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Independent Play: Important tips on how to let kids play

So, after reading about my top five favourite toys and materials that encourage open ended play, there are also two very important things to keep in mind to allow open ended and imaginative play to happen.


#1. Try to hold back from ‘showing’ children how to use or play with the material or toy
A very common thing we adults sometimes do when sitting down with our children to play is to pick up the toy and start building or making something with it, or talking the child through what they should do (e.g. “Here, use this roller and roll the dough out like this, press out the shapes like this” or “Let’s build a house, here stack the blocks like this”). Not that it’s wrong or bad, but sometimes there’s a subtle tendency to start guiding a child to only play with toys a certain way… i.e. Our way.

Take Lego blocks for example, they are a fantastic basic toy. However sometimes when we buy a Lego model set, we will naturally take the blocks out and build the structure based on the pre-set model on the box. And once it’s build, that’s it. We might even have a tendency to get a little antsy when a child tries to take it apart or don’t fit the pieces together in the exact same way as in the instruction sheet.

And even with Play-Doh, often these sets come with all sorts of fancy gadgets and moulds, like a bakery shop or a barbeque kit and I’ve even seen a Star Wars set. We then start teaching and showing the child how to ‘play’ with it, telling them how to use the specific moulds and pieces provided.


Sometimes it’s nice to build something after a set model or design. And sometimes it’s okay to build and explore the toy together. But most of the time, children should be allowed to play with a toy any way they like as long as it’s not dangerous. It may not look perfect or things may sometimes get a little messy, but at least they are exploring and experimenting freely with their own imaginations.

Let them build anything they like with the blocks, let them squish, roll or pinch the play dough any way they like. Toys are meant to be just props to fuel the wild and creative ideas inside their own minds.

#2. Accept the mess that can happen during play and find ways to work around it
This is an area I’m still working on myself. It’s hard not to cringe when we see paint splattered everywhere, or sand being tracked around everywhere, or coloured water being splashed all over the floor, or play dough getting squished into the carpet.


I too have caught myself jumping in to pause or stop play or try to tell the kids to play a certain way in an effort to contain the mess. It’s hard not to do so sometimes when I think about the massive clean up I would have to deal with in the aftermath.

Of course there are times when we do have to step in if things get out of hand, such as if children start deliberately throwing and flinging toys and things (which can also be dangerous) or if they step out of boundaries and meddle and mess with things or areas that are out of bounds.

However, if we keep hovering over everything trying to contain and control the play, children will eventually stop trying to do anything meaningful… because what’s the point? They can’t do this or that or only have to use and handle the toys and materials in a certain way.

So how can we strike a balance? Here are some practical tips you can consider to work around the inevitable mess and allow children the freedom and liberty they need to explore and experiment for themselves:

  • Take the play outside --that way you don’t need to stress out about your carpet and furniture and save time on having to wipe down everything thoroughly afterwards
  • Find strategic spots to set up the play --such as in the kitchen or an enclosed corner or area in your house so the mess can stay relatively contained
  • Set boundaries and limits for children --clearly explain to children from the start where the play area is and that they need to stay within the limits of the space during play
  • Have clean up things set up and ready to go --you can prepare towels and rags and some buckets of water so kids can clean up straightaway once they are done
  • Keep a brush handy near the sand play area --so kids can brush the sand off (or at least most of it) before going inside. It also helps to position the sand play a bit of a distance away from the door so most of the sand shakes off during the walk or run back to the house

I shared about my challenge with handling mess with the officer at my family day care scheme, and she told me “Yes, but you know it’s happy mess”. I also found the following words to be another good reminder…

il_fullxfull.303911726Image credit


See you next Tuesday for the next chapter in this series where I’ll talk about ‘How to be your child’s storyteller’ and share some pointers on what to say (or not to say) to your child during play.

>> Click here for the full series on Independent Play


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