Friday, August 9, 2013

When Your Child Can't Play Independently

"Free play" is a term I've heard more as Collin and the children of my friends have gotten older. It refers to unstructured time in which kids are free to choose their own activities and it plays an important role in development, both of skills and of independence.

But there is no free play - at least in the typical sense - at our house. There have been times in the past when therapists have recommended free play for Collin to allow him time to explore his environment. The thing is that he doesn't really do it. If I set Collin up in a seat completely surrounded by toys and leave him alone for a few minutes, at the end of that time, he will be tumped over with his eyes closed. If I leave him on the floor with toys just out of reach to encourage movement, when I come back he will be curled up on his side or possibly kicking, but never paying attention to the toys. Either he can't register the existence of the toys, he isn't motivated by them, or it is too much for him to interact with them on his own.

I've shared before about the mental and emotional challenge of constantly and constructively engaging with a child who does not or cannot initiate - about how it feels to be simultaneously always alone and never alone.

But, over time, I have come up with a few practical strategies that benefit both of us by allowing us each to do our own thing for brief periods during the day.

1. Do Things Together
I try to save most of my tasks until Kyle gets home or for a day Heather is here, but it's not possible to hold off on everything. For example, I value homemade meals, so Collin comes into the kitchen with me and "helps". I tell him what I'm doing and let him feel ingredients. We sing while I'm chopping or have a little dance break in between steps. That way I can attend to something important to our family without leaving Collin bored and unattended.

2. Value Down Time
I grew up in a family that valued true down time, in which you actually do nothing "constructive" at all. But since Collin came along, I've struggled to remember that sometimes "nothing" is the best thing you can do; my tendency is to keep him constantly stimulated in some way in the hopes of goading his development. So when I get swept up in a series of insurance calls or some other task that keeps me from interacting with Collin as I would like, I try to assure myself that even though Collin might not technically play during that time, it's still beneficial for him to have some time when nothing is expected of him.

3. Keep Looking for Something That Works
Most toys and apps are worthless to us without someone to guide Collin in structured play. But there are some wonderful, well designed options and some simple ideas that Collin can do by himself for a few glorious minutes at a time - we just had to keep trying until we found them.  I subscribe to Smart Apps For Kids (and now Smart Apps for Special Needs) who does a great job of monitoring reduced and free apps and sending out recommendations via email. It was through this site that I found the beautiful Kate and Harry apps that are perfectly designed for Collin's limited motor skills, enabling him to build and drive cars, ships, and planes. Another favorite is Sound Shaker, which provides a wide variety of fun sounds and colors with minimal fine motor skills required. In terms of 3-D activities, Collin enjoys sensory boxes and a bag of mardis-gras beads makes a perfect non-messy version for on-the-go.

4. Use Videos (Without Guilt)
I never wanted to be a parent who used TV to entertain her child. But I had lots of ideas about things before Collin came along. And the fact is that he can attend much better to something on a screen than to 'real life' because the defined edge helps him to limit how much he needs to process. Consequently, videos and visual apps end up being some of the best vision therapy for him. They have also built up his attention span to that of a typical four-year-old, if not longer. Videos even provide great incentive for Collin to swallow during feeding practice and make meal times much more pleasant for everyone. Add in the fact that he can enjoy them fully on his own, and you have more than enough reasons to integrate videos into our daily schedule.

This may not all add up to free play in the traditional sense, but as with most things, we're not shooting for typical - we're going for our own normal.

Collin watches the rain and listens to Scout sing while I
write for a few minutes.


  1. You are amazing! I am truly impressed at your insight into Collins development, and how well you adapt to his needs. He is so blessed to have awesome parents like you.

  2. This was such a great and insightful post. I see so clearly has God has enabled you (and Kyle) to be the best parents for Collin. I love seeing these smiling pictures of Collin. Oh how I wish we lived closer and I could truly know Collin. In any case, I love him so... from afar.