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January 12, 2021

Supporting Independent Sibling Play

Lately, my house has been abuzz with different small groups of children playing together. This has definitely been one of the side benefits of quarantine over the past 10 months. Without a lot (or any) places to go or people to see, if my kids want to play with other children they largely have to play with their siblings. This isn't always easy for small children, and especially siblings. I find that even Henry (9) and Nora (6) are more likely to be rude, mean, or rough with their siblings then they are with random friends. It makes sense, though! Siblings just have a different relationship. 

In a Montessori home, independent play is really a nice sign (but not the only one) that the environment is working for the children. We want to create opportunities for independence, for concentration, and for self discovery. This can absolutely happen while more than one child plays together. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to support independent sibling play. 

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Pick Your Moments

As a Montessori parent of multiple kids, my most important task is to protect the child that is deeply concentrating. And sometimes, it doesn't take much to interrupt a child.  As Maria Montessori said (in The Absorbent Mind), "Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity….  The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.” 

While it's not always possible to keep siblings away while one is concentrating on something, it's not a time I would voluntarily encourage it to happen. It's a time where I might try to engage the sibling looking to play, or suggest something else for that child to do. Independent play between siblings is best left for when no one is already deeply engaged in work, or when they find each other and hit that stride together. Once it happens, protect it!

Don't Referee Conflict 

Conflict between siblings is something that is going to happen. It just will, eventually. But, in order to promote and protect independent play our children have to get the skills needed to try and manage that conflict on their own. They need time and space to come up with their own solutions, their own system for playing together. If we constantly interrupt or try and fix the squabbles then they will have a harder and harder time playing independently together. They will become dependent on our intervention to mediate their play. 

So, where possible step back and allow them to work out their conflict. I only step in if someone is going to get physically hurt, or if something destructive is happening. More tips on managing sibling conflict here.

Gus and Teddy are playing with a wooden peg board from here and these pegs

Know Your Sibling Sets 

It's also really important for me to really know how my kids play alone and together to support their independent play - even with their siblings. While I take time to observe my kids playing and working alone, it's also important to make sure to observe them at work together. How are they playing? Are they able to concentrate together? How do they manage conflict? Would a grace and courtesy lesson be helpful for one of them? How is their general relationship? How are they relating to one another? 

There are so many reasons to observe but for me this really helps me gauge how appropriate it is for me to leave them to play independently. In these pictures, Gus and Teddy were playing together. But, based on my observations, I know I need to stick closer by while this is happening. They are at a point where some safety issues could arise (typical toddler stuff!) and an adult needs to be available. Gus also isn't old enough to identify a safety issue if Teddy was to find something or get into something he shouldn't. But, if the combination was Henry and Teddy, I would be much more willing to walk away and go about my business leaving them to play completely alone. 

Play Might Look Different 

One other thing that is super important for me to remember is that play is going to look different together than it will alone. They may come up with their own games, their own way of playing and it's not for me to interrupt that. If I want to protect that independent play, then I need to respect it when it happens. Maybe it's messier than I would like, maybe the materials are used differently then they would be if the kids were working alone - that is all ok! 

Again, I'm only going to interrupt if something becomes dangerous or destructive. A mess we can clean up later. Lessons on how to use the materials can be given later. But, so often they will be able to come up with much more fun and interesting work on their own when we just step back and give them the time and space to do so. 

Independent play between siblings is very possible and so much fun to witness. Allowing these relationships to blossom and find their own path is one of my favorite parts of being a Montessori parent. How do you support independent play between siblings? 

Montessori parenting advice including 4 easy ways to support independent play between siblings at home.


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Hi! Could you please provide the link for the pegboard toy in this post?
Thank you!