How to Inspire Kids to Play on Their Own

I’ve read 8,000 articles that say that boredom is good for kids. And I agree — being constantly entertained is not realistic or even fun. When our kids have chill time on their own, they often fall into a zone that’s happy and engaged. But sometimes they still can’t quite get there and seem restless and end up saying, “Mommy, can I have your phone?” or “I’m huuuuuuuuungry.” So, I was psyched to learn this tip…

I always figured that the experts who recommended boredom just let their children loose in their homes and said, “Goodbye and good luck,” and trusted they would find something to play with. Maybe so? But my kids sometimes need a little help getting started.

Then, recently, my mom sent me this article about how to help little ones “enjoy pottering.” I was most interested in how the author suggested putting basic materials around the home to help inspire imaginative play.

Parents do have a role… children need the adults around them to understand that creating their own pastimes requires space, time and the possibility of making a mess (within limits – and to be cleared up afterwards by the children themselves).

They will need some materials too, but these need not be sophisticated – simple things are often more versatile. We’ve all heard of the toddler ignoring the expensive present and playing with the box it came in instead. For older children, a magnifying glass, some planks of wood, a basket of wool, and so on, might be the start of many happily occupied hours…

If a child has run out of ideas, giving them some kind of challenge can prompt them to continue to amuse themselves imaginatively. This could range from asking them to find out what kind of food their toy dinosaurs enjoy in the garden to going off and creating a picture story with some friends and a digital camera.

Nowadays, at home, we try to help our boys play happily by having just a few simple imaginative toys out and visible in the living room. We like masking tape and notebooks with crayons (something about a notebook, versus loose paper, feels exciting and grown up to them). Anton is really really into flashlights and our tape measure, and also aluminum foil is fun to play with. Our kids also LOVE paper cups for stacking and organizing (we discovered this by accident after leaving some out after a party). The boys have always adored this bus (Toby has played with it for almost seven years) and this airplane, and I’ve overheard the cutest pretend dialogue between the wooden people (who go to school, on trips, to the park, even on dates!)

Funnily enough (maybe this is weird to admit!), Anton discovered one morning, while I was in the shower, the joy of playing with a couple tampons, of all things. There was something about how they shoot out like rockets and then expand in water, kind of like these magic sponges, that he found enthralling. Now, when he’s been well behaved, I’ll sometimes say, “Ok, as a special treat, you get to play with a tampon.”

Finally, if I have extra time before leaving for work, I’ve recently made little stations, so when Anton gets home from school later on, he might find the wooden bus and people on the coffee table, or a notepad and crayons on the counter, or a flashlight on the sofa. My gut tells me that it’s easier for his mind to digest those things and start playing on his own, versus walking into the room with three bins of random, mixed-up toy pieces.

What imaginative toys/materials do you like? Do you have simple blocks? Or a dress-up basket? What do your kids like playing with? Magna-Tiles are a hot ticket in our house these days. I’d so appreciate any recommendations!

P.S. An awesome “I’m Bored” jar, and a surprising way to stop tantrums.

(Photo by Hannah Henderson.)