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Easy, fun and low-cost ways to help your child build skills through play
December 19, 2022
Child playing on the floor with blocks and toy cars

    Parents often feel the need to fill our young children’s days with playdates, entertainment and academics. While each can be valuable, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of independent play. After all, play is a child’s primary occupation and encourages creativity, problem-solving, self-discovery, attention and confidence.

    Pediatric occupational therapist Marta Parr shares how to make independent play fun and beneficial for kids

    Are there specific toys or objects you’d recommend making available to kids to foster independent play?

    Open-ended toys help facilitate independent play skills. These are toys that don’t have a specific purpose and do not require instruction for use.

    When picking out an open-ended toy for a child, think of all the ways it could be used. Can your child build or stack with it? Can they connect, design or create with the toy? Can they pretend with it? These toys are often gender-neutral, timeless and can be used in different ways as the child grows.

    Common open-ended toys include wooden blocks, Legos, animal figures, dolls, car tracks, train sets, art supplies, magnets, objects from nature, dress up materials, beading kits, Play Doh, and the list goes on. Don’t forget about household items, such as boxes to make a fort, or paper towel rolls to create a marble drop.

    What kinds of skills and strengths can these toys help them develop?

    Open-ended toys encourage communication, exploration, creativity and problem solving. Kids have opportunities to develop autonomy and critical thinking skills by asking themselves:

    What will it look like if I put this here?
    Will this piece fit?
    Can it be connected or stacked?
    Can I imagine it as something else?

    They can also develop and refine motor skills by learning to move their bodies in different ways to achieve a desired outcome. They may position their fingers differently to grasp a Lego because they learned it’s easier to pull apart from that position, or maybe they learn to slow their movement when stacking blocks because it helps balance the tower. Play with open-ended toys offers the freedom to explore different sensations and respond with newly learned motor movements, which ultimately helps with nervous system maturation.

    As children feel more confident and comfortable in their capabilities, they may demonstrate improved focus toward the toy, greater attention and a wider variety of skills.

    Are there ways parents can promote independent play?

    Independent play is important because it allows kids to feel capable in doing tasks on their own. Parents and caregivers can promote independent play by:

    • Creating a safe play space. An environment conducive for independent play is one without screens, phones or anything that could cause over-stimulation.
    • Reducing the number of toys accessible at one time. Swap and cycle toys that the child hasn’t seen in a while to keep them interested.
    • Choosing developmentally appropriate toys that aren’t too challenging or too easy.
    • Making independent play part of the daily routine. Begin in small increments of time as they build their skills. Attention is practiced!
    • Staying close by for check-ins so the child feels safe and secure.
    • Managing your own expectations and giving your child time and space to problem solve. Avoid commenting on their play to keep them focused.
    • Allowing boredom. Boredom is the bridge to creativity and imagination!

    Are there any activities you do a lot in therapy that your patients really enjoy?

    Children don’t need the most expensive or elaborate toys on the market. Some of the most fascinating toys are simple manipulatives or household objects that appeal to the senses.

    Tools – I incorporate tools to scoop, pour and create with, like wooden tongs to pick up manipulatives or cups to practice pouring materials into containers.

    Texture – Exposure to different textures can increase the child’s interest. I like to incorporate water play by using spray bottles and sponges to wipe away chalk drawings.

    Movement – We practice a lot of coordination exercises in therapy, like performing animal walks and navigating obstacle courses. Parents and caregivers can bring the playground home by using boxes, laundry baskets or pillows to build their own jungle gym.

    Play is the best way to facilitate learning, development and growth!

    Find more helpful information from our CHoR therapists.

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