Self-Directed Play


As parents, it is important that we give our children the tools to successfully entertain themselves. It’s also important for kids to know that entertaining themselves can be uncomfortable and that a little boredom is not the end of the world. Being self-sufficient is a skill that both kids and adults must incorporate into their lives, one that is an essential component to our happiness and security.

We love our children with our whole being, but it’s fair to say that they can sometimes push every single solitary button that we have. With all the grumbling we parents endure from our kids, it’s a wonder they don’t eventually succeed in sending us all over to the dark side. Oh, the sweet melodious sounds of parenthood.

Consequently, I don’t think I’d get too many arguments when I suggest that, occasionally, we parents could use a brief intermission. For instance, it’s common for us parents to crave a few moments of peaceful solitude to sip a cup of coffee, meditate or thumb through a magazine while also taking a pause from the constant barrage of whines, needs and wants that naturally come with the territory.

This brings up an interesting question that I once wrestled with for years, “Should I feel guilty for wanting to take a break from my children from time to time?”

The Importance of Modeling Self-Care

I don’t think there is another job in the world that naturally offers both abundant joy yet delivers its fair share of angst, as does the job of parenting. We teeter between these soaring emotional highs and deflating struggles, and when these feelings fluctuate, sometimes from moment to moment, we realize that half the job of parenting is about learning how to regulate our emotions. 

Amidst all of the emotions we as parents deal with personally, as well as with our spouse and children, is guilt. Perhaps we are feeling guilty because we don’t feel as though we are doing as good a job at parenting as everyone else. The uplifting side, though, is that we all feel it at one point or another. Having children changes everything, including how we prioritize our lives.

I was investing not only in activities they would later be able to do on their own but also in their abilities to use their imagination and creativity to entertain themselves.

What we must remember, though, is that aside from all of the emotions that inter-mix in us, we must love ourselves. That includes taking the time that is necessary to recharge and breathe, and to understand that taking care of ourselves is as important as taking care of our children. By modeling self-care, we are showing our kids the importance of self. 

As our children mature and age, so do their actions and independence. To encourage and support their continued development, we need to be teaching and encouraging our children to entertain themselves.

Of course, infants and toddlers require constant care and attention. The best I could hope for when my girls were younger, was to maybe take a nap when they napped or place them in their swinging chair and hope for the best.

I knew that one day, though, I would reach the period when they are big enough to be semi self-sufficient, such as getting their own cup of water or bowl of cereal, or even dressing themselves and buckling their own seat belt.  

In lieu of them becoming more self sufficient, I began to expose our three girls to a variety of activities. For instance, I introduced them to puzzles, word searches and coloring books. And, I began taking them on weekly trips to the library to expose them to the joys of reading. 

I was investing not only in activities they would later be able to do on their own but also in their abilities to use their imagination and creativity to entertain themselves.

Where Marc Boston’s Inspiration Originated

In my latest children’s book titled, What About Me?, the youngest of three siblings is seeking the attention of her two older sisters. In the book, the two older sisters go about their day of having fun, blithely unaware of their littlest sister’s attempts to join the play. This story touches on how even as a child, discovering our own gifts can make us more self-empowered and self-sufficient. These are vital life skills we, as parents, should be concerned with imparting onto our children.

One of the key themes in the book is, just because you’re alone, doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely! There are many things that children can do on their own that can spark their creativity, stimulate their minds and deepen their character.

Ways to Encourage Self-Directed Play

Helping a child learn to entertain herself is not always an easy task, it requires deliberate effort and the patience of a full-time job. As a parent, we may have to actively participate in a desired endeavor before our effort is rewarded by our child tackling the task on her own. Unless they are self-motivated or self-starters from an early age, you’ll need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty initially.

For example, our daughters are becoming fine little musicians. After several years of piano and violin lessons, practice is truly beginning to make progress. The sound of music encapsulates our house in an ambient bubble of vibrant contentment; however, cheerful contentment wasn’t always the case. There was a time when my ears were severely punished by the coarse and unpleasant sound of scratching, scraping, squeaking, squawking and plonking.  

My mind swam in a lake of unpalatable vexation as I attempted to convince them of the edifying merits of learning, and someday loving, to play their musical instruments. I tried everything from rewards to penalties, incentives and, I’m a bit ashamed, straight up bribes. I must admit that some days I wondered if my attempts to expose them to music hadn’t turned into a misguided proposition. I felt I understood exactly why psychologists caution us parents against the fallacy of trying to fulfill our unfulfilled dreams through our children. This wasn’t really true in my case; I just wanted to expose them to the joy of music.

It’s also important for kids to know that entertaining themselves can be uncomfortable and that it’s not the end of the world.

I endured and pressed on, and as a result, they’ve not only gotten better at playing but also, and most importantly, learned to like playing. Plus, they even practice on their own (for the most part that is). This is a prime example of something they can do now to entertain themselves.


Non-Technology Ideas for Kids

If you feel that learning an instrument isn’t your child’s thing, I’d like to propose good ol’ fashioned board games. Again, I joined in the fun every time we played at first, but now my girls play on their own which often offers me a period of parental repose. In our home, Uno, Othello, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit Jr., and Chess are in heavy rotation. It’s nice to hear them giggling in the other room after one of them gets hit with a “Draw Four” card. And, it’s comforting to know that they are safely entertaining themselves without the aid of an electronic device, or me. Win-win!

In our home, we have an activities list that displays some of the interesting things they can do to entertain themselves if mom and dad aren’t available to play with them.

  • Read a book
  • Write a story
  • Tackle word searches
  • Work in an educational workbook
  • Practice their instruments
  • Have fun with arts and crafts
  • Play with their guinea pigs
  • Ride their bikes
  • Go on make-believe adventures with their stuffed animals
  • Head outside and play with the neighborhood kids (something we parents did when we were kids)

Through teaching our kids to entertain themselves, we as parents can continue to have close connected, nurturing relationships, while also creating opportunities for some occasional space. And for parents who sometimes seek a brief respite, having a child that can entertain her/himself will be granted permission to become more independent while allowing us parents to keep on the sunny side of life.


10 Ideas for Self-Directed Play

Here is a round up of ideas for the kids to occupy themselves while you’re cooking dinner or just plain busy. You can even create a shelf or cabinet in the family room that houses materials for activities they can start, work on and put away themselves. 

  1. Read a book
  2. Journal
  3. Build a fort
  4. Put on a fashion show
  5. Practice a musical instrument
  6. Make a home movie
  7. Make up an obstacle course
  8. Learn a magic trick
  9. Write someone a letter
  10. Be active: ride a bike, jump rope, walk the dog, etc.


MARC BOSTON is a husband, father of three daughters, freelance writer, and the author of two children’s picture books, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff and What About Me? Find him at and Follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @marcgboston.

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