The Independent Play Tipping Point

Our girls are getting increasingly good at entertaining themselves with various forms of play, mostly of the pretend sort. They’re also into coming up with various routines involving our recliner, the dining room chairs and the new mini-trampoline and Sit-n-Spin they got for Christmas. (It’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in the ER, I know.)

Some days, they will play on their own, with only minimal need for parental intervention (usually to arbitrate semi-violent disputes) for up to an hour. On rare occasions, even more.

But even if it’s only for fifteen or twenty minutes, it’s kind of heavenly. We get the delight of overhearing their frequently hilarious conversations and marveling from afar at how freakin’ adorable and imaginative they are. Even more delightful, we get some time and space to do the things we need (or – gasp! – want) to do, like housework or work-work or cooking or reading or surreptitiously thinning the piles of Clio and Elsa drawings and other “projects” that have accumulated around the house.

The thing is, there’s no predicting and almost no controlling when they’re going to move into the independent play zone. It seems there is some sort of invisible tipping point, and once they’re past that, we can count on a good healthy chunk of unsupervised play or activity. It’s getting them there that’s the mystery.

Sometimes it happens on its own when I remove myself from the scene. I’ll be doing the dishes or eating my breakfast and all of a sudden they’re in the other room, building a “hospital” on the couch for their stuffed animals, or coloring like their lives depend on it. If this is the case, I basically start tip-toeing around, hoping they forget I’m there at all. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Other times, I’ll try to get them started on an activity in hopes that it “takes.” Yesterday, for example (snow day + no sitter = whole lotta time to fill) I got out the Mr. and Mrs. potato heads and offspring, which they hadn’t played with in ages, and we got them all faced and armed and legged up, and did a little pretend play, with funny voices and potato family scenarios. Potatoes go to the library, Potatoes play a few rounds of Zingo.

Then, I sort of snuck upstairs. “I have to go check on something, girls!” I said, “Be right back!” (I did, actually, have to check my email to see if an update on a project came in.) But I didn’t come right back. I listened to see if they were still playing and they were — apparently putting together some sort of potato and puppet Vegas-style floor show spectacular. I thought: By George, I’ve done it! I got them past the tipping point, and they’re going to play together for hours! I’ll go catch up on all my unanswered emails!

But it didn’t take. I only got about ten minutes before they were upstairs, asking me to come down and play with them again. “Guys, I’ve actually got to do some work,” I said. “You need to play on your own for a while.”

“We’ll just sit here with you while you work!” they said.

I protested feebly, feeling guilty for ignoring them, and they clambered up onto my lap. You can guess how much work I got done after that.

If I could figure out how it worked — what it took to get kids past the tipping point into the far off, magical world of self-sufficient play, where they happily dwell for thirty minutes or more — I could be the Malcolm Gladwell of the preschool set. But for now, all I can do is keep setting the girls up with toys and giving them ideas and practicing my Mr. Potato Potato Head Head Daddy Potato Pete (that’s what they named the big one) voice in the desperate hope that the momentum will catch, and they’ll sail off for a while.

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