If you just became a parent, then the concept of independent play may seem far off. But the truth is, the benefits of independent play for babies begin early, which is why we want to show you not only how to begin building in independent playtime for your baby, but how to help it grow along with them.
Believe it or not, the play has a strong learning component to it. With young children, we often mistake it as something to occupy the time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you are a Babywise mom, then you already recognize play as one of the three key components of your babies day: feed-wake-sleep. It’s what your baby does during that waketime that can help lay the proper foundation for future success.
While interaction with adults and peers is vital to a child’s development, experts say it’s just as crucial for babies and toddlers to have time by themselves. Solo time provides a baby with a variety of learning opportunities — he can explore his environment at his own pace, become self-reliant, focus his attention, and learn from his mistakes. An added bonus: All of these experiences boost a child’s self-esteem.
Since a child may see himself as a separate individual for the first time at around eight months, the independent play also helps to strengthen his identity. He’ll become a friend to himself and feel comfortable being on his own. When he goes out into the world, he’ll be more likely to make friends with people because he likes them, not just because he doesn’t want to be alone.
Having a baby content to play on his own is great for parents, too. While the child entertains himself, Mom or Dad gets a few minutes to do a chore, make a phone call, or relax. But introducing your child to solo play isn’t just a matter of placing him in a room by himself and leaving. Here’s what you need to know to make your child a successful solo artist.
Is your babe-in-arms literally in your arms all day long, fussing the minute you put him down for any reason, even to play? While carting around an 8-month-old is sure to buff your biceps, it doesn’t give you much chance to meet your own needs, or those of anyone else in your household either. Plus, it doesn’t allow your little bruiser to flex his muscle and develop important skills like sitting, crawling and cruising.
If you’re ready to get him out of the habit of being held and carried all the time and encourage him to play on his own, try this gentle step-by-step plan:
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Give the right kind of attention
Make sure that he’s getting your undivided devotion several times a day, whether it’s while you tickle his tummy, read him a story or stack blocks for him to knock over. If you fill his tank with enough focused Mommy (and/or Daddy) time, he may be more willing to play independently at other times of the day.
Check the basics
Is he fussing just to be held, or is something else going on? Maybe he’s hungry, thirsty, wet or tired. Maybe he needs his diaper changed more often (some babies couldn’t care less, some like a clean, dry bottom pretty much all the time). Or perhaps his nap schedule needs some minor adjustments. Experiment a bit to see if meeting one of these needs does the trick.
“I’m bored.” He can’t whine like a toddler or roll his eyes like a teen (yet), but he may just be looking for a change of scenery. If he was playing on the floor in his room, try switching him to a new locale like the kitchen. One tried, and true trick: Giving him a pot to bang on with a wooden spoon while you get dinner together or do dishes is a surefire baby-pleaser — if you can take the racket!
Provide plenty of playthings
Once he’s settled into a new spot, offer him a few toys, books and other things to keep him busy — preferably things he likes but hasn’t played with too recently.
Teach him how. Is he still fretting, despite his tantalizing toys? Maybe he needs a quick how-to. Roll his jingly ball, so he can hear its noise or show him how to play his toy piano.
Once he’s having some fun (or even if he protests a bit), tell him you need to leave for a minute, and then do it. (You’re not going far — just out of his line of vision.) On your way out, do a few quick peekaboos around the corner, so he starts to learn that even when you go away, you’ll come back soon.
Come back to him
After a few minutes, return to your baby’s side and play with him for a while. Each time you leave, stay away a bit longer, even if he’s not thrilled about it (avoid waiting until he’s screaming to come back, or he’ll quickly jump right to howling the next time he wants you). Send the message that a little alone time is good. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Play means “doing” something
Often the richest, most productive play doesn’t look like much because it’s dawdling, imagining, daydreaming, big picture thinking. To encourage this kind of play we must: first, value it; second, observe it; and lastly, not interrupt. The secret to not interrupting is to refrain from speaking to children until they initiate eye contact.
Side note: Happily occupied babies don’t feel neglected because adults aren’t engaging them (even if several minutes have passed). They know quite well how to ask for attention. Trust your baby.
Gated play areas are restrictive “jails”.
A safe space is essential for fostering independent play. Free-roaming babies that follow parents around, even in the most baby-proofed home, don’t focus on play as well or feel as truly free as babies in secure areas. Independent play requires a place free of “no’s” and a relaxed, trusting parent who mostly stays put in order to be the “secure base” young explorers need.
Play Myth #6: When children get frustrated or ask for help, we should solve the problem for them.
As tempting as it is to fix situations for our children when it takes us all of two seconds, we are far more encouraging when we allow frustration, give verbal support, let go of results (since children often don’t care about them as much as we do) and perhaps help in a very small way, so that the child is doing much more than we are.
When children ask for help, reflect, and then ask questions. “So, you want to draw a dog? What kind of ears do you want the dog to have? Oh, the kind that point up? Show me what you mean.” You might even resort to allowing the child to move your hand while you hold the pencil, but do all you can to give ownership of play to your child, which also means allowing some activities to be left unfinished.
It’s our job to entertain and play with our children
There’s some truth to this one. Bonding through fun with our children is one of our jobs. Still, if we’ve encouraged kids to love playing independently, playtime together seldom feels like a chore, especially once we’ve discovered the joy of taking a back seat and trusting our child to drive.
When can you start letting your child play alone?
It’s never too early to start your baby’s solo play routine, but you have to consider his or her developmental stage and age. For example, a 6-month-old baby can play for five minute tops, while a 1-year-old can extend playing alone up to 15 minutes. The older the child, the longer he can play alone.
Your child’s temperament is another factor. Some babies can lay by their crib staring and reaching for their mobile longer before they cry to get your attention. Other babies will cry for you to pick them up the moment they wake up from their nap. Try to find a balance between your child’s age and personality.
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How can you start your baby on an independent play?
In case you’re worried, it’s possible to leave your child alone, provided that he is in a secure and child-proof area in your home, and you are within an arm’s length or earshot of your child. “Independent play doesn’t necessarily mean your child should be alone.
Introduce your child to solo play by playing with your baby for a few seconds and then walking away from a few seconds before returning to play with him. Keep this up while gradually lengthening the time your baby plays alone. Eventually, he will be more occupied with his play exploration than your presence.
Whenever you engage your child, give him your full attention, so he can differentiate what playing with you looks like versus playing solo, and eventually, playing with his peers. When his heart is full after bonding with you, he may be more open to playing on his own.
If your child is still clingy, let him initiate solo play. When his attention is captured by a toy, slowly move away from him and leave the room until he notices you’re not by his side anymore. It’s also good practice to assure your baby that you’ll be back in a jiffy. Soon enough, he may not even notice that you left his side.
Make sure your baby is ready for play.
That is, your baby isn’t sleepy, hungry, tired or needs a nappy change so that he can play. A good time to schedule solo play is a few minutes after your baby wakes up from his nap or after a feed. “Keep him active during the peak of his awake time to maximize learning on his own,”.
Provide him or her with several playthings.
Not all have to be toys; in fact, you can incorporate everyday objects in your child’s toy roster. Offer toys that cater to your child’s interests, but don’t dump everything in his playpen all at once. Once in a while, have something new for your baby. Rotate your child’s toys every so often.
Always follow your child’s lead.
You can show your child how a toy works, but try not to. Let him discover it. Remove from his playspace anything that you don’t want him to get his hands on to minimize you stepping in. If you find yourself tempted to correct how your baby plays with a toy, go and busy yourself with another activity.
Adapt to your baby’s play needs.
Solo play isn’t just about leaving your child to play by himself. Your baby could be so occupied by just having tummy time on a colourful activity mat or lying down with a mobile or play gym over him at first. As he grows, though, provide more playthings that stimulate the senses and promote motor skills development.
Read your child’s signals.
When you think a child is getting cranky or frustrated, always tell yourself to give it another minute or two before you attend to your child. Independent playtime is the perfect opportunity for you to learn to let go, which you would need to eventually as your child grows. Think of it as an exercise for self-soothing for your baby, as well.
It’s hard not to pick up your child the moment he cries, as much as it’s hard to let your child play on his own when you’ve wanted to spend time with him after errands or work. Remember, though, that playing alone is as necessary and as beneficial to his development as you and your baby playing together.
Independent Play Time: How to Get Started
As you know, babies can have varying temperaments. But even the clingiest babies can learn that independent playtime is good for them.
Starting a quiet independent playtime is ideal when the baby is around five months old. At that age, he is generally able to hold his head up and manipulate a toy on his own but is not yet mobile. While that is the optimal time, children of all ages can be taught to play quietly on their own.
Tips for when and how to introduce independent play into your day:
- Make sure baby is rested, fed and has had ample time with a parent before beginning.
- Be close by at first.
- Stick to just a few developmentally appropriate toys.
- If baby cries, go over and gently soothe and re-introduce the toy.
- Start with just 5 or 10 minutes of alone time and then gradually extend the time.
- Creating space in your day to provide a stable and safe environment for your child to explore his ever-expanding world is a benefit to all in your family.
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Independent Play Time Through the Stages
When we provide an environment that stimulates growth and development, our children learn valuable skills. By giving them a quiet, unstructured time to explore their world, free from distractions and input, we encourage discovery and spontaneous interactions with their surroundings.
Here is an overview of what independent play looks like through the different stages of development:
- Age: 0-6 months: Practice Play
- Age: 6-18 months: Sensorimotor stage
- Age: 18 months – 3 years: Language and Social-Emotional Development
- Age: 3 – 5 years: Extended independence
One final note about the independent play, regardless of the stage your child is in: TV or screen time should not be considered part of independent playtime.
Babies are like kaleidoscopes, reflecting the light of their developing world. Parents bring light into their child’s world by thoughtfully managing what and how their child learns.
While this is just an overview of the benefits of independent play, reading the linked articles will give you more in-depth information and show you how to begin independent playtime with your infant.
Even if your child is older and has moved out of the blanket time or playpen time, these principles still help lay a foundation for independent room time in older children.
All children need direction and guidance from their parents, including structure for how and when to begin the developmental gift of independent play.
One of the many positives about the independent play is that once it’s established in safe space, parents can usually leave their content, occupied child alone briefly. At the same time, they do chores, use the bathroom, check email etc. But the most valuable child-directed play is fostered when we learn a new way to enjoy playing with our kids, one that is mostly about observing and responding, less about actively participating. It’s natural to want to interact, but parent participation tends to take over. The more we are playing, the more our child is following our lead, rather than creating and initiating plans of his or her own.