Encouraging Independent Play

This is a guest post.

“Mum, play with me!” How do you go about encouraging independent play in neurodiverse children: or how to stay sane and clean the house these holidays!

I feel a bit like an imposter writing this post. My daughter doesn’t have a formal diagnosis yet. She is only just school aged and the waitlists are long – but she does have access to the NDIS while we are waiting. Without that formal diagnosis though I still worry that maybe I’m just an awful parent. I’m still quite susceptible to the “you’re just not trying hard enough” narrative. But we share a lot of the same struggles as the Capybara crew and they’ve asked if I would share what we’ve learned through experimenting with independent play. So here goes:

“Just go and play”

How many times did we hear these words in our childhoods? How many times have you said them to your own children? And how often do you find they listen?

Independent play can look really different for neurodiverse kids. Some children on the spectrum engage exclusively in independent play and struggle to interact with others. Other neurodiverse children really struggle with playing alone – without an adult or other children to guide the direction of play. My daughter falls into the second category and getting her to play by herself has been a long battle.

“Just go and play” can be confusing for some children. It’s too vague and doesn’t give them a clear enough direction about what they should be doing. Play with what?

Tip 1 for independent play: Give them ways to buy in

Some kids just need really concrete instructions. My daughter needs to know what success looks like before she gets started – even when it comes to play.

When we go for walks we decide what we are going to look for along the way to help prevent the cries of “I’m bored” a few metres from the front door. Sometimes it’s birds, sometimes cool rocks, the subject doesn’t matter so much as having something to focus on. The same thing happens when we go to parks. It is hard for my daughter to get started on her own. Even instructions like “play on the trampoline” aren’t explicit enough. Instead something like “how many jumps can you do in a row?” gives her more direction about how to play.

But how does that help with independent play? Familiarity. My daughter, and many neurodiverse kids, love familiarity. She will watch the same movie every day for a week. She gets sad when it’s time for her PJs to go in the wash and get swapped for a different pair. When she is familiar with an activity she finds it easier to get started. 

Tip 2 for independent play: Practise with them until they are fluent

Sometimes our kids are attracted to forms of play that are outside of their skill set and the meltdowns that occur when they fall short can be epic. 

There is a bouldering wall at the park near our house. My daughter has been a climber since before she could walk. I spend large portions of my day directing her to physical activity that is not using our furniture as a jungle gym. And from the moment she set eyes on that bouldering wall she was determined to climb it too. Only a bouldering wall is not so easy to climb as a couch. It comes with the added dilemma of needing to know how to climb back down once you’ve reached the top. There were many visit-ending meltdowns over that wall.

So we practised. Week after week I helped her follow the same safe path up and down the boulder. Eventually she had memorised it. To begin with I needed to tap each hand/foot and the corresponding rock to give her visual cues along with directions about how to climb. Eventually we progressed to prompts “blue rock now”. Until finally, after months of practice she can climb the wall by herself. 

Am I still required to watch the entire time and show suitable signs of awe when she makes it to the top? Absolutely. Does she still need me to direct her step-by-step on how to engage in play at this park? No. In fact she is now so confident with the bouldering wall that she will talk other children through safe ways to climb down when they get stuck.

But what about those times when you can’t watch them? When you just need to get things done that require your full attention and you just need them to play on their own?

Transitioning to independent play

It can be a nightmare trying to get anything done during the holidays. Throw in a child who will often refuse to play by herself and I am sometimes ready to pull my hair out. Earlier this week I struggled all morning with my daughter. I was trying to get her to play independently so that I could get some work done around the house. Every activity was a non-starter. She would sit with me to set it up – and then immediately follow me to ask me questions about what I was doing instead. She didn’t want to participate in what I was doing – she just didn’t want me away from her. 

My suggestion of “why don’t you play with the new dolls you got for Christmas” was met with two minutes of her trying to change their clothes. She then got frustrated that she couldn’t manage the fine motor skills, and threw the dolls across the room screaming. Eventually I realised that she had no idea how to get started on her own. At kindy she relies on familiar narratives like re-enacting movies or fairy tales with other children. At home she does the same with me. But she gets easily frustrated if I go off-script or need to do other things.

Tip 3 for independent play: Show them how to take the reins

I overcame this with my daughter by introducing the scripted story. Instead of playing with her for a while and attempting to walk away I sat with her. We negotiated how she was going to play by herself. We talked about choosing just two dolls (so that she could act out the parts without getting overwhelmed). Then we decided on the relationship between the dolls (they were sisters), and chose a scenario that she could play out with them. She decided that they had just moved into a new house and needed to set up their rooms. With these prompts she was able to play independently for a good hour. She even added new characters to the story once she got into the swing of things. She just needed a little help to get started. 

dolls for independent play
My daughter wants a script when it’s time to play with her dolls. Otherwise she will just dress/undress them on loop until she gets frustrated with their clothes!

Sometimes with neurodivergent kids telling them to “just go and play” isn’t enough guidance for them. And getting them started only to walk away part way through the game just leaves them anxious that they don’t know what to do next. By planning out the play with them instead you can give them the tools to manage their own independent play instead.

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