Independent Play & Rhythm

Promoting Independent Play and Creating a Daily Rhythm

This week focuses on two subjects: promoting independent play, and creating a daily rhythm. You guys are among the first to read this material, so please let me know (either through the comments or through a private email) what parts particularly speak to you, what parts are confusing, what’s useful and what’s not. Ask your questions! If you’re thinking it, chances are good that someone else is, too.


Website Photos 060The Importance of Time Alone

Most of us don’t think about our kids benefiting from having time alone. In fact, some even feel guilty for doing our own thing while our children are playing; we worry that ignoring them might be some form of mild neglect.  We feel like we should be actively promoting their development at all times. Far from being neglectful, I think that it’s important that we NOT be high-octane entertainment for our kids all the time.  Not only because it’s not productive to wear ourselves out and become desperate for breaks from our kids, but also because it’s important that children have time to explore the world without our constant commentary.

Last week we talked about how involving kids in our household tasks lets them gain real competence. This week, I want to talk about a different type of competence. This is not the competence that comes from interacting with others and working as a team, this is the competence that comes from being comfortable with yourself, exploring the world and solving problems on your own; this is the competence that grows out of spending time alone.


Why is independent play valuable for kids?

Website Photos 064Independent play dramatically increases children’s ability to focus deeply and have longer attention spans.

This is super important for later academic success, when the ability to focus one’s attention and not be easily distracted are vital. We often think that young children are not capable of sustained attention, but I have seen one-, two-, and three-year-olds deeply immersed in an event of their choosing for long periods of time. Remember last week’s video where the little boy was washing the spatula? If he had not been interrupted in that task by the adult, he might have washed that one spatula for ten minutes or more. Remember the baking video, where I keep asking, “OK, are you done? Are you done now?” And the kids keep telling me that they’re not done. We want children to pay attention and not get sidetracked when WE ask them to do something, but how can we expect them to develop this capacity if we also want them to drop whatever they’re doing whenever WE’RE ready for them to be done?


Independent play gives children a chance to experience the world without the interpretive filter of our commentary.

It’s important that we give our kids time where they get to experience the world without having everything interpreted and explained by us. We may not even realize that we’re doing it, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a child playing in the play-kitchen, and then seen an adult come up and say, “Oh, are you cooking some SOUP?” The child looks down, looks up at the adult, and nods. He may not have been cooking soup before, but he surely is now! We’ve changed his experience through our commentary.

Website Photos 063Or perhaps there’s a one-year-old sitting in the grass alone, quietly. Her mom comes up to her: “Hey, whatcha doing?” She looks in the direction the little girl is looking, and says, “Oh, are you looking at that purple flower? How pretty!” This mom may think that she’s merely connecting with her child over the flower, but in fact, she may well have jerked her daughter’s attention away from something else entirely. She might have been looking at an ant crawling through the grass, or the way the sunlight and shadows played on the ground; she might have been feeling the breeze on her cheek, the sun on her back, or listening to birds overhead. When we adults come up and make comments to kids, we cut off those experiences and we shape what they pay attention to instead. This is fine to do sometimes, but having the time and space to experience the world without our constant commentary is important as well.


Independent play lets children solve problems on their own.

It is often extremely challenging for us, as parents and caregivers, to watch a child struggling and resist stepping in to solve the problem. After all, isn’t part of our job in “caring” for our children to help them when they need help? To a certain extent it is, of course. But when children know that we are present to smooth the way, they react differently. Who among us hasn’t seen a child fall down, look around to see if we’re nearby, to either burst into tears if we are, or brush himself off and keep going if we’re not? When children encounter obstacles and there’s nobody around to solve the problem, they either figure out how to solve the problem themselves, or they make the decision to do something else instead. Overcoming obstacles, making adjustments (not because they’re told to, but because they’ve made the decision for themselves), and recovering from disappointment are all important skills for developing resilience. Resilience (the ability to bounce back from hardship) is one of the key factors that determines both success and happiness in later life. If we give our very young children age-appropriate struggles where we don’t step in and smooth things out for them, they can develop that can-do attitude that is the foundation for resilience.Website Photos 068


Independent play allows children to process emotions and experiences.

Another important aspect of play for the young child is to process experiences and emotions. This is the basis of Play Therapy, but almost every child does this on his or her own for everyday experiences. As a childcare provider, I’ve seen many examples of this: a little girl with a new sibling at home walking her baby doll up and down, up and down, shushing anyone who comes near. A little boy whose dad has recently started working from home, digging aggressively in the sandbox; when I came up to ask him what he was doing, he announced, “Go away, I’m working.” That little boy “worked” in the sandbox for almost two weeks before he was able to branch out again in his play.  When children are given the freedom to explore these emotions and experiences it can be healing, much in the same way that talking about experiences can be healing for adults.  One final example: I had one little girl in my daycare who had a shocking experience when she was trying to poop on the potty, but she slipped and her bottom fell into the water. For several weeks, she would play “falling off of things,” each time yelling “oops!” and laughing hilariously. She took this scary experience and made it funny. It’s important for us, as adults, to allow space for children to explore these emotional experiences. They can often do this best through their own deep play.

(For indoor play, dolls can be very important tools for kids to explore interactions they’ve had or seen.  In addition to the little girl with the new baby at home, I’ve seen children “playing out” interactions from different angles with dolls many times.  I especially remember one little boy holding his doll, telling it sternly, “Never do that again. Never again!”  In times when kids feel powerless, with a doll they can turn that roll around.)



Website Photos 067How To Give Kids Space

In Denmark, most homes and even many daycare centers have a room or a space where kids can go to be away from the adults; they’ll often post a “No Grown-Ups Allowed” sign. They have these not just for kindergarten-aged kids, but for toddlers, too! In daycare centers!  In the U.S., on the other hand, it’s not considered appropriate for toddlers to be truly alone for any length of time. So how do we give children the positive experiences that can come from being alone, while providing supervision? If our kids are not used to playing alone, how to do encourage them to start spending time on their own, when we’re still right there? We know that if we push kids away, they just clamor for us even more. So how to we foster independent play?


1) Stop talking! For people who are chatty (like me), this can feel like a challenge. I find that the easiest/best way to stop myself from talking all the time is to hum a tune. While singing out loud generally attracts kids and pulls them to me, humming seems to allow me to fade into the background. As an added bonus, I find that the children tend to play much more peacefully when I hum: my tune set the tone for the energy in the room, and the littler kids didn’t have to keep pulling themselves out of their play to check up on where I am; they can feel my presence.


2) Interrupt them as little as possible. If you see that your child is focusing intently on something, then stop yourself from jumping in!   Refrain from that cheerful, “Hey, whatcha doing?” If your child looks up and sees you and wants to connect, then they’ll reach out. But do your best to avoid pulling a child out of deep play just to touch base. Their play is important. Have you ever been deep in a task to the point where you stop noticing the things around you, and time seems to stand still, only to be jerked out by the phone ringing? If your children are in the “flow,” don’t jerk them out unless you have to.

Website Photos 071Of course, sometimes you have to: it’s time to go to school, dinner is ready, or something else. What can you do? First, place value on that deep concentration: do you really need to pull them out right now, or could you wait for a few more minutes to see if a natural break in concentration comes along? Often kids “come up for air,” and that can be a good time to step in and redirect. If it can’t wait then instead of giving a warning, step in and join your child where she’s at, then let her come back to the everyday world in a gentle way. Sit down next to her and look at what she’s looking at for a moment. Have a moment of conversation about her project or play before talking about what you’re doing or about to do. If you can, use imagination to continue the thread into the activity that you want her to move into: “Trot those ponies back into their stables, because they need to eat their lunches, just like you do!”


3) Be busy-but-available.  This is perhaps the MOST useful tip for promoting children’s play.  Kids always know if we’re unavailable to them energetically, so in order to promote the development of independent play, it’s important to be “busy” with tasks where you can have the Sense of Spaciousness that we talked about last week, where you have enough attention for your task AND your child. Once their capacity for time alone has developed more, you’ll be able to do tasks of your own that require more intense concentration as well, but at the beginning you and your children are learning a new way of interacting, and you must be busy-but-available to allow them to gain this skill. This way, when kids stop to check-in with you, they feel that they have access to you and they can go back to their play; if they check-in and you’re unavailable, they will stop their play to pull your attention back. Household tasks are really ideal for this, as are gardening and making things with your hands. The best activities are those in which children can see your progress and can either imitate in their play or interact with you as you do it. Reading can work, but only if you don’t mind stepping away from it to interact with your child as needed. Computer work, or talking on the phone, are activities that tend to be the least successful, because it’s hard for us to be available energetically while we do these things.


Website Photos 0704) Let kids into your space whenever they need or want it, but always be drawn back to your task. Imagine that you’re attached to your busy-but-available task by an invisible rubber band. If kids need you, you can step out to help for a moment, to settle a dispute or help them change activities, but you do it and are then drawn back to your task. If kids really need your interaction, rather than becoming a playmate to them, invite them to join you in your task. Make it inviting and enjoyable; kids will often “help” for a moment or two, then go back to their play. If it’s something they can’t really join (like knitting or reading) let them know that you’re available for snuggles if they come join you. If you invite a child to join you and they jump in and don’t go back to their play again, then they’re ready for more direct attention. Trust their knowing. They will develop the ability to be “alone” for longer and longer times, if they’re given the opportunity regularly.

Another thing you can do when kids call you over is to “be with them with your voice” and attention, while your body stays with your task. “You wish I’d come over and play? Tell me about what you’re playing.”


5) Recognize when kids are done being alone for now, and do an adult-led activity. Kids will often play alone, check in, play again, and check in again. But soon enough they will need more than just a check-in. They will be ready for some direct attention. You’ll be able to tell when a child is ready for some direct attention because the quality of the play deteriorates: siblings have trouble with each other, single children get mopey or whiney. When this happens, respect their (unspoken) request, put your task aside, and give them your full attention.

What should you do, when kids are done being alone? When kids are ready for direct attention, then choose one of the Living Arts to engage in. The Living Arts include:

  • The Nurturing Arts (have a snack, brush hair, clip nails, rub lotion, go down for a nap, etc., all in super-connecting ways).  If you really connect over even something as simple as a diaper change, kids can often then jump back into new play;
  • The Domestic Arts (unload the dishwasher together, wash the windows together, work in the garden, bake muffins, etc., incorporating the elements of SMILE while you do it);
  • The Social Arts (play a fun game together, go on an outing, have a play-date with other kids); or
  • The Creative Arts (tell a story, paint or color, work on making seasonal decorations together, etc.).

Which do you choose? Partly, the time of day will tell you; if it’s lunch time, then have lunch! Partly, the age of your child or children will tell you; read my article on The Living Arts to help determine this. And of course, the temperament and preferences of your child will inform you as well.


The Rhythm of the Day

As you start to practice this dance of interacting directly, then receding to let your child play independently, then interacting directly again, you will start to notice a sort of wave-like rhythm developing where you and your children flow towards each other, then flow away. This is what you want!  You might flow together and apart multiple times an hour, and then as you and your children get used to it, those waves can slow down a little as the children trust that you will be there and happy to greet them when they’re ready to check in again. This allows them to go more deeply into their play and their times “alone” will grow longer and deeper.

In addition to these smaller waves where you flow toward and away from each other within an hour, there are also larger tidal rhythms within a given day.  The High Tide activities include mealtimes, transitions to sleeping & waking, and any outings you take. Make sure that these High Tide activities stay as stable as possible, and that the transitions in and out of them are as connecting as possible.  We’ll talk more about HOW to make these transitions go smoothly and enjoyably in week 5. If routines don’t come naturally to you, then focus on setting eating and sleeping times at the same time each day, because once those become established, then children’s circadian rhythms step in to help to reinforce the daily routine and the rest can fall into place.

If you have multiple kids, either your own or a play group, High Tide times can be times when you’ll be interacting all together, with everyone at once.  If you have a play program, then you could think of Circle Time as a High Tide activity.  With multiple kids, family dinner is a High Tide activity.  Naptime where everyone rests together would be a High Tide activity.  Between High Tide times, you will still have your waves, but these smaller waves are personal connections with individual children or smaller groups.  If the baby naps alone, then connecting with her while you put her down would be a wave, rather than a tide.

When we put our energy into these High Tide pieces of the day, then relax more between tides, still taking the time to connect from time to time, your children will really be able to flow through the day, riding the tides and waves with ease.


Work With the “Must-Have” Pieces of the Day

In addition to High Tide activities, think about all of the “must-have” pieces of the day: transitions of all kinds, and tasks of bodily care such as dressing and undressing, brushing hair and teeth, pottying and diapering, etc. are all things that MUST be done. When we put our energy and attention into these, then they can be the peaks of the waves, the spots where kids are getting our direct and focused attention. Between these times, there is space for the troughs of the waves, where we can let children be a bit farther away from us, to interact with the world on their own terms. Be conscious about letting kids have space for these troughs. Use household tasks to blend into the background. If possible, start doing the same household tasks at the same time each day, so that they become so “normal” that you disappear even farther.

(Note: There are certain times of day that children need more direct attention than others. For example, most children need lots of direct attention in the late afternoon or early evening. Adjust to this reality and don’t expect your children to play happily by themselves while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. We’ll talk more about that pre-dinner hour during the class on mealtimes.)

Children benefit hugely from having as much regularity in their lives as possible. When they know what’s happening and how things go, then they can stop being on high alert all the time, and they can truly relax into each activity or into their play. Additionally, when children know in their bodies what’s going to happen next, this takes away the need for explaining and convincing. This can eliminate many of the power struggles that are common with toddlers in this day and age. In fact, the power of a regular rhythm for children is hard to over-emphasize (for reasons why, read my article on Children Are Like Tiny Foreigners). I remember one family in my childcare who I knew would benefit from a stronger rhythm. I tried to explain and they listened politely, but it was clear that my suggestions were falling on deaf ears.   Several months later, we returned from Winter Break in January, and those same parents were ecstatic. “We went to visit family over the holiday and they have four kids. They have a really strict schedule and we thought, ‘Oh no, this’ll be interesting,’ but we were amazed that our little guy just fell right into line, without a squeak! We’ve been doing some of the things since we got home, and it’s amazing! It’s like we have a new child!” Some things you just have to see, to believe.

The schedule itself is only part of what makes a strong rhythm. Waldorf early childhood folks talk about “The Three R’s of Early Childhood”: Rhythm, Ritual, and Reverence.

  • Rhythm talks about what happens when: the schedule.
  • Rituals refer to doing each part of the day in ways that are both expected and connecting. So if you have a “come to the table” song, then you light a candle together and say a brief grace, then serve the table clockwise, this can be a ritual that allows children to relax into the experience and connect with you, both at the same time. Use the elements of SMILE to create rituals that work for your family.
  • Finally, Reverence refers to the attitude with which you do each act. When we put the dishes away with care and respect, our attitude shows children that the world is beautiful, that our space is worth caring for, that life is good. When we can weave Rhythm, Rituals and Reverence throughout the day, then children thrive.


Creating Your Own Rhythm

If you are thinking, “Well, this all sounds lovely, but I grew up in a chaotic home and none of this comes naturally. How do I get started?” then try this:

1) Start with your High Tides of eating and sleeping, and set them to be as unchangeable as the tide.  When we can set these times, then children’s circadian rhythms will back us up.

2) Between the High Tides, let children ebb and flow to be with you and away from you.  Let the “must have” parts of your day as the peaks of your waves:  sleeping & waking, tasks of bodily care, meals, and scheduled outings. Create connecting rituals around each one, incorporating the elements of SMILE. These are the peaks of your waves, where you give your child direct attention.

2) Make sure you have space for “ebb-times” between each peak, down-time between activities where you recede into the background by doing household tasks or other Spacious activities. Let your children join you or not, as they need. Try to do the same activities at the same time of day, if you can.




  1. Ryoko Onuki says

    I really appreciate for your this post. Especially I inspired by the example of Denmark!!
    In Japan, we are also very different from Canada/US(probably)…
    Children won’t have much own space since our country is so tiny and too many people but we do have much more children alone time.
    Even we send child(children) to grocery shopping or visit neighbours& friends by themselves. I still remember that my mother used to send me(probably I was 6years old) to our neighbour to pick up milk,which weekly ordered from the organic farm.
    This neighbour had dog and I scared to pass him… I had to solve problem… so I always called the household (lady) from outside. Oneday she told me that I can come in without call from outside. I said to the lady, “I called you from outside because I scare the dog.” She smiled at me and said “Sorry, I didn’t know that, his name is Sam. He barks that scared you?” I said yes. The lady said “I will try to keep him inside when you come next week same time. So I could keep my chore…

    I have been working as live-in caregiver with current family since last January. It’s been quite challenge to build daily rhythm. The parents are so used to let them watch TV(video) when they are “busy” and let the children eat wherever they are watching video… Since I started working with this family, I have been building daily Rhythm little by little.
    I was wondering how to create space and moment for children to being alone in this house. Not only because I need to do household tasks, but also children need their own time. While I played with children, I often showed them how we can create space with pillows, blankets, small children chairs, and laundry baskets.
    It took time but finally, lately, sometimes I saw both children creating their own space and time.

    6 years old built her own cave with chairs and pillows in a playroom and read books or play with dolls.
    3 years old built her cave with blanket and pillows and play with her bunny puppets.

    I just let them spend their own time and space as long they need to be. Usually I hear they are talking to themselves or puppets and using their imaginations.

    • Ryoko, it sounds like you are doing everything right! Those little girls are benefiting from that time in their forts! It can take time to help children develop that skill if they’re not used to it, but it’s well worth it.

      • Ryoko Onuki says

        Thank you so much Faith! I’m so glad to know that I’m doing towards to right way…
        However, I have question.
        When older child wanted her own time, younger one kept asking her “play with me, let me in” and also came to tell me that “she is not nice to me!!!!! She doesn’t let me in!!!”.
        I answered to her like this ” Abby want her private time, please leave her alone little bit… She will play with you later.”
        Is there any more better answers and explanations?
        I understand that 6 years old just came from school and just wants to relax and be alone time…
        Thank you so much for your words.

        • Ryoko, I do think that it’s important that siblings have some time alone, but in ways that are not mean or unkind. You can point out that Abby is having some alone-time, and then invite the little one into your task, making your task fun and inviting with songs and games. Or you might take the little one to snuggle and read books on the couch. That way, everyone’s needs can be met at the same time. As the little one gains some ability to play more independently, then both girls will be able to hang out alone more comfortably. For now, you are still helping them build the capacities.

  2. Kelley Klor says

    Very useful information, Faith! I appreciate it!
    I also believe (but it wasn’t worded as nicely as you have presented here) that children need time alone. Not in a neglectful way, but in a way that lets them think for themselves. Sometimes we’ll go to the library and I just sit back and let them play in the play areas without interacting, unless they approach me. I see other parents kind of watching sometimes, as if they’re wondering why I’m not commentating their every move. I’ve seen other parents do that, and the kid looks exhausted! (Not to sound judgmental, just an observation.) As my 2 year old has gotten older, she has happily started playing by herself more, and it helps because I can step away from her and get things done or sit down to read a bit. She was a very clingy baby, so I often wore her and always had her with me, so it’s nice to see a more independent nature come out now as she explores her environment.

    As we move into a more Waldorf homeschooling environment with my older daughter, I’m seeing how important the rhythms and rituals are, and this has given me good, concrete information to start moving toward that. We already have a general rhythm that works for us, although it has been thrown off a bit with the addition of our foster son. He’s doing well with falling into our rhythm though, and I feel like we’re getting closer to accomplishing some of the rhythms our home needs to stay calm. I think what I need to work on, however, are the songs and transitions to keep us moving from one time of day to another peacefully. I haven’t found that yet. Sometimes it feels like we’re slamming from one activity into another and everyone kind of loses it for a few minutes!!

    I didn’t find anything here to be not useful. Good job! And thank you!

  3. One mom asked about kids getting bored of a given activity or ritual. Here’s what I responded:

    My experience is that kids only get weary of doing the same activity every day if WE get bored of it. So, if I’M just going through the motions, but I really wish that I were doing something else, then suddenly the kids start acting rascally and things start falling apart. But if I remember to put my energy and attention into the activity, and remember to make it connecting (through eye contact, smiles, etc.), then the kids will love it for months. If things start falling apart a little bit, I’ll work on incorporating more elements of SMILE (say the words with a funny accent, or invent a story about what I’m doing) and things tend to come back together again. If they don’t, then I’ll look at switching things up dramatically enough, and with more connecting elements, that kids feel connected again during the activity. Then I’ll keep doing that one until it’s time for a change again.

    So, with my washing-faces-and-table rituals, I switch them around in order to keep my OWN interest up, but if I choose on our games and the kids start trying to talk me into doing another one instead, this tells me that there’s not enough predictability to that part of the day, so I’ll stick to the same game for a week or two, and then start branching out a bit again once everyone settles down.

  4. Kristen Cronin says

    Hi Faith, I also very much appreciate the points you’re making here. I agree that it’s so important for children to have time on their own. As an only child myself (who now has an only child!) I believe that my time spent playing alone as a child wasn’t sad nor did I feel neglected. I think it allowed me to have a rich inner life, and I hope that the same will apply for my son.

    My question is about maintaining rhythm. Since Trevor has different people watch him on different days while I’m at work (my mom, nanny, and husband), how can we establish a rhythm when each person has their own schedule and ways of interacting with Trevor? I can set a general routine for each person to follow, I suppose, but I don’t want to interrupt the flow of their day with my ideas about the rhythm of Trevor’s day. Does this make sense? Beyond putting him down to nap and to bed at the same time consistently, it’s pretty tough to set routines for other things with other players in the mix. This will change when he goes to preschool in September, but how can I address this now?

    Thank you!

    • Kristen, kids know VERY early on that different people do things differently, and that’s fine. I think that if times for eating and sleeping can remain as consistent as possible across caregivers, then each person will develop their own rituals and ways of doing things with Trevor that work for them. There’s a lot of research showing that having strong secondary attachments (loving, long-term relationships with caregivers or other adult family members) is highly beneficial for children. Of course, every adult will for sure do things in different ways, so making an effort for some consistency across caregivers will benefit Trevor. So when he starts preschool, for example, ask for a schedule of his day there so that you can adjust his mealtimes and naptimes to match school. You might also see if they have rituals for starting meals that you would want to adopt at home, or tidy-up songs, etc. When there is a bridge like that between school and home, children benefit.

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