Image: Awesome Montessori Kitchen at Mindful Learning
Do your children enjoy independent play? My children are capable of independent play but have gone through stages of wanting or needing me near them and like most children have gone through stages where they won't leave my side at all. There are three Montessori principles that can help guide us through these periods:
- Follow the child.
We want to give our children the skills to be independent, to build and strengthen their concentration. We also want to follow the child, support them and challenge them at appropriate times. But what does this look like on a practical level? Here are a few ideas and strategies I've used over the years to encourage independent play.
- Provide the child with a safe play space. This space needs to be 110% safe, for my toddlers, this has always been in their bedroom. A baby gate at their doorway would work. Ensure the child's play and work spaces grow with the child.
- Provide developmentally appropriate activities or materials that build concentration.
- Start young. Montessori mobiles are designed to be the child's first work, the child begins to focus and track the mobile and over time starts building their concentration. Infants can often be left to concentrate with their mobiles for extended periods of time. We can continue these periods of uninterrupted play/work into toddlerhood.
- Develop the child's sense of object permanence, particularly useful in very young children. You can talk or sing to the child while you are out of the room (but nearby), and child will learn that although they can't see you, you are still there.
- Make independent play a part of your daily routine. For example, while you are working in the morning, allow the child time in their room for independent play. With my toddler, the morning while tidying, or hanging the washing was the perfect time as I would walk past his room from the laundry to the outside line, allowing him to know I was there without having to be constantly by his side. For an older child, it could be some quiet time in their room while their sibling is napping. Making it routine means the child knows what is expected.
- Ensure you spend plenty of time present with the child, play alongside them when you can - fill their cup, give them your attention. It may be those times of stress or after we have been away from the child, or when they are anticipating our absence, that they can become the most clingy and needy for our time.
- Allow the child to choose their own activities. "An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child's energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery" - Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind. The child is more likely to be engaged with and concentrate on an activity that is freely chosen.
- Work or play independently from your child but in the same space. This has worked for me when my children need me close. I can play with them, but once they are really engaged with their activity or play, I can move away and sit nearby reading or writing.
- Reduce your involvement in the child's play. Again, if my children need me nearby, I can play with them for a little, reduce my involvement and then come in and out of the child's play space, building up durations of absence. This can be a long-term strategy, if your child isn't used to playing alone, you can leave them for short periods of time and increase this slowly over time. Start with a couple of minutes.
- Give the child some freedom; the child can't concentrate if you are hovering or constantly interrupting or correcting their play. If the child is having difficulty with play it can be good to make some suggestions, but there is a time to provide a safe environment and allow the child freedom within that environment.
- Set boundaries, this can be so difficult, but if you need to get something done give the child an option - "I am working in the kitchen now, you can join me, or you can play in your room." This can be essential especially if you have other children to attend to. Allow the child to come with you but make it clear that you cannot play with them right now.
- Be 'not so' available. Sometimes not being available is a really good thing! Some wonderful and creative play has occurred in our house when I haven't been available to play or work with the child. I've written more about how I have made this work here.
Always be responsive to the child's needs. There are times of sickness, tiredness or periods where the child is just unsettled when they need our presence more. This isn't the time to introduce change. Remember that children don't have to be alone or in their room for independent play. I love it when I can cook in the kitchen and have my children around me working on their own individual projects.
Let me know if these suggestions are useful or what strategies have worked for you!