One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever applied was giving your child independent playtime each day. Independent playtime is – as the name suggests – a time where the baby/toddler/child plays in a safe area alone for a certain period of time determined by you. Babies may be on a play mat or in a pack-n-play while toddlers and children can be in their crib or room.
When they are young it will be for a short period of time. By around 18 months they will be able to happily play alone for 45 minutes to an hour. I know because my children do it. This single activity in my schedule allows me to do things like clean, work, check emails, rest, get dressed and simply to have a few moments to myself.
And, it’s not primarily for you, it’s great for them too.
Note: it’s best they can’t see you during this time, but that you are able to keep an eye on them. Whether you use the monitor, crack the door, or periodically pop your head in, I am not advocating leaving your child completely unsupervised for a long period of time.
1. Problem solving + cause and effect
The toy is stuck, they try to get it out. They throw their doll out of their reach and now they are one doll down. This is a time where they explore – on their own without your hovering or interruption – a little bit about life. Instead of everything happening to them (ie, when family members play with them and take them around, give them toys, etc.) this is a time where they determine their own course. Some days I find my girl sitting with 30 books around her quietly reading, pointing, and laughing.
I remember one day hearing a distressed shout and went into her room to find she’d climbed onto a storage container and got stuck. She called for me and I came to the rescue… but she didn’t climb on it again. She learned her own lesson. Instead of us constantly solving their problems and making things simple, this is a time where they can start to figure out their surroundings and take control of a small area, if only for a short time.
Additionally, problem solving and decision making increases self-confidence in children. When they see a problem and find a solution to their liking, they feel encouraged in their own abilities. If they must constantly look to you for intervention, this confidence in their own ability is stunted.
2. It encourages imagination
My grandmother said it best. “Boring people get bored.” Your child needs a chance to work their imagination because it is crucial for future problem solving and decision-making skills. If we as mothers over hover, they aren’t left with the time and space to go into their own mind and make up a fun world.
Dolls become friends and rugs become race tracks. I don’t leave too many toys around, and this urges the kids to really dig into whatever they’re doing. I hear them laugh, talk, babble or sing and move around. I can see them trying new things, fitting blocks into holes and stacking things around. I believe this is a time that encourages them to explore and discover a little without us.
3. Routine, discipline and security
Many mothers think that simply being near their child will bring security. While this is true in a sense (constant absence of a parent surely does bring insecurity and fear), the test of whether a child is secure or not is when the mother walks away.
If a mother walks away and the child goes into hysterics then there is obviously less security than previously thought.
Independent play is one way to build a sense of security and confidence that will last. The child knows they will play alone and knows you will come back.
I go into their room with them and we play together for a minute or two. I may put a basket of toys in the crib for my 16 month-old. Get out some paper and crayons for my 3-year-old, or put out some puzzles and toys for my 2-year-old. As I leave, 9 times out of 10 they will say “bye bye mommy” with a big smile. 45 minutes to an hour later I come back and we are all happily reunited and play together again.
4. They learn to entertain themselves
If I am out shopping and run into a friend I will stop and talk. Because the kids are used to entertaining themselves, they will rarely interrupt me or pull my skirt or say “mommy mommy mommy” a million times and annoy the fire out of me. They will sit or stand, observe passersby or occupy themselves. Same at church, with guests or at the park. If I am engaged with someone else they do not usually turn into “look at me look at me” super annoying hybrids of themselves just to get my attention. People frequently comment how calm they are and – while they have their fair share of hyperactivity – they are able to cope when I am occupied. I find this extremely helpful.
If you have many children, this time is actually a gift to them. Unless you have three of everything for your three children, the kids will spend part of their day trying to claim toys as their territory. By having alone playtime, children do not have to compete for or worry about others stealing their fun. I often rotate the toys in each child’s room so they aren’t bored with the same toys.
5. It’s a win-win
Not only will your children enjoy this time to themselves (particularly if they have siblings with whom they must always share or protect their toys), but so will you! You can use it to prep dinner, read a book, put up your feet, or anything else your heart desires. We have our playtime mid-morning when I am usually due for some peace and quiet.
6. How to start playtime if they are resistant
It’s perfectly normal that your children resist playtime initially. If they are 2 and have never been required to play on their own in their room, there may be tears or tantrums. That’s okay. Tantrums aren’t always a bad thing. The key is baby steps. Start small. My 3-year-old will play for one hour (longer if I let her) willingly each morning. She’s used to it and time flies when she’s having fun.
However, starting at 5 minutes or even 10 minutes is a safe bet. If they cry or resist, reassure them you are just in the other room and will return shortly. Eventually – when they realize you will come back – they’ll turn away from the back of the door and begin playing. You can gradually increase the time they are in their rooms after they’ve gotten the hang of it.
Feel free to offer a drink or a snack (one that you aren’t worried will create a huge mess or be a choking hazard, obviously) to get them in the “mood.” If mine seem a bit testy, I’ll offer an enticing snack with the beginning of play time and that’s almost always enough for them to settle in to playing.
As always, be consistent. Consistency is key. When they expect play time each day, they are far more likely to be wiling participants than if you try to spring it on them just because you need a few minutes to yourself. Make it a regular part of your routine or rhythm and be amazed at the results!
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