5 Stages for Encouraging Independent Child’s Play: from Babies to Toddlers

Young child with musical instrument, enjoying alone time or independent pay.

You know the importance of completing tasks independently.

It gives you self-confidence, self-reliance, promotes learning skills as well as helping with emotional self-regulation.

But how early can you start this process with your kids? Amazingly you can support your child at very early stages while consciously building the expectations gradually.  Our role, as parents, is significant in their development of this skill.

NEWBORNS:

The Best Starting Stage for “Alone Time”

Infant alone in the crib. With the right toy your child can start exploring his or her surroundings with his eyes and ears on their own.
Photo by kelvin octa from Pexels



Setting the Scene

With infants, one of the most critical factors is that your baby does not see you. So, you need to find a safe place where your baby can explore through independent play.

Location

The first environment for alone time is usually the crib. A convenient time to have your baby play by themselves is when they first wake up. Parents with a baby monitor can hear the first stirrings of their child. Resist going to them immediately. Allow your baby time to explore on their own.

If your newborn wakes up hungry, feed them, have a cuddle, and when they feel secure, then place them back into the crib for the exploration time. Young babies do not have separation anxiety as this feeling takes time for the baby to recognize his or her own mother’s or father’s face in the many faces that appear in their life.

Stimulation

Since you have set your baby on his or her back, a mobile is optimal for encouraging visual exploration. It should be placed close to your baby but not so close that they can touch it. Suspending a mirror, so the baby can see his or her own face is appealing as your baby can then see his or her movements. It is helpful to have 2 different mobiles so you can change the mobile once a week for novelty. 

Carter’s Jungle Collection Musical Mobile

Since babies are very attuned to sound, if you have a music device in the room, you can activate it remotely for a soothing effect.

Timing: 5 to 10 minutes 

BABIES WHO CAN ROLL:

Continue the Routine for Independent Child’s Play

Fisher-Price Smart Stages Kick & Play Piano

Setting the Scene: 

Again, to be successful, you will want to be absent from view.

Location: 

Most likely, the safest area will still be the crib. 

Stimulation

You can follow your routine of independent exploration when your baby first wakes up. But now you can add some other stimulation such as toys you add to the side of the crib or ones babies can kick to make a sound. Remember to rotate or change these toys as well. Once again, you need to be out of sight to build independence.

Infantino Spiral Activity Toy,

Timing: 10 to 15 minutes – once or twice a day

BABIES WHO CAN SIT TO PLAY

Setting the Scene

You may want to start out in the same room as your child while introducing a fascinating toy. Gradually interact less and less with your baby so that they become engaged with the toy. 

Talk to your baby, explaining that you will be gone for a few minutes but that you will be back soon. Then disappear quietly while they are busy with the toy. 

Location

Indeed, you will follow your well-established routine of using the crib for a safe environment for playful exploration for your maturing child. But now you can add a pack and go playard, set in a different room, such as close to your workroom. Again, it will be helpful to disappear for the time of independent play for your child. 

Stimulation

You will need age-appropriate toys to fascinate your baby.  See Baby Toys  at Toy Whisperer for great ideas. 

Separation Anxiety

Unfortunately, your child may experience separation anxiety at this time.  “Babies can show signs of separation anxiety as early as 6 or 7 months, but for most babies, it peaks between 10 to 18 months and eases up by 2 years,” according to the BabyCenter.

Young child crying. Separation anxiety shows a step in development. Reassurance is needed at this point.
Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Your baby is now aware of you as mother and feels insecure when you are not present. 

When you disappear for alone time, resist returning if he or she cries.  You know that your baby has been fed, is comfortable, and is safe. 

You may even have to set a timer for yourself. You can try to soothe your baby by starting some familiar music with a remote from the other room.  You can get through this awkward moment because you know your baby is safe, and you realize that it is essential for their development that they can explore on their own.

“Just keep reminding yourself that separation anxiety is normal and temporary: Your child is learning to trust you and is developing important skills on his way to independence. Although you may be feeling overwhelmed, keep in mind that separation anxiety is a sign of healthy attachment,” advises BabyCenter.

Timing: 15 minutes – once or twice a day

CRAWLERS

Baby crawling on the floor during play time alone.
Pexels.com

Setting the Scene

You have many new challenges at this stage when your baby becomes mobile. They need movement and must be observed so that they stay out of harm’s way. You could continue to use the playard, but your child may find that area too restrictive. 

Location

In this case, instead of physically disappearing, find yourself a task to complete, such as a household chore, some paperwork, or engage in a hobby you have chosen. This activity will distract your direct attention from your child. 

Stimulation

At this point, you may also be introducing sensory play for your child. It could be a water table, a bucket filled with beans and rice along with some toys, or any other sensory exploration. Set up the activity and then move to your own task or interest as your child begins to become more involved with the activity. 

Timing: 15 to 30 minutes – once or twice a day

TODDLER

Toddler at a table playing independently with some animal toys.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Setting the Scene

With your child’s maturation,  you can begin to explain about “alone time.”  You have spent at least 1-year building this skill with your child. Start by praising your child for “playing alone.”  You are at the naming stage in this process. You can explain that he or she is having alone time while mommy has her alone time, too.

Once he or she is familiar with the phrase, you can plan for alone time with your child. You can introduce the idea with a choice. “Do you want alone time before or after lunch?” as an example.

Try to schedule the alone time with your child to their natural biorhythms. You instinctively know when they are more like to settle into a quiet activity and when they need big muscle play during the day. It is crucial for you to give your child some control over their environment. 

Location: 

You will need a safe area where your child can play without outside distractions to interrupt their concentration. Some ideal places might be the bedroom with access to a variety of toys, the playroom, or close to where you will be spending your alone time. 

Stimulation: 

Your child can help select the toys that are available for alone time. It is helpful to surprise your child with some ideas. For example, you may want to stage a new concept for them to explore. You can use their Lego blocks to partially build a simple car with front wheels so that they can add the rear wheels to for an example. This staging will get them started. Or you can begin a coloring page for them to finish. By now you have a good idea about what will interest your child.

One effective way to keep toys fresh is to rotate what is available to your child regularly. Too much clutter is only confusing for a young child. Rotating what is available once a week is an effective way to keep toys fresh. Here are some toy ideas to spark your imagination. Toddler Toys

Timing: 30 to 60  minutes twice a day

5 Success Strategies for Independent Child’s Play

1. Use your child’s biorhythms to advantage. Make sure your child is not hungry, is well-rested, and has had time for active play before starting solo playtime.

2. Build daily routines that work for your family. Independent playtime always happens after lunch as an example.

3. Along with independent child play activities, set a time each day for close interaction with your child. You can explain that you are devoting your attention to share a book, play a game, or solve a puzzle while having mommy and _______  (child’s name)  time together. This is in contrast to alone or independent time.

4. Give your child choices of 2 possible ideas to achieve buy-in for new strategies.

5. If your child is negative about the activity, set a timer together. Start with a manageable length of time and then praise your child for successfully achieving the time for alone play. Increase the time gradually.

And it is OK to break the pattern of independent play on occasion. Perhaps your child is unwell, your schedule has been upset for a variety of reasons, or you have a surprise visitor. Just get back into the routine as soon as you can.

Pat yourself on the back, once you see your child playing independently. You have cultivated an essential life skill.

And a bonus is that you have made some time for yourself as well. 

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