Those of you, who read my post called Teaching Kids to Play Independently, already know that Independent play is something we started early on in our son’s life. While I cannot remember off the top of my head, I would like to say we started around the 2 month mark. Yes, you can start that early or even earlier! In fact, starting that early often makes things far easier as your child gets older.
When we were traveling before our big move to Japan, independent playtime wasn’t a realistic option for us. There was too much excitement and not really a good place for him to play alone without interruption. So for 6 weeks, we went without independent playtime.
Today I’d like to talk about starting independent playtime late or after a long hiatus. Many of these principles can apply to starting independent play with an older child, as well as continuing independent play with a child who is protesting it.
1. Choose a safe space.
Anytime a child is playing alone it has to be completely safe for their age and developmental level. It is common to use a playpen from the time of crawling until 18 months (We are currently using the playpen at nearly 14 months and it is working well).
After that time period, children are often moved to room time, in which they play alone in their bedroom or a playroom. If you visit my post Teaching Kids to Play Independently, I have a chart that shows ages and safe locations for each age range.
2. Start with a short duration.
If you are just getting back to independent play, it’s very possible your child will tolerate it for less amount of time than before. For example, if your child was playing alone for an hour before, he may only tolerate 15 minutes the first time back. You can continue to build on that each day until you reach the desired amount of time.
You can even start with as little as 5 minutes if your child is very resistant. You can continue adding 5 minutes onto that each day until you get to your desired goal time. If your child is more willing maybe 15 minutes the first day, 20 minutes the second day, 25 minutes the third day, and so on and so forth.
3. Set the timer.
Setting the timer helps cue your child that independent play is over when the timer in the room sounds, rather when he cries out or protests. It also helps you, as a parent, commit to a set amount of time.
If you set the timer for 15 minutes, then independent play will be 15 minutes, regardless if your child doesn’t want to do it or not. Over time, a child will begin adjusting and will start to enjoy independent play again.
4. Only start what you intend to finish.
Stay committed to independent play if you are just getting back to it or starting late. It is something that works best if done every day. This will help your child learn and expect this activity in his every day routine. He will also be less likely to protest and enjoy independent play if done daily.
Give it a couple of weeks or even a month to try and reach a goal amount of time for your child. Starting something new is an adjustment and can take time. Independent play is meant to serve both you and your child, so it’s worth staying committed to over time.
5. Know age-appropriate durations.
There is a chart in my post Teaching Kids to Play Independently to help gauge what is a reasonable duration of independent play for any given age. Those are not hard and fast rules; they are simply a guide to better serve you when deciding a good amount of time for your child.
At one year of age, we do 1 hour of independent play in our home. Some days it’s only 45 minutes because we have a busy day, but regardless, I do try to fit it in daily. Either way, you could do any amount of time that you feel is best for your child and your family.
6. How we do it in our home.
I like to do independent play first thing in the morning after breakfast because I feel this is when Jameson is most patient and able to focus on a given task. You want your child to be well rested and well fed when starting. We get up eat breakfast, potty, clean diaper, and then off to the guest bedroom where I have the pack n’ play set up. Currently, he is usually in independent play from 8 am – 9 am.
I have several toys that I chose for him in the play pen waiting. He is usually excited when he sees toys that he only gets to play with once a day. Next, I set the timer and tell him that I love him and that I will be back to get him soon. Using a phrase at the beginning of independent play is a great way to regularly cue your child to this activity.
Once the timer goes off, I go into the room and get him. I praise him and tell him that he did so well playing that whole time by himself. I always try to be upbeat and excited for him.
7. Troubleshooting independent playtime.
Always try to set up the play pen in an area where you can see your child enough to check on him without him seeing you. If your child sees you, there is a good chance he won’t continue playing. If your child is really against it, you may need to go in and get your child. I usually try to wait until there is a break in the protesting or crying. I talked about this technique in my post How to Teach a Toddler to Have a Positive Attitude.
If at all possible, I try not to reward protesting, but rather try to reward a break in the protesting (i.e. a happier spirit). When you go in to get your child, act as if there is nothing to be upset about, rather than swooping into rescue. For more on providing reassurance without rescue, check out my post on How to Help Small Children Cope with Runaway Emotions. Also, go ahead and smile and have a happy spirit yourself to show your child that independent playtime is a positive activity.
Lastly, keep trying. Teaching a young child to do anything takes time and patience and lots and lots of consistency.
Independent play is a great activity that will serve both you and your child. You will have a block of time to get things done around the house each day, and your child will have time to play alone, learning better problem solving, creativity, self-play adeptness, and focusing skills along the way.
Here are a few related posts you may find helpful:
- How to Teach Kids to Play Independently (Hint: No Electronic Devices Required)
- Helping Small Children Cope with Runaway Emotions
- The Early Obedience Series
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