New parents often fall into the thinking that their babies must be entertained during all waking hours. They seek to occupy the baby’s day with toys, books and other forms of entertainment to keep them intellectually stimulated and content. During this type of engagement, the baby is largely a passive observer.
What often happens when a young baby isn’t given the opportunity to entertain himself or herself on their own (with observation from an adult caregiver, of course) is that they grow to become toddlers who require nonstop attention from a parent or caretaker. They might refuse to touch even their favorite toy unless someone is watching, making it difficult for parents to tend to their own needs while keeping their child company.
While some parents don’t have a problem actively participating in their toddler’s play time, teaching toddlers to play independently has more important benefits than allowing parents the opportunity to get some other things done. Independent play can help toddlers grow to become more self-reliant and confident, and also boosts their natural creativity and critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Here are five tips to help you teach your child to become more comfortable with independent play.
1. Trust your child
It’s easy as a parent to get swept up in excitement over our new baby. Without our even noticing it, our excitement can lead us to doing things like constantly playing games with them, or showing them different objects like rattles and how they work. When we condition play time this way, we inadvertently teach our babies that their own play isn’t good enough.
As early in your child’s life as possible, trust in their natural interest in the world and everything they see around them. For young children, common household items like a spaghetti strainer or a whisk can be extremely fascinating. After all, these things are all new to them. Trusting in your child’s curiosity rather than constantly entertaining them will allow them to make their own discoveries and be content with them.
2. Carefully consider the toys you provide
Toys are a very important facet of independent play. Some toys encourage independent play while others hinder it. Here are two basic guidelines about toys:
– Avoid battery-operated toys. Toys that entertain our kids at the push of a button don’t nourish their own creativity. Instead, choose single-function toys or items like blocks, tea sets, cardboard boxes, and different types of materials that will encourage your child to use his or her imagination. An added benefit of battery-free toys is that they often hold children’s attention longer.
– Don’t go overboard with the number of toys you offer. Toddlers can become easily overwhelmed when they’re faced with too many options, so avoid presenting them with all of their favorite toys all at once. In fact, you might consider stashing away some toys for a week or two and reintroducing them later. A toy that reappears after a period of absence is naturally more interesting and will encourage your child to play with it for an extended period of time.
3. Avoid directing
It might seem like you’re doing your child a service by showing them how to move the train along the track or how to build a block tower. But directing our children’s play and showing them how to use toys actually makes them lose confidence in their own abilities. For example, if your child picks up a toy airplane and uses it as a pretend phone and you correct him by saying something like “Silly boy, that’s an airplane, not a phone! The airplane flies in the sky.” you might mean well, but you’ll be raising a child who constantly needs your direction.
Instead of teaching your child how to use toys, encourage their natural play instincts and allow them to use the toys in whichever ways spark their curiosity.
4. Give your child space
One of the keys to encouraging independent play is not hovering over your child once he’s happily playing on his own. Once you’ve ensured that his play area is safe and comfortable, show your interest from afar. Otherwise, if you continue to play with your child, you run the risk of hooking your child onto your participation (making it more difficult for him to adjust to solo play) while also increasing the chances that you’ll end up directing his play (see #3 above).
Especially if you’re the type of person who tends to do more than watch, it might be difficult to learn how to support your child’s play from afar rather than be a playmate. It might pacify you to know that children feel equally as nurtured when we sit quietly yet continue to be attentive to what they’re doing. And if your child asks for help, don’t stop yourself from offering it. But try to help by asking questions (“Do you think the blue block should be next in the tower?”) and assisting them without doing for them.
5. Give the right kind of attention
Your toddler will feel more inspired to take up independent play when you provide her with your undivided attention during other parts of the day. For example, caregiving tasks are the perfect opportunity to connect with your child and give her your full attention without being distracted by your smartphone or TV. During a diaper change, speak to her and help her be an active participant (“Can you hand me this clean diaper?”). Note that helping your child be an active participant by speaking to him or her during an activity like diaper changing is something you can do from day 1. At mealtime, engage your toddler with conversation instead of having him sit alone to eat. During bath time, sing songs together or make up stories involving your child’s bath toys. If you fill your child up with enough attention during some times of the day, they’ll be less likely to need it at other times.