A common question I get on my Instagram page is, “how to encourage independent play?.” Many of you complain that your child wants you to play with him/her all the time.
First, let me start with a disclaimer that what you see on my Instagram stories is a small glimpse of our day, not even 5 minutes from 24 hours of the day.
There are days we too are dealing with similar behaviors and I don’t post such stories when I am in the midst of tantrums or other parenting challenges. Does not mean these days don’t exist. But, even so, we have been reasonably successful in encouraging independent play with our son. Today I would like to share a few tips on how you too can encourage independent play for your children.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INDEPENDENT PLAY BENEFITS?
Independent play encourages creativity, imagination, helps the child feel more confident in his being, teaches him to focus and become self-reliant.
Here are a few things we did from the beginning, that could help you encourage your child to play independently around you. If you are able to apply these tips in your home and at least be able to drink your cup of coffee in peace, that is success in my eyes.
TIPS TO ENCOURAGE INDEPENDENT PLAY
1. Start young
I knew I wanted to get back to work once our son was a little older at the same time I was very keen on working from home. This meant I needed to figure out ways to keep my child engaged as I worked at my laptop at home.
Back then even when I didn’t blog, I kept busy with online courses or reading which meant I spoke to him from a very young age about “mommy working”. There was always talk about how mommy “works from home”, “how she works on a laptop”, etc. At that age I didn’t expect him to leave me alone to work, I was only getting him used to the idea of mommy working.
2. Create an environment for safe exploration and independence
From early on focus on building a collection of open-ended toys that allow the child to explore the material in multiple ways. Give the child independence to move around the home. Don’t stop the child from crawling, walking, climbing. Instead babyproof your home. We kept the furniture to a minimum, no furniture with sharp corners, and sealed all spots that had sharp edges. Any furniture that was wobbly was taken out of the main play area. You don’t need a dedicated playroom, we never had one. Try and create the main play space where your child can move freely (under supervision) without any interruptions from you. This creates early confidence in oneself and fulfills the child’s desire to explore his environment.
3. Enough one on one time
This is my personal experience, but I am sure many moms will agree.
On days I am very busy, I have a clingy child on hand. If you don’t fill your child’s emotional cup with love and attention he won’t leave your side. The child will demand your love.
Therefore, first, spend time with your child. Make some sort of family rituals or routines around one-on-one time. In our home, early mornings, late afternoons, and bedtime are dedicated mommy and son time. This has taken years to establish, but now our son knows, this is the time of the day when mommy is available to him. During this time, I do not chat on my phone or scroll through social media (maybe click his pictures hehe) But generally, it is a no-phone time. We play, talk, bond, be goofy and after that, I get to work.
4. Set age-appropriate expectations
Your under 1-year-old is not going to play independently for long. So do not compare a 1-year-olds attention span with that of a 4-year-old. The child has to reach the age where he is assured of your presence somewhere in the background and not anxious about mommy leaving the room. We noticed extended time spent in independent play only after age 2.5 yrs. Until then keep practicing.
Leave the toddler alone when he looks engrossed in play and move onto your work. If he drops his play and follows after, reassure him you are around and watching him, or that you will join him back quickly.
5. Be consistent in your messaging
Okay, you have done all of this yet you’re 3-year-old or 4-year-old keeps coming up to you over and over again requesting you to play with him. Then just be honest with him, you can simply say, “Mommy is cooking right now, I will join you when I am done” Or remind him, “This is mommy’s time at her laptop, you can play here next to me” I know, our guilt-ridden mother’s hearts think it is rude to turn our child away, but let me tell you from experience, this works. It creates a boundary for you, it allows you me-time and in time your child also gets it.
6. Limit screen time
Keep screen time to a minimum if you want your child to engage in creative play. In our home, more screen time equals a child with a cranky mood. We’ve learned our lesson not to increase screen time beyond 1-2 days a week and 1-2 hours at a stretch. Here is how you can reduce screen time and encourage more independent play for toddlers.
It takes some time to get here, but it does happen. You will find more and more time for yourself as your child begins to understand these routines you set at home. And on days when he just doesn’t agree, well, you take a deep breath and join him on those days. He needs you, you have to be there.
Figuring out how much is reasonable is something you need to work out. But given a chance to be in charge of their own play, most children will take independent play over structured activities. They have so much to discover on their own, we need to give them that opportunity and if need be a little nudge sometimes.
How do you encourage independent play in your home? Do comment below with some of your tips for moms of young toddlers, I am sure we all can learn from each other.