I’m sure you’ve heard independent play is important for kids. It’s also important for parents because we just need 20 minutes to ourselves sometimes. But when do you start and how do you encourage your baby or toddler to play independently?
Why is independent play good for your child?
Letting your baby or toddler play independently allows them to grow. They shouldn’t need you to entertain them 14/7 (they need sleep too!)
Creativity can flourish when your little one is allowed to be bored. This is especially true of older kids. If you start letting them figure out what to do as a baby or toddler, it will be easier for them to entertain themselves when they’re older. They’ll learn not to rely on you or tv or video games to provide mental stimulation.
Do you remember when you were a kid and you were bored? You probably played pretend or made up your own games. Maybe you just daydreamed. This is what you want your baby to be able to do when they’re older.
When to start letting your baby play independently
Even an infant can play independently. They don’t really play like you’d expect a toddler to play, but they have their own version of independent play. Just shaking a rattle or looking at a mirror can be playing for a baby.
Once your baby can sit and hold onto toys, you can allow them to explore board books or toys made for babies. I liked to let Toot sit on her play mat or on a blanket with an assortment of board books and toys. I would just sit on the couch or nearby and let her entertain herself.
At two or three years old, you might be able to trust your toddler to play in the next room by themselves. Just make sure there’s nothing they could easily hurt themselves on. We made the mistake of not anchoring her dresser to the wall and she pulled it down on herself. She was fine but it was SCARY.
Child-led play can be a gateway to independent play
When you play with your baby or toddler, be careful not to interrupt their play urges. If you give too many instructions every time they play, they’ll always expect you to tell them how they should play.
Don’t immediately show your little one how a toy works. Let them discover it themselves. They might find a more enjoyable way to play with it. Of course, if they can’t figure it out after a reasonable time, you can show them what to do.
Allow your toddler to be creative. If they tell you they want you to be a turtle, do your best impression of a turtle. Yes, toddlers can be bossy, but when it comes to pretending and playing, let them have control.
Letting your toddler lead when you’re playing together will allow them to be more confident when playing without you.
Let your toddler explore
Leave toys out. Open ended toys like blocks and stuffed animals have more possibilities for play than a toy that runs on batteries that just makes noise. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We have those toys too. But they’re only good for maybe 5 minutes of fun.
Set up a play environment that’s safe and has toys or things for your toddler to discover. We have a play kitchen area in our living room that she likes to play in by herself.
If you have educational toys like STEM toys, they can learn about science while they play!
Don’t leave too many toys out, though. I know it sounds contradictory. You’d think that more toys = more play. But it turns out that they can be overstimulated or just indecisive if there are too many options.
Try creating busy bags or boxes
Busy bags or bins are a good way to keep from overstimulating with too many toys.
You can make them out of any kind of bag, bin, or box. I’ve seen some busy bags made from zippered pencil cases and gallon Ziplock bags. We use the bins from our toy organizer but you can also use standard storage bins. Really anything that holds toys or art supplies can be a busy bag or box.
Here are some ideas for pencil case busy bags for toddlers:
When and how to intervene
Ideally, you should stay out of the way. The whole point is for them to learn to play by themselves so you get some time to yourself. But there are times when you’ll need to disrupt their independent play time.
Obviously, if they’re doing something unsafe, you’ll need to fix that. Most of the time for us that’s telling her not to stand on the couch or keeping her from hurting the cat.
Your toddler might get frustrated easily (like mine) when things aren’t going their way. First ask if they need help. Don’t just rush over to fix their puzzle. Toddlers like figuring things out for themselves. How many times have you heard “I DO IT MYSELF!”? Sometimes she’ll tell me she wants my help but a lot of the time she’ll say no. If she continues to be frustrated, I just tell her how to fix her problem first before doing it myself.
When they learn to fix their own problems, it’s glorious. It’s less whining and crying and “MOMMY!” And really, isn’t that the goal of parenting?
I know, it’s hard to let them try to figure out a solution when you can easily pop a puzzle piece into place and stop the whining. But it’ll make your life easier in the long run if you let your toddler learn to solve their own problems.
Let them be bored
I have a natural urge to entertain my child. She must be focused on something at all times! But you really gotta fight that urge and let them be bored. Out of boredom comes creativity. (Even in adulthood. I created this blog out of boredom!)
You don’t have to immediately turn on a TV for them or wave toys in their faces. Let them figure it out. They’ll find something to do even if it’s just daydreaming.
If you start independent play as a baby, they’ll grow to love it as toddlers and kids.
Do you encourage independent play?
Let me know in the comments below!
The hardest part is letting them go. But the best part is getting time to yourself to just scroll Instagram and relax.