What is Solitary Play & Why Do Kids Need It? 7 Vital Benefits for Developing Minds & Bodies

child playing independently on the floor

If you knew there was one thing that would fast-track child’s ultimate physical, intellectual, social and emotional wellbeing and success, you’d jump on it, right? While the parenting experts may disagree over sleep training methods and discipline strategies, the one thing they all seem to agree on is the benefits of solitary play for a child’s development. In short: child-led, or solo play  is one of the most effective, holistic and most natural ways for kids to learn, grow and develop their independence. Now, to help us all appreciate just what freaking brilliant news this is for all of us (exhausted) parents, we need to first answer the all-important question, What is Solitary Play, exactly? 

From there we’ll take a look at 7 science-backed benefits of independent play that make it one of the best secret weapons in our parenting toolkits. So, if you’ve ever felt guilty for wanting your kiddo to play on their own? Think again! We’re about to hand you all the guilt-free ammo you need…

(Pssst.. If you’ve been struggling with how to encourage independent play, I’m going to point you to some helpful strategies and ideas at the end, so keep reading!).

What is Solitary Play and Where Does it Fit in?

So what is solitary play? Solo play (also called independent play) happens when a child is playing without a parent or other adult leading, guiding, or giving any direct input into how thing are, well, ‘playing out’. Independent play actually begins in infancy, though we might not quite recognize it for what it is. (Forgive us, dear infants, we were a tad distracted with trying to get by on 3 hours sleep).

During the baby stage, toddler stage and even beyond, solo play doesn’t necessarily mean playing alone.   Babies and toddlers especially are pretty big on having mom or dad in the vicinity for emotional security, and that’s not something we want to try and program out of them. For babies, independent play will be as simple as deciding what to focus on, what object to reach for, or which adult finger they want to attack with their superhuman baby deathgrip. Of course, as our babies grow into active, willful toddlers and preschoolers, their solo play will take more noticeable forms–from creating abstract wall murals, to transforming their younger siblings into household pets.

The real point is, we adults shouldn’t be defining what independent play looks like for our kids–that would defeat the whole purpose! It’s about letting their imaginations and personalities take the lead.

What’s the Role of a Parent in Solitary Play?

Mom and daughter laughing together

The best way to think of our own role in our child’s solitary play is as facilitator. A facilitator sets up the right conditions for something to play out smoothly, and will give a gentle nudge in the right direction if things are getting totally off-track.  They’re always present, but they’re not the ones driving the process.

As parents, we want to create the right conditions to enable our kids to feel safe, secure and confident to engage in independent play. But when it comes down to it, it’s not so much about us ‘doing’ anything, as it is about removing any obstacles to our kids’ free play. You can read all about it in this post on Why Solitary Play Fails

The important thing to remember is that playing independently is something that comes naturally to kids–as long as we keep out of the way and let nature take its course. The more we allow them the space for solo play, the more our kids will develop that muscle.

7 Vital Benefits of Solitary Play

Because play is such a normal part of childhood, parents often don’t give much thought to the importance of quality independent play. Make no mistake – we need to be playing with our kids too! But the point is, independent play has unique benefits for our kids that they simply won’t get from playing under the watchful and limiting guidance of us grown-ups (sorry to bust all our bubbles).

Whether you’re a Bluey-esque super-parent or an exhausted mom who can’t face another role-playing game, here are 7 reasons you totally need to encourage your kids to play on their own!

1. Solo play is the soil of imagination

When it comes to a child’s mind and play, there’s no such thing as thinking inside the box.

I consider myself a pretty creative person. I’ve been known to build a mean cardboard box spacecraft. But leave that same box with my 4-year old, and she’s going to turn it into a magical unicorn cave-come-hospital-come-petshop.  Studies have shown that when children take the lead, their play becomes more creative, elaborate and sustained. Without adults interfering, kids are free to explore the world through their own imagination.

Research has also shown that immersive, imaginative play contributes to children’s ability to solve divergent problems .  Divergent problems are ones that have multiple solutions, versus just one answer. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that our world is chock full of divergent problems. Our kids can start learning how to solve them right now, in our own living rooms and backyards.

2. Instils a sense of adventure & stretches kids physically

Those living rooms and backyards are where our kids get to explore. To be the pirate, the astronaut, the magician, the volcano diver, without a bad case of ‘adult logic’ getting in the way.

In independent play, kids have the freedom to push the boundaries, not just in what they can imagine, but what they can do physically (whether that’s jumping the Grand Couch Canyon, or traversing Lava Lake via the monkey bars!).

One study showed that free play actually stimulates the fight-or-flight response in children by causing the brain to release adrenaline, but without releasing the stress hormone cortisol. During play, kids can take risks, practice handling danger and learn from their mistakes, without the negative feelings or effects of stress. This naturally builds their courage and resilience , encouraging them to keep trying despite setbacks.

Play literally turns our kids into the brave heroes they want to be.

3. Improves language skills

Studies have revealed definite links between fantasy play and language development. Watch any vocal 4-year old immersed in play and you’ll see this linguistic exploration in action. It may involve plenty of literal nonsense much of the time, but there’s no doubt this stimulates creative thinking and actually motivates kids in learning new (legitimate) vocab.

At the age of 18 months, my daughter, for no explicable reason, decided that snails were called ‘Nuku’s’. I still have no idea where she got this word from. At age 5 she still constantly invents her own unique vocabulary. I can only envy the linguistic creativity and self-abandon of a preschooler! (Sadly, she does call them snails now!).

4. Helps children learn to ‘self-regulate’

When your child is playing on his own, he’s not only deciding for himself what to do and how things should go. He’s also having to rely on his own judgment and internal feedback when things don’t go quite as planned.

You’ll probably notice that when you’re sitting playing with your child, you’re more likely to see emotional outbursts directed at you the second the tower falls or the picture isn’t panning out as hoped. Your child immediately turns to you for emotional support or affirmation.

On the other hand, when your child plays on their own, they are being directed by internal motivation, rather than external. This helps them learn to manage and self-regulate their impulses and emotions as they focus on achieving what they want to do.

5. Builds confidence and security

The more kids follow their own course of play and learn to problem-solve by themselves, the more confident they become in their abilities, which builds self esteem.

Not only that, but it also helps them figure out what they enjoy and what they’re good at . This doesn’t just make childhood richer, but lays the foundation for a more fulfilling adult life pursuing hobbies and passions, and getting into a career they’ll actually enjoy.

It also makes sense that a child who gets used to playing independently early on learns to be comfortable in their own company. This helps a young child cement their own sense of identity, which creates a stronger center from which to connect with others. Instead of being motivated by insecurity or a fear of being alone, they’ll be confident to make friends out of a genuine interest in others.

6. Primes your child’s brain for academic learning

Creative independent play can stimulate academic learning

Of course, our kids do need to get round to structured academic learning at some point. And the great thing is that unstructured play is an excellent foundation for both structured and creative work.

According to a number of experimental studies, school kids fresh from recess pay much better attention in the classroom. Ever wonder why Chinese and Japanese schools seem to produce so many over-achievers? It’s not just that they work hard. It’s standard practice for learners to have a recess every 50 minutes. Apparently they’ve tapped into the value of a great play-work routine.

7. Independent play is a practice ground for real life

When kids play on their own terms, they’re essentially practicing for independent adult life. Their playground is a place to trial-run a mini version of ‘real life’ in a safe environment, where the rules, dangers and consequences of adult life aren’t going to trip them up, at least not in any critical way.

Your child is free to practice what it will feel like to be the master of her own universe — to explore creative possibilities, make decisions and take risks. And as she does so, she can experience failure in a safe space where there is always the chance to try again, and experiment with new approaches.

Play may seem trivial from the outside, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Allowing our kids to put their independence into play now lays the foundation for confident, healthy independence through the rest of their life.

Girl wearing boxing gloves

The Added Benefits of Solo Play…

Most of us intuitively realize the value of play for our kids. It’s not just about the developmental benefits. It’s about simply being a kid.  It’s about living in those imaginative worlds and stories, and creating the kind of memories that end up defining what childhood is all about.

And of course there’s the added bonus for parents. The more our kids can keep themselves occupied without a screen telling them what to see, think and feel, the less pressure and guilt we’ll have to deal with. (Plus, it never hurts to have a little more time to ourselves!)

So, the next time you see your child building blocks and you’re tempted to step in with an engineering lesson… freeze…bite your tongue. Quickly and quietly, step away from the child. It’s the smart thing to do 🙂

If you’re struggling to help your child find their independent play groove, remember to check out our ‘troubleshooting guide’ on Why solitary play fails, and also try out these 25 Simple Ideas to Encourage Independent Play.

If you have other questions about solitary play you’d like to see covered on the blog, let me know in the comments!

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