If you visit any playground today, you might notice an interesting phenomenon: There aren’t many parents sitting on benches, milling about on the sidelines, leaning up against fences or watching from afar.
Instead, they’re following their kids around as if connected with an invisible leash.
Parents are suddenly required to not only supervise play but actively participate in an odd sort of “shadow play.” At playdates, they constantly engage kids and teach them how to play with toys the “right” way. At indoor play spaces or children’s museums, they’re on their hands and knees crawling around in tunnels. And at playgrounds, they’re always one step behind, holding out their arms in case of a 10-inch fall onto some woodchips.
It’s hard to judge these parents, who are typically moms. They simply want to keep their kids safe, teach them about the world around them and engage with them. But all of this child-following at places that were designed for children to play is not only exhausting — it could be negatively impacting kids.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., is an expert in the field of child psychology. Her research has resulted in 14 books, including “Einstein Never Used Flashcards.”
She explains that frequent solo play — letting children play on their own with no guidance, encouragement or interaction from adults — helps kids become creative problem-solvers and more effective members of society.
We want to build creators in the world today, and yet we don’t spend a lot of time giving our kids unstructured opportunities to create and discover.
“We hear a lot that we want to build creators in the world today, and yet we don’t spend a lot of time giving our kids unstructured opportunities to create and discover,” says Hirsh-Pasek.
Small children rarely get much say in how their day goes. As parents, we tell them when to sleep, what to eat and what to wear. We push them around in shopping carts and buckle them into car seats. These things are to keep them safe and help them grow, but Hirsch-Pasek emphasizes the importance of giving a child free agency when the moment allows, like in a supervised play environment.
For instance, when a child picks up a toy mixing bowl and wears it as a hat, it’s tempting to encourage them by pointing out that it’s a bowl or suggesting that they pretend to stir instead. But allowing kids to play with things in the way they choose to gives them an important slice of power they rarely receive.
“Little people are little. They’re always seeing from the knee down. And sometimes giving them a little bit of power to control the environment they’re in is a pretty big deal,” says Hirsh-Pasek.
Similarly, if a toddler whose fine motor skills aren’t quite developed knocks down a block tower, it can be tempting to rush in and help them rebuild it. But allowing them to fail, according to Hirsh-Pasek, is an essential part of allowing the “creator” within them to blossom.
Boredom isn’t bad
Furthermore, it’s no surprise that in today’s world, people struggle with boredom. They simply don’t have to feel it very often; when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, you can whip out your cell phone and entertain yourself just fine. But another benefit of solo play is that it teaches children to entertain themselves. It gives them an opportunity to just “be” instead of feeling the need for their parents to fill every moment.
Some parents fear that they aren’t playing with their children enough and that it may affect their development, as reflected in a survey of parents by the educational toy company Fisher-Price and the parenting website MadeForMums.
According to the survey, 66 percent of parents fear that they aren’t playing with their children enough, and 73 percent feel pressure to ensure that their child is developing on pace. The survey results said 80 percent of parents reported they feel the need to keep their children constantly entertained.
Engagement is obviously still very important, says Hirsh-Pasek, but solo play is just as important for development and problem-solving skills. She suggested opportunities for solo play should be balanced with opportunities for engaged play.
“Interaction is important, but so too is letting your kid have agency,” she says. “With the very best of intent, we often steal agency from our children and determine what they’re going to do.”
Hirsh-Pasek describes a past experiment of handing children an Etch A Sketch toy alongside their parents and seeing the difference between parents who would say “What do you want to draw? What are you drawing?” instead of saying, “Oh, look! You drew a bird!” One approach, she describes, gives control. The other unintentionally takes it away.
Obviously, solo play for small children should always be supervised to prevent harm. But next time you’re at the playground with your kids, consider backing off a bit instead of suggesting activities or hovering. Solo play is healthy, entertaining and essential to their development.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2018, and updated in May 2022.