It was pretty amazing when my kids started playing by themselves. Seemingly overnight, they went from needing me to touch them at all times, to going to the park by themselves for hours. It was so nice to be able to read a book, cook dinner, and go to the bathroom by myself and without having to entertain my kids simultaneously. I haven't always been so chill about it, though. When my oldest was little, I had no idea when you can let your child play unsupervised, so I worried that if I did allow my kid to play alone, I was encouraging this solo-entertaining a little too early.
It's not terribly surprising that I was confused. Other parents on the playground seemed to hover around their kids, like helicopters. In 2018, Utah passed a law protecting free-range parents from arrest for letting their kids do age-appropriate things, like ride their bikes or walk to the park. In other states, though, parents have been arrested or reported to child protective services (CPS) for letting their kids play unsupervised, like Debra Harrell, a South Carolina mom who was arrested and charged with child neglect after she let her 9-year-old play at the park alone while she worked. And Jacqui Kendrick, who, as Scary Mommy reports, was investigated by CPS in 2016 for letting her three kids, ages 2, 5, and 10, play in her fenced-in back yard.
So it's understandable to wonder, and even worry, if there are hard and fast rules about when it's OK to let your kids play without your supervision. To find out more, Romper spoke with Lenore Skenazy, President and co-founder of Let Grow, who gained notoriety in 2008 when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the Subway, and Cecilia Matson, Early Childhood and Parenting Expert and Owner of Galoop Children's Classes.
Independent play is possible at a young age, Matson says, if you give your kids a chance to do things on their own. "Very young children can play unsupervised for short periods of time as long as the environment in which they are in is safe," she says. "If there is no danger around and no toys that are small enough to be swallowed, even babies can play unsupervised as long as you’re close by."
Matson says the best way to help children play independently is to "start from the time they are little babies, making sure they are on their own at times, exploring toys of different textures that are safe to mouth." As they get older, she says, they should be allowed to "work on puzzles, blocks, pretend play and more, all independently."
Based on their temperament, some children need more constant supervision, such as very active children who like to explore everything and anything.
Wondering when and how to encourage independent play is worth it, because this type of playtime is important for a child's development. A 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics report The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, found that play is essential for a child's brain, physical, and social development, protects them from stress and related health problems, and allows them to form healthy relationships. "Play is not just about having fun, but about taking risks, experimenting, and testing boundaries," the report reads.
While the idea of our kids taking risks — or worse, getting hurt — might be super scary to parents, it also is super important. In fact, a 2015 review of 21 studies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the benefits of letting your kids take risks (e.g. scaling the monkey bars sans your help) may outweigh the risk of injury. The review cited positive benefits, like spending more time doing physical activities, health status, and also social and decision making skills.
As to when parents should let their kids play by themselves, Matson says there are no set rules. "It’s different for every child," she says. "Based on their temperament, some children need more constant supervision, such as very active children who like to explore everything and anything." So instead of worrying about meeting some arbitrary timeframe, Matson says "it might be better to focus on your individual child and their abilities, versus having an age cut off for a particular activity."
Skenazy agrees, telling Romper that parents should trust their instincts about letting their kids play alone. "At Let Grow we don’t give age-specific suggestions, because we really believe that parents know the variables best — their neighborhood, their kid, their local everything," she says. "For an easy reference point, we usually ask parents to remember what age they were allowed to play outside, walk to school, go to the park, etc."
Skenazy stresses that parents' comfort level with their child doing certain activities on their own depends on many factors. 'This is not an exact science," she says. "You — the parent — know if your child is likely to wander off when you say not to. You can decide if you’d like to put your child in some sort of play pen. You know what the traffic is like on your street, etc."
Matson agrees, and says that the specific child’s temperament, confidence, level of anxiety are all things a parent should consider. "Parents should always gently encourage their child, without pushing and making them do something they are not quite ready for."
The key is to give your child some simple independence opportunities and see how he or she does.
Skenazy suggests that your kids might be ready sooner than you think, depending on the activity. "Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn and a co-founder of Let Grow, has said that by about age 4 most kids are capable of playing on the front lawn while the parent is inside for a bit," she says. And, according to Matson, "when children are not mouthing toys anymore and learn more self control (sometime after age 3, depending on the child) and you trust the way they play and entertain themselves, they can play in another room while you are doing something else."
Unfortunately for our kids yearning to be free-range, one 2012 study published in the Journal of Safety Research found that parents tend to be more cautious than they need to be, especially when it comes to unsupervised play. Study participants thought that the ages when kids could do things like bathing, biking, and being home alone were generally older than the guidelines developed by child injury prevention advocates and state laws.
You can get comfortable and help your child get comfortable with unsupervised play, though. "Sometimes encouraging a child to play independently just means sitting back and letting them play without interruption or interjecting, even if you’re still right there with them," Matson says. "Once you start leaving them to play in another room for a little while, you can just see how long it takes before they call for you. This time frame will often gradually get longer and longer, once they start getting used to self-sufficiency."
Skenazy agrees, and says "the key is to give your child some simple independence opportunities and see how he or she does." She also says the key to raising independent kids is building trust. "Pretty soon giving them some space becomes more natural and automatic. The more you both appreciate this independence (and you will!), the more you can do."