Even if you mean well, and even if it’s meant to encourage them.
Have you ever been cranking on something for work, totally in the groove and feeling good about your progress, and then someone interrupts with an unrelated question about your weekend plans?
You probably lose all focus as you try to switch gears. Secretly you wish they would leave you alone so you could continue crushing it. They ramble on about something, and your brain has now completely given up on the task you were originally working on.
Well, that's what it's like for a kid who is in the middle of playing but is interrupted by a well-meaning adult. You know those times you lean in to ask your child what they are building? Or ask them to explain what game they are playing? Maybe comment on what a great job they are doing playing by themselves. It’s normal to want to show love to our kids; when you see them playing, looking sweet and calm, you might want to dote on them. We’re always told how important it is to be present and engage with our kids.
But not always — and preferably not while they are engaging in play.
Play is the work.
Play, while it may seem trivial, is actually how children learn. Through play, children learn social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Play helps foster creativity and imagination. It teaches them problem-solving and questioning skills and provides them an outlet for self-exploration. So allowing them the time and space to play is critical to their development.
Similar to adults, kids get into a state of flow. Psychologists describe this state as being fully immersed and engaged in the activity, and that's what we want when our kids are playing! When someone interrupts their concentration it makes it harder for them to get back into the flow of whatever it is they were doing.
To hell with good intentions.
The good news is that children are born with the drive and ability to play. The bad news is that oftentimes we have conditioned that ability out of them by the time they are toddlers.
We do this almost instinctively. We want to be involved, we want our children to be happy, we feel the pressure to always provide stimulation, we work hard to prevent our children from being bored or uncomfortable.
We have a tendency to want to participate, narrate, supervise or otherwise intervene. When our little ones are struggling to figure something out, being treated unfairly by a sibling, or playing with a toy the "wrong" way, our natural instinct is to help. We do the thing for them, demand the sibling share, or show them how to play with the toy. And while all these behaviors are well-meaning they are often to blame for why our kiddos cannot play solo.
The interruption paradox
You know how frustrating it is to be constantly interrupted by your kids. You pick up the phone to make a call and they’re at your feet asking for a snack. You go to take a shower and they’re clawing under the door. You can’t even take a sip of your morning coffee before someone is demanding something of you.
Now picture this. Your child is creating an intricate scene with their dolls and you walk over and ask them what they want for lunch. Your little one is knee deep in a pile of dress up clothes acting out their favorite movie scene and you start praising their creativity. Your toddler is deep in concentration trying to fit a round block into a square hole and you bend down and help them get it right.
All well-meaning, but all interruptions nonetheless.
Respect the flow.
Given how crucial play is for children it's imperative that parents and caregivers respect the flow of children's play.
We can do this by stepping back before stepping in. If you see your little one playing, take a minute to observe them in action. Save your questions, comments, and offers to help.
Developing the ability to focus, like other executive functioning skills, is learned and honed during the early childhood years. So it important for us to not interrupt their play because it will not only begin to diminish their ability to play independently but it also negatively impacts their ability to develop concentration skills.
In order for kids to cultivate the ability to play independently, they need multiple opportunities to actually play independently — and you can start at birth. Let your little one lay on the floor and look around without you positioning toy after toy in front of them. Leave your toddler in the playroom for fifteen minutes to occupy themselves (make sure it’s a “yes! space). Give your preschooler or elementary school children extended periods of time that are completely self-directed.
If you want your child to play independently, you have to trust their process and let them.
Alanna Gallo is the founder of Play. Learn. Thrive and Growing up Gallo. She is dedicated to combating parental burnout by empowering parents to move away from Pinterest perfection and embrace a simpler approach to raising children. She is also a mother of four little ones and holds a master’s in teaching from the University of Southern California. You can follow her on Instagram @playlearnthrivekids and @growingupgallo.