Why teach your child to play independently
It’s good for them
When children can entertain themselves, they’re happier and less bored. You’ll also be less tempted to use screen time excessively to keep them quiet, in places like church, stores, and restaurants.
Learning to play independently also gives them more opportunity to use their imaginations, rather than relying on an external source to occupy their minds.
Very Well Family has a good post about some of the benefits of independent play time!
And, if you have a large family, independent play time can be a welcome break from the constant noise of all the siblings!
Independent play time is one of the areas I look at when I’m setting my intentional parenting goals.
It’s good for you
I’m sure you can think of a million reasons your child playing independently would be awesome!
What I appreciate about independent play time is what I can get done during it – cleaning, homeschooling older siblings, phone calls/emails/paying bills, shower, even sitting down for 15 minutes with a hot cup of coffee!
What would it be like if you knew your toddler was going to play happily and safely for 30 minutes each day?
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How to teach your child to play independently
For children under 2, I use a pack n play. After that, I use a bedroom with a gate at the doorway to remind them to stay in.
If you’re using a bedroom, be sure outlets are covered and furniture is secured to the walls. Never assume a toddler will stay safe if you don’t have your eyeballs on him 😉 Babyproofing is good if your toddler is loose in a room without you.
Also, if you’re using a room, don’t allow access to tons of different toys. You want your child to develop the ability to focus and play within a limited environment, so keep the toy options limited.
Tip: If you’re using the crib for independent play time, open the curtains to let lots of natural light in, and keep the feeling very different from sleeping times. I’ve never had a problem with this confusing my children.
What do they do
Any toy or bin of toys that you choose, of course making sure there are no small pieces they could choke on.
I like to keep a basket of toys that only come out for independent play time. This keeps them special, and helps my kids look forward to this time.
Tip: Playing music can make or break the enjoyment for some kids! I like to play music during independent play time, and my 14 month old LOVES this! He used to always cry for independent play time, but when I started remembering to play music, he started enjoying it more.
Morning is typically best, although I have done it late afternoon, after they’ve had a good nap and a snack.
I usually schedule independent play time either shortly after breakfast, or just after a morning snack. This makes sure bellies are full and everyone is in a good mood when we’re starting.
Tip: The most important part of deciding when to do independent play time is when you will do it consistently. You won’t see much progress if you do this sporadically.
As with most things in parenting, daily practice and consistency are the keys! IPT needs to happen every day.
Make it part of your toddler’s daily routine, and independent play time will go much more smoothly.
If you’ve never done independent play time before, it’s going to take some time for everyone to get used to it. This is normal and ok!
For a 9-12 month old baby, I slowly work up to 20-30 minutes a day.
For a 12-18 month old, I shoot for 30-45 minutes.
18+ months, I plan for 45-60 minutes.
Start with 5 minutes. I use a cheap kitchen timer from the dollar store to keep track of the time, and as soon as it rings, I go in and say, “Good job! Play time is over, time to come out!” Then I help them pick up the toys they used.
The timer is helpful because it teaches your child to associate independent play time ending with the ringing, not with them yelling for you long enough. When you’re first starting independent play time, this is a very good thing!
How do you know when to increase the time? Do 5 minutes the first day. If it goes great, do 10 minutes the next day. Keep increasing by 5 minutes a day until you reach the amount of time you’re working toward.
What if they hate it and it goes super badly?
Stick to 5 minutes a day for a week.
If they’re still really unhappy, increase it to 10 minutes anyway. Some kids need a few minutes to decide to play with their toys, and bumping up the time anyway can help them get over the hump.
Stay at 10 minutes a day for another week, then increase to 15 minutes.
Stay at 15 minutes until they’re consistently playing happily, then you can continue working toward your goal time.
If your child is struggling to get used to independent play time for a week or longer, review the tips and ideas in this post, and make sure there’s not something else you could tweak.
Does he hate Little People? Maybe dinosaurs would be better. Did she not really eat breakfast? Be sure you’re starting independent play time after a snack then.
Independent play time is worth it
Personality does influence how well some kids do with independent play, but it is a skill that can be developed in all children to some degree – and it is good for them!
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