Beyond the Sessions is answering YOUR parenting questions! In this episode, Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, Dr. Emily Upshur, and I talk about…

3:23 – The developmental appropriateness of independent play – it might not last as long as our culture might lead you to believe it should.

4:25 – To foster independence, you might have to first allow your child to be dependent on you. (And the psychology of how and why this actually works!)

7:05 – The difference between independent play versus “why can’t they play quietly so I can take a phone call?”

10:12 – In our culture, we’re often taught that we should always be engaging, stimulating, and entertaining our kids to help them reach their full potential.

11:40 – When we say “play” what we really mean is exploration and engagement and by understanding this, it shifts what we think our role is in this interaction.

12:30 – How to foster independent play with older kids if you didn’t start building this skill from a young age.


🎧 Listen to my podcast episode with The Workspace for Children’s Lizzie Assa

🎧 Listen to my podcast episode with Jennie Monness

🎧 Listen to our BTS discussion about enrichment classes and brain development


🎧 Listen to my podcast episode about using RIE with babies with Deborah Carlisle Solomon

🎧 Listen to my podcast episode about evolving RIE into respectful parenting with Janet Lansbury

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hello, welcome. So I want to wish a very happy Independence Day to our American listeners in honor of this episode coming out on July 4th. We are going to be talking about our kids’ independence when it comes to play, which is one of my favorite things to talk about. So I am very excited to be getting into this episode with my fellow psychologist and my mom friends here, Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, Dr. Emily Upshur. And before we jump into talking about independent play on Independence Day, I also want to wish Emily a very happy birthday because your birthday’s also on July 4th. Happy birthday.

Dr. Emily (01:34):

Independent baby.

Dr. Sarah (01:37):

Okay, so let’s talk about independent play because I think it’s something that obviously we know is really positive, has a lot of benefits for development, cognitive development, problem solving, creative thinking, relationships, social skills, all the wonderful things we should talk about. Those things actually what independent play has been shown to benefit. But I also feel like there’s this balancing act between, yeah, we so want to promote independent play and also I think people get really stressed out about it. How do I foster it? How do I get it? My kid doesn’t want to play independently. I can’t get them to separate from me. And I think you can get a lot of the benefits out of play without it necessarily being as independent as we might expect the kid to be able to be. Because I think sometimes we have not the most realistic expectations at different ages of what independent play actually really looks like for different kids.

Dr. Rebecca (02:33):

Yeah, I think you just summarized it really well. It’s really important. It’s aspirational for many, and it’s something that everything else, you just can’t use it as a way to feel bad about yourself and your parenting. I have one kid who was pretty good at independent play and one who’s to this day is not, and it doesn’t mean it’s not something to strive for, but it looks so different for different kids depending on developmental stage, depending on everything you can mention. I think again, there’s this parenting culture whereby people use all these goals as also ways to feel shame.

Dr. Emily (03:23):

I also think it reflects a little bit of a loss of community that we have, at least in United States culture, or at least hyper-local in New York that I’m aware of, which is I get the same. I mean, I get a ton of parents asking me, how can my kids play more independently? And sometimes that’s appropriate, but how long and for how much? There’s really a lack of developmental appropriateness in our culture around what that’s supposed to look like. So they’re not going to play independently as long as they’re going to watch a TV show. So are we seeking something that’s realistic as parents overtaxed and we don’t have as much of a community in terms of cousins and nieces and nephews, and where there is more engagement engage for children and they don’t have to play so independently as in alone.

Dr. Sarah (04:20):


Dr. Emily (04:20):

And I think you’re taking that into consideration is a big piece of this.

Dr. Sarah (04:25):

And to build on that, it’s not just that our expectation of kids being able to play independently for really long periods of time may actually not be particularly developmentally appropriate. I think that’s also a product of our kind of obsession in American culture with independence versus dependent. We really want our kids to be super independent. We really want to quash dependent behaviors or shape them out of them. And I think the ironic thing that plays out in the natural developmental psychology research is that to become independent, we first need to allow for appropriate amounts of dependence. Our kids build up their ability to be separate from us by first feeling. They don’t have to be separate from us that or that the tether that connects us is needs to be actually quite a bit shorter and there needs to be more ability for them to check in with us as their secure base and refuel with us.


And then that refueling allows them to go off and explore independently, and then they come back in and they refuel and they go back out and then they come back in. But how far they go out, I think we have a distorted sense of how far we expect kids to be able to go out and for how long before they need to refuel. And it’s not very far and it’s not very long, especially when they’re little and if they haven’t been playing independently for a long time and they’re older and we just expect them to all of a sudden now be able to, you have to start at the beginning. You have to start at that really short tether and build that capacity for longer periods of exploration, independent exploration.

Dr. Emily (06:17):

I also think it’s funny because I think we have also a lot of criteria frankly, around this independent play. I’ll have parents be like, yeah, they totally played independent, but they made a huge mess. And that’s not, and I’m like, well, that’s part of independent play, right? That’s a little bit sort of the other side of letting. Yeah. So I think it’s really an interesting concept because we really have to think about all the criteria we’re putting in place too around this independent place. It’s neat and it’s clean and it’s quiet and it’s over here and this one section.

Dr. Rebecca (06:52):

And it always happens at the time that I needed to, right? It’s like why can’t they play parents use again with the most wonderful loving of intentions, this sort of catchphrase, why can’t my child be more skilled at independent play? What they mean is why can’t they just be quiet and let me take a phone call? And those are two very different things. Independent play, as I think you expressed beautifully, Sarah, is a skill that you have to build capacity for. It’s like, I’m going to be on the couch. Let’s see if you can build a tower with these magnet tiles in your room while I’m on the couch. I’ll be thinking about you. I can’t wait to see. Let me know when you’re done. That may be where you need to start. You’re not going to start when they’re seven years old and you’ve never left them alone before. And suddenly it’s like, oh my gosh, for the love of all things sacred, can you just entertain yourself already?

Dr. Sarah (07:48):

But I would take that your example, even a step further. I’m going to be sitting here on this couch and you’re going to be in your room playing magnet tiles. I think before you even get to that point, you might need to be sitting on…

Dr. Emily (08:00):

On the floor.

Dr. Sarah (08:00):

A couch and they’re sitting next to you on the floor playing with magnet tiles and you’re just not engaging in the building of the magnet tiles. That there is this sort of parallel play where they are playing and we are there, but we aren’t. I think one of the things, I have a sort of background in rye, which stands for resources for infant educators. It’s like a parenting philosophy that is very encouraging from a very early age of being incredibly engaged and collaborative and highly attuned and child focused during caregiving activities. So when you’re doing diaper changes, when you’re feeding them, when you’re giving them a bath, when you’re dressing them, this is undivided attention time. And then when you’re not engaging in those specific caregiving activities that you’re sort of allowing your child to explore their environment from birth. And this is a very specific way of doing things.


And there’s a lot of ways to build independent play outside of the rye pedagogy. But some of the things I’ve learned from getting into rye when I had really little kids was this idea of what do we see as independent play for a parent of a infant who lays their baby down after they’re done with the caregiving activities, the child has all of their needs met the basics. They’re not hungry, they’re not tired, they don’t have poop in their diaper. They’re good. They’re ready to sort of be in the world if you lay them down and you just kind of let them be for a moment. We are so not trained to identify certain behaviors that kids engage in as play. If they’re looking at the wall and they’re staring at it, that’s play, which is kind of mind bending sometimes for parents who’ve been kind of sold a bill of goods that we need to be constantly stimulating and engaging our children, even if it’s not us directly, but their environment should always be the best possible toys, the most enriching environment.


It’s like can they stare at the wall and look at how the shadows move? And if they’re engaged in that, can we one appreciate that that’s play for a child that age and two, not interrupt it, allow that child to be in that space with themselves without us sticking a rattle in their face and shaking it. Can we let the child engage in that play? Can we respect that as play and allow the child to build that muscle of sustaining attention in something that is attracting their interest organically? That’s the building blocks of play. And I thought if I took one thing away from learning the philosophy of rye as an early mom, I think that was the most valuable one I think I took away, was that to respect how much is play for kids. Because now when I think about what counts as independent play, it’s quite expansive. It’s not like a Pinterest activity.

Dr. Rebecca (11:21):

I think it’s playing with more than play. It’s like they’re playing with their attention, they’re playing with what it means to smell something. They’re playing with how they can move their body parts they’re playing with. And I think play is probably not even the best word at that age. It’s more sort of exploration or engagement.

Dr. Sarah (11:43):

But I’d argue what’s the difference? I think that the problem is we’re operating off of a very narrow definition of play when I think it’s more inclusive.

Dr. Rebecca (11:51):

But I think the difference is there ends up being this misunderstanding and we don’t use those terms because independent exploration is a mouthful, right? So I agree with you a hundred percent that it’s our definition that needs to change. But until that happens, I think it leads to, as you just said, a lot of misconceptions about what play is and what our role is in promoting it. Promoting it may look like just sitting and letting your child do whatever they’re doing, but for us it’s like, no, I have to give them something to play with that then they can independently play with. That’s misleading.

Dr. Emily (12:30):

And I do think for parents that are like, oh my God, I didn’t do that. Now what? I have a 10-year-old and I need them to do that. I think that there are ways you can titrate that precisely what you were saying, Rebecca, sometimes I will set up something that I know my kid can do it on their own with a little confidence in their zone of stretching. Their ability to do that independently isn’t as taxed. So I know they can sort of handle it more independently on their own. And I’ll maybe set that up like a Lego or something within their zone of confidence so that they can do that.

Dr. Sarah (13:08):

Interest. That’s critical

Dr. Emily (13:10):

And I do think you can sort of, and even if they’re like, come play with me, come do that. I also do, another strategy I’ll do is say something like, okay, you get started and I’ll be there, or you can do this and I’ll come check in. Or I’ll come in, I will start with you for the first 10 minutes and then I’m going to go finish cooking dinner. So I think you can stretch their ability to practice that. Even if you were like, oh, I blew it. I don’t have that skill and my kid can’t do it. I want to reassure all these listeners, there are still so many ways you can promote that with doing some of these strategies of stretching their independence.

Dr. Sarah (13:47):

A hundred percent. And I want to be clear, I’d started this when my kids were very little, but you can do this anytime. The fundamental elements need to be there, which is having a realistic expectation of what your child’s play looks like at that age, being willing to expand it a little bit more broadly. But the other thing, Emily, that I think you were kind of getting to as well, with having it be within their zone of capacity developmentally, I also think critically it needs to be in their zone of interest because I don’t know, I get tripped up with this myself, but if you go on Pinterest or Instagram and you see all these cool play prompts that speak to you or that you think look like they would be cool, but your kid doesn’t care about, that’s subject matter. They’re not going to play as long.


Whereas my son is obsessed with Harry Potter right now, and he’s got a Harry Potter Lego set that he can play with for a really long time because he’s really interested right now in that content. And so if I wanted it to be whatever thing I think is supposed to be stem or the right enrichment for his age right now, or Oh, I don’t want, it’s too close-ended play because it’s got, I’m breaking the rye rules, right? Rye is like, oh, open-ended play, and this is Harry Potter. Lego is very closed-ended play. It’s telling you exactly how to play the thing in theory, but in reality, my son is making up his own play with these close ended toys and they’re fantastic and he’s loving it. And I’m like, see you in two hours, bud. And he’s great. That’s just like, you have to be willing to break the rules and follow what your kid’s actually interested in too, which I think is important.

Dr. Rebecca (15:48):

Also, neither of my kids has ever played for two hours by themselves. Ever.

Dr. Sarah (15:52):

Yeah. This is my kid. That’s my other kid. No, but this kid, I always said, he’s the kind of kid, if you put him down in front of something he’s interested in, you will never need to look for him again. He will be exactly where you left him. He’s just really, he gets so zoned in and hyper focuses on these, that’s him, but that’s my kid and I know him and I know what I could expect from him. I have another kid who plays in a very different way. So it’s like, yeah, have realistic expectations developmentally, but also realistic expectations based on your specific child. If playing for 10 minutes is a really solid stretch for your kid, then celebrate that they did it for 10 minutes and maybe see if you can see if they can do it for 11 minutes the next time.


You know what I mean? We’re not talking, it doesn’t have to be two hours to be considered independent play. That’s just happens to be what happens when my son finds himself immersed in the world of Harry Potter, which frankly, I feel like there are certain things I could play with for two hours and it’s probably Harry Potter Legos. I love Harry Potter, but I will say, to kind of wrap this up, I feel like there was a couple of really important things that we covered that I just want to kind of pinpoint. One is we need to be willing to look at independent play as kind of different than the way we might otherwise might typically define it. And we have to recognize it’s a skill that our kids have to be able to have an opportunity to build up to. It’s not just something we can expect a kid to have without practicing, and that the duration of that play or the amount of how far away from you, how they are from you, that needs to be reassessed sometimes.


And it still can be considered independent play, I think. And then I do think, there was an episode that I did a while back with Lizzie Assa, who she’s on Instagram as @theworkspaceforchildren. She’s got awesome, very realistic expectations, play prompts for kids to encourage and build skills around independent play. So if you want some really specific strategies that you can use to build that muscle, build that skill, no matter what age your kid is, I would go back and listen, it’s one of the earliest episodes. I think it was episode 44, so go back and listen to that if you’re interested in building up that muscle. But yeah, it’s a muscle, it’s a skill. It’s not something that kids should inherently know how to do, and we as parents may also be operating off of a definition of it that needs some work.


Yeah. Awesome. Well, I’m so glad you guys came to chat about this, and I hope Emily have a very happy birthday and thank you. We’ll see you all next week.

Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

217. BTS: Is there a right and wrong way to encourage independent play?