Language Play: Strategies for Encouraging Independent Play in Summer Months

Independent Play

Fostering independent play this summer with icon or photo schedules for the day.  Show “alone” activities as well as activities children will do with others. Add a clock icon for each activity that shows the time these things will occur. You can designate an “alone” activity with a star or use color coding…

Independent play is a topic that had come up twice this month. Both a parent and a pre-school teacher asked me for ideas for children who couldn’t play independently. These children were only able to play if an adult was involved. Unfortunately, these adults were either dealing with other children or having to get things accomplished, like making dinner. Sound familiar? Dependent kids are especially a problem when they are home for the summer. A parent can only set up so many activities each day!

Of course, folks of a certain age, like me, remember our summers as total freedom. No one worried about our independent play; we were quite capable of playing alone or with friends, and no adults ever knew where we were except during mealtimes. We were busy all the time and we learned how to solve our own problems in a messy kid way. It was an adult-based world and we all tried to survive to become grown-ups. I remember seeing a parade. The next day, I organized all the kids on the block to take rhythm instruments from my toy rhythm set and march up and down the block. I carried the flag and led the parade. I felt like anything an adult could do, my friends and I could do. Here is an interesting article on the subject of freedom to ponder:  Freedom to Learn: The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Now back to 2013, and the problem of helping parents and teachers to foster independent play…

For one parent, I asked what activities motivated the child most. I also asked the child what he liked to do at his art table, which was set up near the kitchen while mom made supper. He could see her, but he and I discussed his new kid-area where he could play without mom. We generated a list (with photos or icons) and taped it on the wall next to the table. He had his choices. From his list, he decided to make a notebook or use an iPad to make a book of drawings or photos of street signs. This was a new passion and was a good exercise for writing letters and reading words. Once we established this routine together, he would be able to repeat it without any adult guidance. We also talked about supplies he would need for each activity on his list (this could also be represented in the photos of his list or in an “Independent Play Idea Book” with pages for each activity and a recipe-type list of ingredients). The idea is to have something set up without an adult involved. Just point to the list or book (“I’m busy right now, but maybe you could find something in your list or book to do.”)

Another skill could be developed beforehand, using a timer. Inaccurate time concepts affect our lives with children a lot more than we realize! (Think: wait time, “are we there yet?” and more.) I often see if a child can guess when a minute or 60 seconds is up. Usually 15 seconds later, they announce it’s been a minute. Then we look to see if it’s been 60 seconds. This helps a child to eventually understand what we mean by “wait a minute” or “I’ll be there in 5 minutes.” It’s so easy for adults to assume kids just know and understand time, but I figure it can’t hurt to teach this exercise, in case they have no time concepts. Once they have experienced the minute game, you can use a timer for independent play activities. When the timer goes off, they can engage with others or choose another “alone” activity from the list. When you are in the car, you can show the estimated arrival time on the GPS to the kids. Tell them how long that is and play a game to see who comes closest to that amount of time. I’ve never tried this so let me know if it works to distract them from boredom and increase their accurate time estimates!

Icon or photo schedules for the day can also show “alone” activities as well as activities they will do with others. Add a clock icon for each activity that shows the time these things will occur. You can designate an “alone” activity with a star or use color coding. Make it a routine to go over what is happening that day every morning. If you are not sure of what will happen at 2PM, put a question mark or a “surprise” icon. It’s a safe, structured way to deal with unknown events of the day, so our kids get used to change and flexibility. When parents don’t want to be involved, they just tell the child to see what’s next on the list. This makes activities more objective, less parent-directed. Most of these lists and schedules also help a child understand and develop executive functions skills like: planning, having a target goal and knowing the steps to get there, and using memory, attention, and organization skills. Feel free to offer incentives for any follow through. Slowly, they will understand that alone time is precious and special, and that they can be good at being independent.

In the classroom, similar strategies may be used. A visual class schedule, a list of downtime activities for each child to chose from, etc. Quiet time can be an opportunity for education apps on the iPad or to read a book to themselves or a stuffy.

Let’s foster independent play and keep our children creatively busy!


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

[Photo credit: (ccl) Trey Ratcliff]

2 Comments on “Language Play: Strategies for Encouraging Independent Play in Summer Months

  1. Megan,
    Thank you so much for your kind words!

  2. Another terrific article. I especially enjoyed the walk down memory lane and was reminded of all the “independent time” my brothers and I spent together. I remember my mom locking the door after sending us all out and announcing she would see us all AT LUNCH and not before!
    Gosh, how times have changed! Funny!

    Thank you, Kathy! As usual, your expertise and good humor meld to inform, inform, inform! You are delightful.

    Best, Megan

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