get my chores done, run my home-based business, or, just occasionally, get five minutes uninterrupted peace and quiet. And that’s OK. It’s good for children to play alone.
According to psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Ph.D., the author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, playing alone encourages creativity and critical thinking skills. Children experiment with their toys while their parent’s back is turned. They learn all by themselves what this toy does and doesn’t do, and they delight in working it out without the help of an adult. In short, it supports your children’s development to let them play alone, encouraging curiosity, confidence and initiative. Good parents leave them to it, and get a nice cup of herbal tea.
They’re Practicing Communication
Indulging in free play with a non-prescribed outcome lets children exercise their communication skills. When they’re playing with other children, communication happens naturally as they discuss what they’re up, give direction or explain what they’re planning to do next. A gentle enquiry from a parent or other adult of ‘What are you doing?” will also encourage an explanation (and probably a demonstration), slowly building the communication skills needed for the next stage of independence.