Do you ever find yourself wanting to stop your child from doing something because you know it will all end in tears? While this is the natural instinct of most parents, there is a fine line between guiding your children in the right direction as they develop their own identity and simply being overprotective. Children need to map out their own paths, which also means making their own mistakes.
Many mistakes, from which our children will undoubtedly learn invaluable lessons, will be made during play time. It is a time for them to explore and experiment as they learn about the world around them in a comfortable, safe environment. It can, of course, take children a little while to figure things out. It won’t be immediately obvious that a square block isn’t going to fit into a circular hole, or that not sharing toys will upset others and possibly lead to a tantrum. But should we be showing them how to perfectly match up the shapes? And how do we know when it’s the right time to step in during play time?
A recent study by Elizabeth Bonawitz, et al. demonstrates that independent learning is more beneficial for children than structured, instruction-led learning (or us parents just showing them what to do). As part of the study, a group of children were given a new toy. Those who were left to figure out how to use the toy on their own were far more engaged than those who had been shown what to do. The children who were left alone after receiving the new toy also played with it for longer, tried a wider variety of actions and even discovered alternative ways to play with it.
While showing our children how to do things may seem helpful and nurturing, it can actually have the opposite effect. By spoon feeding them the answers, we risk limiting their capacity for independent and creative thought. Encouraging children to engage in pretend play, try new things and experiment with their toys is an excellent way to foster independence from an early age. I’m not suggesting that you should never help your children, just be careful not to helicopter them.
Parents and teachers form an essential scaffold for a child’s learning, but we must let them climb on their own. This can be as simple as providing plenty of opportunities for your children to engage in unstructured and independent play, and ensuring that they’re not overstimulated by too many toys. Allow your children, as soon as they’re able, to do things for themselves, even if this does mean that they go out wearing mismatched clothes or make sandwiches with strange fillings. Let them try for themselves, let them fail and then let them try all over again.
Raising an independent child is a challenge for every parent because it means letting go. Children need room for growth, so we must resist the urge to wrap them up in cotton wool, providing instead a strong platform from which they can make their own way in the world. Besides, when you see your children doing things for themselves, you’ll be glowing with pride.
Sam Flatman is a dad of two, living in Bristol. He believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, and is currently an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Sport.