When Giving Your Child Free Time Doesn't Work
*Originally posted June 3, 2018
Welcome to summer! It’s time to play outside, explore the backyard, and create imaginative games. Except, for some children, it’s not that simple.
There is quite a bit of advice out there encouraging parents to promote free time for their children. Free time allows children to feel what it's like to be bored, gives them a chance to work out their differences with siblings, and lets them solve their own problems without an adult. Free time encourages independence, increases social skills, and builds resilience. Really, it does! Just read about it here, here, and here. While this is very true for children who are READY to be independent, ALREADY have a solid understanding of their social world, and who are ABLE to trust that they are not in danger when something goes wrong, free time often backfires for children with weaknesses in executive functioning, social skills, and/or anxiety.
When Free Time Backfires
“The Blissful Solo Player”
For many children identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as those with a diagnosis of dyspraxia, solo play feels like the safest kind of play. No one enters their space, no one throws off their plan, and if allowed to, they never have to transition away from this blissful play to do such boring things as use the bathroom or eat a snack. Also, many children on the autism spectrum have superb memories of television shows they may act out in play as well as heightened interests and an ability to hyper-focus that allows them to really enjoy their solo play. While parents of "the blissful solo player" might be grateful for this time to make dinner or talk on the phone, at the same time, they often have a gut feeling that too much of this play limits their child's social opportunities and language development.
“The Never Leaves You Alone Player”
If your child falls into this category, you’re already nodding your head. These are our children who are either too anxious to play alone, too distractible to settle into play, or tell us that they are too bored to play on their own. Therefore, they persistently seek attention from parents, who feel they need to be in the same room or constantly entertain their child. These play patterns come from several different weaknesses. Children experiencing anxiety may follow you around the house and need support to play on a different level of the house or in the backyard. Children with executive functioning weaknesses often struggle to plan their play, begin their play, and sustain their attention long enough to stick with their play. This might look like a child who complains of being bored when you see lots of things for them to do, or the child who loses interest quickly and doesn’t have the skills to come up with a new idea. If forced to not bother their parents, these children may wander around and never settle into an activity, unlike a child who has the skills to plan, execute, and create in playtime. While it is a strength that these children often ask for help and engage with parents, relying on parents too much can limit their independent opportunities for problem solving that can grow resilience.
Supporting Your Child’s Free Time
Making a Routine When There Is No Routine
The most common mistake I help families learn from is to understand that their child’s negative behavior during free time is no mistake. How do weekends go when there is not much going on? Are you able to actually work from home when your children are in the house? We know that children (and adults!) benefit from a routine, but there are some who really struggle to stay emotionally and behaviorally regulated without it.
So, the most important strategy when teaching free time is to actually schedule it like you would any other activity. I often recommend to frame free time as “free-choice” time rather than an open-ended free for all where "the blissful solo player" may become withdrawn and "the never leaves you alone player" either pesters you relentlessly or wanders around aimlessly.
Having a general daily schedule during the summer can be really helpful. Make sure the schedule is not too detailed. If too detailed, and something doesn’t go as planned, this could lead to an additional problem of inflexibility when the plan changes. Usually something like the following, written on a white board in your kitchen, does the trick:
Morning List (e.g., dressed, brush teeth, feed the cat)
Night time List (e.g., bath/shower, brush teeth, stories)
The trick is to make this routine consistent and then follow through with morning and afternoon activities, which are chosen by the parent, and free-choice time, which is chosen by the child. Sit down with your child and create a free-choice menu where they can practice brainstorming things they like to do alone knowing that they will be expected to play alone for a certain amount of time.
How This Helps “The Blissful Solo Player”
"The blissful solo player" will benefit from a written routine with a few tweaks. This child will absolutely love free-choice time, so this is where we must help them expand it by adding options to their list. (How to encourage your child to "build a bridge" and transition away from video games can be read about here.) The goal for "the blissful solo player” is to successfully transition away from free time play. The trick here is to join them just before the transition. Engage with them, play with them, and then help them transition by moving on together, being as encouraging as possible. This is where a visual STOP sign or PAUSE “button” are great to put on the play area so that kids know it’s time to move on and they can come back to it later.
How This Helps “The Never Leaves You Alone Player”
As the expert on your child, you will need to decide what an appropriate time span and location will be for free-choice time. Start with what you think your child CAN do and expand the time frame or distance from there. Some children will need for you to get them started on an activity or be reassured when something is a small problem they can solve on their own and when it's okay to come get you for help. Use the time timer to let them know when they are done with their play. Remember, you are teaching them how to be independent, so encourage and praise their successes. Let them know how helpful it was that you were able to call a friend, check your email, or feed the baby.
Also, your child may not fall exclusively into one of these categories, but most children have moments that their parents can relate to these ideas. Just remember, for many children who are wired differently, more structure is better, visuals are helpful even when a child is highly verbal, and consistent schedules are often magical.
A Word About "Activity" Time
Activity time on the schedule may be something mandatory, like a doctor's appointment, or it could be an errand, like the grocery store. It could also be a playdate to encourage those who would not pick peer play for free-choice time, or it could be pretend play time for those who have weaknesses in symbolic thinking. Either way, setting up the expectation that the adult is in charge of that time can be a helpful way to set boundaries and create a balance of work and play within a summer day.
More than anything, have fun!
**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**