Recently someone asked me how and when we first started encouraging our children to be more independent and managing their own time and learning. I wasn’t sure how to answer as there wasn’t really a starting time, it has just been a natural progression since they were born. My older girls at 5 and 3 years old are now pretty independent with things like dressing themselves, making food, getting drinks, cleaning up, and some household jobs. They also mostly decide everything they do in a day, when they play and what they want to learn about. They come up with their own ideas and work out how to go about making it happen and only come to me if they need help, never for ideas on what to do. Thinking about it I actually never hear them say ‘I’m bored’. I remember pestering my Mum a lot with that question when I was little so I’m glad to have escaped it so far. I have been pondering how we got to this point and have finally come up with a list of suggestions and things that have helped us to raise independent kids and self-directed learners…
Don’t entertain them.
That’s right. Kids (and babies!) don’t need you to entertain them. They are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. They have fabulous imaginations. When you get into a situation where your child is always coming to you for ideas or needing you to always be involved in their play and provide entertainment, I honestly think it is less of a need and more about what they have come to expect. It’s just a habit and it can be changed. Playing with your kids is great but they shouldn’t need you to be involved in all of their play. It is important and really good for them to have lots of independent play time, to come up with their own ideas, to be entertained by their own mind. And if they’re bored? Well let them be bored!
‘Kids need time to be bored; that is how creativity is born’
-Melanie Jean Juneau
See them as capable.
Sometimes we jump in and do things for our kids before they’ve even asked for help. Instead, we can wait to see if they can do it themselves, showing them that we believe they are capable. Maybe they are able to make their breakfast themselves now? Maybe they can brush their own teeth and hair, or get themselves dressed? Maybe they can be trusted with little household chores. Kids love to be involved in meaningful work. When they do ask for help, instead of jumping in and doing it for them, show them how to do it themselves.
As much as possible try not to interrupt them when they are playing. It may look like ‘just play’ to you, but play is a child’s work and it is important to them. They are fully absorbed in that moment and that is something you want to encourage, not interrupt. This is how they learn this focus and concentration. Lunch time can wait a bit until you see a break in their play. You want to show them that you value and respect their work. There are times obviously where you have to interrupt, but as often as you can, let them be.
Let them ask the questions.
When my children were a bit younger and I first discovered pinterest I looooved looking at it and finding all of these amazing activities for them. There were so many great ideas! I wanted them to do them all. A lot of them they liked, but many of them they weren’t all that interested in. Because it wasn’t meaningful to them. Now I resist the urge to set up random activities and wait and watch to see what they are interested in. What questions are they asking? What do they want to learn more about? How can I support and encourage them to take this interest further?
Provide open ended explorations.
Provide them with inspiring and beautiful materials and let them explore and create what they like. Set activities that have to be done a certain way leave no room for creativity and allowing them to direct their own play and learning. Get some loose parts and let them go for it! I love this post on The Theory of Loose Parts from An Everyday Story. I frequently see my children representing their learning through open ended art and loose parts play.
Let them answer their own questions.
When a new interest arises and there are questions upon questions, instead of just giving them the answers, try to encourage them to research themselves. I might say:
‘What do you think?’
‘How do you think we could find out?’
‘Where could we look for the answer?’
‘Who could we ask about this?’
‘Where could we go to see this in real life?’
Create a learning space that encourages independence.
If you want your children to be independent then you need to make sure your home is set up so they are able to be. Can they reach their own clothes and shoes? Can they reach their cups, bowls, and plates? Are their belongings kept where they can access them without your help? Do they have free access to learning materials and art supplies so they can utilise them whenever inspiration strikes?
Does your attitude reflect that you want your kids to feel free to help themselves and direct their own learning? Or are you frustrated easily by messes and children taking their time? Your attitude can make a big difference and children can sense when they are being a ‘bother’. Sure, it takes a little longer to let them do things themselves, or let them help you with things, but the rewards are worth it! Yes, cleaning up mess is frustrating sometimes, but an artist can’t feel inspired without the freedom to create.
Display their work.
Show them that you value their work by displaying it around your home. They will see that not only is it meaningful to them but it is meaningful to you as well, and they will do more of it.
Don’t judge their work.
When they show you what they have done, try to stay away from comments like:
‘What is it?’
Instead you could just ask them to tell you about what they have done, or comment on what you see. You want them to be intrinsically motivated to create/learn more and feel satisfaction within themselves when they achieve something, rather than getting into the habit of seeking praise from you to feel good about what they have done.
Lastly, be available. They are still learning to be independent and they need our guidance and attention. You don’t need to be available all day every day but you could dedicate a stretch of time every day to be fully present and helping them with whatever they are currently working on, or playing. When they have your full attention for some of the time every day, then they are less likely to be demanding attention at times when you are less able to give it.
And that’s pretty much it! My girls spend their days engrossed in imaginary play, learning about things that interest them, being creative, reading and writing, playing inside and outside, and giggling A LOT. We spend a lot of time together, but they never ask me for ideas on what to do. I set out open-ended explorations for them but that is as far as my direction goes. Their play and learning is initiated by them and they are becoming increasingly independent in the rest of their lives too. It works for us!