How Daily Independent Play Helped Me Raise ‘Good’ Kids
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever applied was giving my 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, the parent.
Babies may be on a playmat or in a pack-n-play while toddlers and children can be in their 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 this because my children do it every day.
This single activity in my schedule allows me to do things like clean, work, get dressed and simply have a few moments to myself.
And, it’s not primarily for you, it’s great for them too.
Please Note: It is 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
As my granny used to say, “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 parents hover too much, kids 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.
Here is a pic of some restaurant play from my kiddos:
Intense huh? Notice the name plates and necklace jewelry as ice for the cups.
Problem Solving and 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 (i.e. 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 kiddos sitting with 10 books around them quietly reading, pointing, and interacting with a book.
I remember one day hearing a distressed shout and went into their room to find my son had climbed onto a storage container and got stuck. He called for me and I came to the rescue… but he didn’t climb on it again.
He had learned his 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. Maybe there was something great about our parents letting us play outside all day unsupervised!
Routine, Discipline, and Security
Many parents 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 parent walks away.
Quick test: Walk away from your child. If your child goes into hysterics then there are probably less secure than we probably want.
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 used to have 4–6 toys in my kid’s room when they were 18 months old, put out some puzzles and toys for my then 2-year-olds, or got out some paper and crayons for my 3-year-olds.
As I leave, 9 times out of 10 they will say “bye papa” with a big smile (and sometimes close the door behind me). An hour or so later, I come back and we are all happily reunited and play together again (or they are passed out sleep).
Learning 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 on my pants saying, “papa papa papa” a million times and annoying the hell out of me.
They will sit or stand, observe passersby or occupy themselves. Same in the car or at the park. If I am engaged with someone else they do not usually turn into “look at me look at me” to just 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 with daily life, especially with twins.
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.
In our home, we have our playtime mid-morning and mid-afternoon when I am usually due for some peace and quiet or need to get some things done. What does independent play look like in your home?
Originally published at www.smartkidparenting.com on April 19, 2016.