One of the biggest struggles for me with becoming a mother was the transition from being able to do basically anything I wanted, any time I wanted, to having to plan my whole life around this tiny little human. We have no support system, our whole family lives on the other side of the Country. So transitioning to a life where I have virtually no free time, and even making time to clean up sometimes can seem near impossible, was a very rough adjustment.
I love my daughter, and I love setting up fun activities and watching her play, but sometimes I just really need her to play independently so I can get some things done. She was always somewhat good at playing and keeping herself entertained, but she still wanted me close by to basically sit there and watch. This was fine for the first 2.5 years of her life, she was in a daycare everyday while both myself and her father worked fulltime, so we didn’t really struggle with the lack of independent play. We noticed it could be better, but just kind of rolled with the punches.
Then, our world was turned upside down due to a global pandemic and I was suddenly working a very busy job from home full time, with a toddler, and again, no support system. It was ROUGH. Trying to care for and entertain a toddler while also trying to be present in zoom meetings and meet deadlines was not an easy task. My day to day was basically trying and failing everyday not to depend on a TV to truly keep my child busy long enough for me to get things done. Oh, and my newly 3 year old decided she no longer wanted to nap just to top it all off!
I knew we needed to work on our independent play if we were going to make it through the next few months. While I think TV in moderation is fine, I did not want to depend on it all day, everyday. I needed to teach my toddler that it was okay to go off and play without me.
So, that is exactly what we did. And, let me tell you, it has made a world of difference! Not only has she become such a little independent player, but her imagination has grown so much too.
So today, I wanted to share what we did to encourage independent play in our toddler. I am a firm believer that every child is different, but hopefully some of these tips can help you as well!
STEP ONE: Start Slow and Work Up to It
You cannot just tell your toddler to go play and expect them to simply do it. Especially if they are use to having you as their playmate. So we started with stepping out for a few minutes mid-play or taking a seat in the same room but out of the way. Start playing and say “mommy has to check on something, I will be right back”. Sometimes this worked great, especially if she was really into whatever she was playing with, other times she just wanted to follow me. We also tried just sitting back while she was playing. If she was into something, I simply stepped away and set in the corner, then started moving farther and farther away until I could easily leave the room without her really caring or noticing.
From there we moved into a “quiet time” each day. We explained she could either play quietly on her own in her room or in her playroom. We used our Mella Clock (the same one we used when transitioning from a crib to a bed). The clock has a “play” setting which we used to get her to stay in her playroom and or bedroom until the clock turned green. At first we started with 15 minutes, and eventually increased in 5 minute increments until we reached 45 minutes. At first we had to really hold the boundary, but now she will often stay after the allotted time. The clock is a huge help because she knows if it is red, quiet time is not over yet. You can shop the clock we use HERE.
STEP TWO: Create Invitations to Play + Intentional Play Spaces
Something else I often did leading up to our “quiet time” period was set up an invitation to play. A Sensory bin, a play dough tray, a small world set up, or whatever I knew she would like. I also made sure her space (bedroom and/or playroom) was a safe and intentional space. I made sure it was safe and that their was nothing that she could get into that she shouldn’t be getting into. That way I didn’t feel the need to keep peeking in and checking on her, which may distract her or make her want to come out. It also distracts me from working if I feel worried about what she is into.
We do have a video monitor, but it doesn’t catch every single corner of the room. Basically, having a completely safe space gives me peace of mind.
Second, make the space intentional. What I mean by that is make the space as toddler friendly as possible. Make she they can reach everything they need, that their is a potty in the space (if they are potty trained), that they don’t need to climb up on shelves to reach toys, and that they will not need to come ask you for things they cannot reach or find. Also, make sure you have their favorite toys out and on display. Rotate toys to keep it fresh, or save specific special toys for quiet time that they will be excited to have access to during their independent play time.
STEP THREE: Follow Their Interests
I am all for open ended, quality toys. I love wooden toys, and toys that can be played with in a multitude of ways (i.e. blocks, magnetic tiles, animal figures, etc.) however, if you child is obsessed with Paw Patrol (like mine currently is) or some other not so “pretty, insta-worthy” toy, don’t force it. You will get the best results by leaning into what they currently love, even if it is a giant Halloween rat decoration (speaking from experience).
I love setting up sensory bins, and pretty invitations to play, however, I always keep my expectations in check. If she plays with what I set up for 5 minutes and then runs off to play with something else, I need to be okay with that. I never force her to play with anything just because that was what I had planned. I simply leave it out and she will usually eventually come back to it if she wants to (she almost always will).
You will have much more success with independent play if you let them play with whatever it is that they want to play with. That isn’t to say setting up an awesome sensory bin won’t completely win them over, and they won’t play with it for a good stretch of the day. All I am saying is to be okay with it if they choose the ugly Halloween rat decoration instead.
Another tip is if you are going to set up an activity for them for their quiet time or independent play time, use their interests to your advantage. Again if they are really into something specific like Paw Patrol, find some Paw Patrol coloring sheets. If they love tractors and trucks, set up a construction themed sensory bin. If they love animals, set up a vet station for some dramatic play! Use their current interests to make independent play a reality!
STEP FOUR: DON’T INTERFERE / INTERRUPT
It may sound like an easy one, but if you spend one day and really pay attention to how often you interrupt your Childs play, you may be surprised! We mean well when we pop or head into the playroom where our child is playing quietly and say “what are you up to in here?” or “your snack is ready”, not realizing that we are breaking their focus and completely ruining that independent play opportunity.
I know it is hard not to check in when your toddler is quiet, but that is where the “Yes” space comes into play! The more confident we are that their play space is safe, the less we feel the need to pop our head into the room.
Try not to step in if you don’t really need to. Snack time can wait if they are playing well on their own at the moment. Take advantage when you can. If something is not urgent, just let them play!
STEP FIVE: ALLOW FOR BOREDOM
As much as I love setting up activities for my toddler, it is also important to know that we do not, and should not, have to entertain our child all day, everyday. Allowing your child to be “bored” is important. Sometimes the very best play comes from boredom.
I have a great example about a ride in the car. I usually have a few toys in the back seat for Mia to play with while we drive. On this particular day there was nothing in the back because she had taken the toys into the house the day before, and I didn’t grab anything on our way out the door. Anyway, I decided to give her some Gold Fish Crackers and for the whole 20 minute drive she did not eat the Gold Fish, but she did play with two of them. She played and played, giving them little voices and making up little imaginary scenarios with these two crackers.
The point of my story is that kids will find ways to entertain themselves. Let them be bored. They will come to realize (and so will you) that they are capable of going off and playing on their own without your help!
Something else I’ve noticed is that not having the TV on as background noise makes all the difference. Even before becoming parents, we always had our TV on as background noise. We continued that trend after having a child, but more and more often that background noise changed to kids shows and it really distracted my toddler from actually playing. I noticed it one day when she was playing so nicely and then the starting song came on from a show she loves. She completely dropped everything she was doing and came and stood in front of the television completely zoned in on it. I stopped having the TV on in the background after that. No harm in some TV time, but if no one is watching it, turn it off so it doesn’t become a distraction from their play!
So there are the 5 things I really tried to focus on to improve my toddlers independent play. I hope they are helpful to you, and that they also allow you to encourage independent play in your own home!
The last thing I will say is this: It takes time! Be patient and try to remember that if you are ultimately your child’s most consistent playmate, this will be a transition for them. This, like any other milestone, takes some time. Give them some grace and remember this is new for them too!