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Help Young Children Play on their Own

By Cora Megan, M.A.  and JoAnn Robinson, PhD   

Many parents are asking, “How am I supposed to homeschool my child AND work from home? I am not a teacher!” This can feel overwhelming and impossible. You are not alone.

It is important to start small and plan no more than one or two activities for your child per day. Use items that you can easily find around the house- don’t reinvent the wheel. Here are some ways to set you and your child up for success:

  • Organize your space to promote independent play. Remove hazards, and offer a variety of “open-ended” materials that your child can use independently. Cardboard boxes keep children of all ages engaged for long periods of time because they can be used in so many different ways. Use couch cushions for climbing or to build a fort. Offer buckets, Tupperware containers, or reusable shopping bags for filling up/dumping or transporting objects. You may be surprised at how simple activities like this keep your child occupied while promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Give your child an assignment or a task to accomplish. For example, ask them to go into the backyard and collect 5 acorns, 3 pebbles, and 1 twig. For toddlers, keep the tasks very simple, such as filling up a bag with stuffed animals. Encourage them to check in with you when they are finished. Together you can count how many are in the bag. Praise them for completing the assignment with high 5’s. Not only does this promote your child’s independence, but it also brings them back to connect with you – an important motivating factor!
  • Set up a “workspace” for your child next to where you are working. Use materials such as legos, train sets, coloring/activity books, or even sorting socks. If you set it up as a “job” for your child, they will feel like their work is important, just like yours! To encourage this independence for longer chunks of time, use a timer. Try 10 minutes of independent “work” to start and adjust as needed.
  • Be sure to praise your child when they complete a task or are behaving the way you would like them to behave. You will get MORE of the behavior that you praise. For example, “You are being so helpful by matching those socks.” or “You worked so hard to collect all of those trucks!” Talking about each truck is great to promote language development, too.
  • Finally, make it a priority! Being in nature for a hike or playing outdoors reduces stress, and the exposure to sunlight and exercise helps to improve sleep therefore strengthening our immune systems.  Find 20 minutes every day, even during a light rain shower, to be outside with your children.  Stomp in the puddles together.  Sing a song while you walk.  Make some positive memories in the stressful time.

This is a challenging period for everyone, so be kind to yourself and to your child. The more practice your child gets being independent, the easier this will become.

Check out on-demand recorded class: Working from Home: How Can I Help My Young Child Play More on Their Own?