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Independent Play: Being the observer and the storyteller

{Part 2 of my series on Independent Play. You read Part 1 about my top 5 favourite toys and materials for play}


Sometimes I feel as adults, we sometimes have a tendency to talk too much over our children.

Already their days are filled with our non-stop yammering, asking them to get dressed, eat breakfast, clean up, hurry up.

Even during play, the chattering goes on… “What colour is this?”, “How many blocks are there?”, “What are you making?”.

It can really sound like an interrogation session sometimes. If we were to talk to another adult like that, it would certainly come across as being very confrontational and in your face.

As parents, we seem to feel compelled to constantly check if our children are ‘learning’ or gaining something from every single action they do. The truth is, children are already continuously learning as they observe, listen, experiment on their own. We should simply give them the freedom and space to do so.

Of course there will plenty of times for chatter and conversations with a talkative toddler. But there is a lot of magic and power to be found in moments of quiet observation and listening. There’s no need to fill every silence.

It’s in these moments of quiet when children discover that they can make their own magic. They can think their own thoughts, create their own ideas, and even daydream.

Be a quiet observer

I find incredible joy in simply quietly watching and observing my children’s play unfold. I hold myself back from showing, teaching, questioning, explaining, interfering. I don’t try to suggest, I don’t try to ‘help’. And every single time, I am always blown away by the unexpected twists and turns their imagination takes them to.

Some of my favourite moments of magic were stumbled upon unexpectedly… while I’m bustling and hustling around the house or in the kitchen, I pause and look around and suddenly realise that the kids are not in sight.

I stand quietly for a moment, then tiptoe over to the play area, and gently peek my head around the corner.

I hold my breath;

And simply watch the magic unfold;

In their own little world.

Sometimes I am invited in.

Sometimes I simply stand outside as a privileged observer into this magical world…

Be the storyteller

One way to encourage imaginative play is to take on the role of ‘the storyteller’. It’s basically like being a commentator or sports caster on the activity. Essentially what you are doing is narrating and describing what you see happening simply as you observe it…

“Nathan is stacking blocks on the dump truck… Now he is tilting the dump truck’s tipper... The blocks are pouring out and making a big crash on the floor… Now he is stacking them back on the truck again… He is pushing the dump truck across the floor…”

Try not to ask too many questions and try not to tell them what to do. Simply describe what they are doing.

This simple technique somehow helps unlock the unseen magic in the simple play that is happening and can be helpful for certain situations such as:

  • Encouraging a reluctant independent player (this may apply to extreme situations where a child is finding it difficult to initiate a play on his own).
  • Encouraging co-operative behaviour between children (perhaps to help foster or expand co-play between children and helping them learn how to work together).

Another way you can apply this technique is to read a book out loud and have your child play out the story. Classic tales like ‘The Little Gingerbread Man’ , ‘The Three Little Pigs’ or ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ are always big favourites.

We also enjoy making up your own stories using toys as puppets and props. I sometimes offer a quick kick start with a really simple opening…

”Once upon a time, there was a little red truck. One day red truck decided to go for a drive. Then he met his friend blue car. Suddenly….”

And after that the little guy usually takes over the direction, dramatizing his own variations and versions and coming up with new spin-offs to the story.

I love watching you play

It can sometimes be challenging to implement independent play at a slightly older age. Go easy on the both of you to begin with and gently introduce it gradually in stages

Start with sitting nearby to watch your little one play. If your child implores at you to “play with me!”, patiently acknowledge their play and reassure them that you are enjoying watching them play.

Try these six magic words: “I love watching you play”.

There is such truth and power in these six little words. So plain. So simple. But so real.

Picture this scene: You and your little one are spending some play time together one quiet morning at home. Your child is stacking and building a tower of blocks while you sit nearby observing him.

Now consider these two remarks:
#1. “You’re doing such a great job building that tower!”
#2. “I love watching you play with blocks”

Can you see the difference?

No need for praise or exhortation. No pressure or expectations.

Just a simple expression of love, savouring the moment together and simply being a witness to your child’s life.

We need a witness to our lives.
There's a billion people on the planet.
What does any one life really mean?
You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.
Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness'

Susan Sarandon, from the movie ‘Shall We Dance


Three links mentioned in this post that are worth checking out…


See you again next Tuesday for the next topic in this series where I’ll talk about managing screen time.

>> Click here for the full series on Independent Play


Linking up to Jess’s IBOT


  1. Everything you say here is so true. I have always been a bit of a watcher and get immense joy out of watching my girls play. It provides so much insight into their personalities.

    Leaving some fairy wishes and butterfly kisses from #teamIBOT

  2. Very wise words and I'm trying a lot harder to think about what I say, I admit with my first I used to say things that might have made her a bit of a perfectionist, either that or she's like her mum!!

  3. I love watching you play is a great phrase, i have not considered before. But there is a fine balance in encouraging and pushing kids isn't there. I do love it when the little Man ask questions. Just then he asked if squid has to be cooked to eat it. I love his inquisitiveness at the moment and just want to encourage him on that.

  4. This is a brilliant post, with great information. With my autistic children I tend to direct their play. It is a habit I've learned from when they couldn't play. I think being the story teller would be beneficial with these children, showing them the language behind their actions, without demanding that they be social as well as creative. Thank you.

  5. I love watching my kids play. One of my girls in particular gets into these magical worlds of games, and its amazing watching it all unfold.

  6. This is a lovely post and the joy you get in watching your kids play is so obvious from your words. I think you are very right that we need to observe and not coax our kids to match colours or whatever all the time, let their creativity run free. Your kids are lucky to have you as their mamma.

  7. I think this post is really Important Serene. You are right we get so caught up checking in on them making sure they are learning. At times it is best to let them be be their narrator. I love it. You have a great passion for children and their magical ways. x


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