Recently, my two young screen-free kids (currently 2 and 4-years-old) have been doing something amazing. They play by themselves – sometimes for hours.
The curious thing I noticed was that this magic situation seemed to be somewhat limited to when only I was “with” my kids. It didn’t happen when Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents were around. I also noted it did not happen as often when my husband was around. I initially chalked that up to the novelty other adults bring to a situation. I believed that to my kids, mom was “old news”. However, after observing their play (and much reflection), I believe their happy independent play occurs with me for two reasons. First, I am a little bit “old news”. Sad, but true. Second, but perhaps more important, is when my children are playing, I have become what I have dubbed a “Quiet Adult”.
I believe this “Quiet Adult” hypothesis has some merit because if their self-directed, joyful play was only due to me being “old news”, then theoretically they would be happier with those other caregivers. Only, they don’t seem to be. They often seem to have their best days when they have plenty of time left alone to play uninterrupted with one another.
Obviously independent free-play has its limits. They eventually exhaust their creative juices and come to me. But an hour or two of independent free-play is fine by me. When they do come find me, I am refreshed and ready to read to them or take them outside.
Five Ways to be a “Quiet Adult”
I decided to reflect a bit on what it is that I do that doesn’t happen as much with their other caregivers. I have dubbed myself a “quiet adult” and came up with a few ways you can be a quiet adult too.
1. Wait for It
In my house, my children play best together: (1) after they do their morning chores and (2) in the afternoon after “nap” time. When I see it starting, I don’t direct them. I don’t do anything. I just back off and get busy with whatever I have to do at that moment and allow them to get immersed. Of course, it helps to keep screens and other electronic toys off.
2. Stay Close, But Distant
I choose a task that I can complete with some interruptions and is generally on the same level of the house as they have chosen to play. I am close enough to auditorially supervise (still necessary for my two-year-old) but I am usually not directly visible to the kids. I avoid going in the room they are playing and interrupting them. As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of childhood.” I try to respect that (physically and emotionally).
3. Don’t Interrupt
I don’t interrupt their process. I let other stuff wait if they are playing well together (diaper changing, taking an adorable video of their process etc.). I follow this rule for most disputes between them too. They often find a solution themselves and learn from their negotiations.
4. Put it in Your Pocket
As I listen to them play, I put in a mental pocket all the things that I may want to tell my child, teach my child or do with my child. I don’t want to interrupt their work, so I keep a mental list of things that I can talk to them about later.
5. Practice Sound Minimalism
I keep myself quiet and uninteresting. I don’t make a ton of noise or curse at the washing machine. This is because I am following rule number three.
6. Respond to Requests and Nothing More
My children are still small so they sometimes need things while they are playing. I will provide the container of water they request for imaginative play. I don’t ignore them, but I respect their requests and don’t give them more than they ask for (i.e. direction or praise).
Sometimes it Won’t Happen, Sometimes it Will
One day this week, my children played together for about three hours. The next day, they seemed incapable of getting in a groove and we spent a lot more time playing board games, reading and roughhousing. I don’t need to know why. I respect their process when it’s long and when it’s short. Their brains know what they need. For example, we recently flew as a family for our most recent vacation. After a day filled with driving, flying and more driving, I had a plan to hit the resort pool first thing the next day. Well, after breakfast, my kids started playing together in the condominium we were renting and didn’t stop until after lunch. I assume they had a lot more to process that day (they played “airplane” for a few hours).
A “Quiet Adult,” AKA the Least Interesting Adult
Here’s a parenting strategy any adult can get on board with: make yourself less interesting than your children’s play. Anybody can do this and perhaps it will give you permission to get some things done. This is good for your children. If you have more than one child and they are playing together, they are learning some great social skills. If you have one child, they are exploring their interests and learning to rely on themselves.