Independent Playtime Overview

by Valerie Plowman from Chronicles of a Babywise Mom

I very often state that one of my absolute favorite parenting tools is Independent Playtime. This block of time has immense benefits to the entire family. This post will take you through the basics on what it is (and isn't), the benefits of it, implementing it, and solving potential
problems you might face with it.

Definition of Independent Playtime
Independent Playtime is a block of time each day that your child plays alone. On Becoming Preschoolwise states that "The most important aspect of this time is that your child is learning to focus on what he can do with the things he has" (page 120). 

Exactly what Independent Playtime will look like for your child will vary based on the age, ability, and maturity of your child.

I personally start the essence of Independent Playtime as a young newborn. The way I do Independent Playtime with a newborn is do put the baby at a floor gym (you could use a bouncer, swing, or even a blanket) and then sit a couple of feet away and watch her play. I don't talk to her or wave things in her face. I just enjoy watching her. Length varies from 5-10 minutes; newborns can't stay awake very long. 

Now, of course I do spend time each day talking to my newborn, holding her, loving her, kissing her chubby little cheeks...I am talking about one or two 5-10 minute block in a day when I let her play alone. I find doing this from the beginning makes the entire transition to "real" independent play as older babies seamless.

Once my baby reaches about 3-4 months old, I start to have the time be in the playpen every so often--maybe a few times a week. I might move the gym in there or I might hang a baby mirror and mobile in there and put some toys in there. I want baby to get comfortable with the playpen. At this time, I still sit in the room with baby, though I do need to be more creative about not being seen. If it wasn't possible for me to not be seen, I would sit right outside the door. 

Once baby can get to toys on her own, I will leave the room but stay really close. As she gets older, I will leave the room and move about the house, but I do always keep a monitor on the baby.

A Pre-toddler is in the age range of 12-18 months. Most pre-toddlers will be in the playpen still. Some might move to Roomtime, but most will stay in the playpen. You can play music for your child if she enjoys music. You will want to make sure you rotate the toys and books you give her to play with every so often so the toys stay interesting to her. 

Toddler, Preschooler, and Older
Sometime between 18 months and two years old, your toddler will move to roomtime instead of just the playpen. You want to make sure the room is child-proofed and safe for your child. You still pull out the toys and books for her to play with. For more on Roomtime, see my post Roomtime.

I continued daily roomtime with my oldest (now 6) until he entered first grade this year (his first year of full-day schooling). We now do it on weekends when we have the time. We do not do it on school days because he is already gone for so much of the day, I don't have time to fit that in with the other activities of  the evening.

This is taken from my post on Independent Playtime Lengths
  • 5-10 minutes once or twice a day as a young newborn
  • 10-20 minutes twice a day for first few months
  • 15-30 minutes twice a day for the independent sitter
  • 30-45 minutes at least once a day for the crawler
  • Up to 60 minutes for the 15-20 month old in playpen or room
These are guidelines. Some days may be longer, some shorter. For example, say it is Saturday and you have a family thing to get to. You can have a shorter than usual independent play so you can get to your family thing on time.

Benefits of Independent Playtime
On Becoming Babywise II lists several of the benefits to Independent Playtime on page 73:
  • Mental Focusing Skills
  • Sustained Attention Span
  • Creativity
  • Self-Play Adeptness
  • Orderliness
I have done Independent Playtime with all three of my children (6, 4, and 2), and I have found these benefits to be true. It is hard to judge the effects because for one thing, you can't live life in a vacuum, and for another, you can't live parallel lives where you do two different things with the same child and see which "thing" was the best. I do think that having three children who display these skills speaks volumes for Independent Playtime.

I also find that Independent Playtime results in happier and more patient children. If I am going to have a playdate that day, I make sure we do Independent Playtime that morning. My children consistently play better with others when they have Independent Playtime--whether those others be friends or family. For more on the benefits of Independent Playtime, I have two posts that go into further detail: Benefits of Independent Play and Baby Whisperer: Playing Independently.

This time also offers you some time to clean, cook, get ready, or simply relax. That should lead to a more relaxed and harpy parent, and that is good for the entire family.

Implementing Independent Playtime
Does Independent Playtime sound nice? Want to try? Here are some basic details on how to implement. Now, exactly how easy this is to do will vary. Factors will include age of the child, personality, and previous life experience. A 2 year old who has never played alone will likely resist more than a 2 month old.

If you are starting from the beginning of life--or quite early in life (say the first 4-5 months), it should be pretty easy so long as you are consistent. If you are startting later in life, you might have some protesting from your child. Either way, here are some tips.
  1. Pick a consistent time of day. Consistency is very important. I like mornings because I can always get it in during the morning hours. Pick what works for you.
  2. Keep toys safe, age appropriate, and rotated. Your child will not enjoy this playtime if she has the same toys for 6 weeks in a row. Also, don't give too many toys. You want enough to keep her happy, but not so many her brain gets overwhelmed.
  3. Stay in earshot. Either through being close in proximity or through a monitor. 
  4. If your child enjoys it, start with 10-15 minutes at a time. 
  5. If your child is not happy, start with 5-10 minutes at a time. Some moms find 5 minutes isn't long enough while others find it to be perfect. A timer can also be very effective. See my post on The Timer for more. 
  6. Clean up when playtime is over. Sing the clean up song and clean with your child. Hand her a toy and ask her to put it in the bucket/basket/whatever. When she does, tell her great job and thank her for helping you. As she gets older and more able, she will help on her own.
  7. Know what it isn't. Sometimes it helps to know what something is not to know what it is. See Independent Playtime is Not...
If you are starting late, see my post on Starting Independent Playtime Late.

Addressing Problems
You might run into some problems along the way with Independent Playtime. Here are the most common:
  • Resistance. You might have your child not want to do Independent Playtime, whether from the beginning or "all of a sudden." For more on this, see Resistance to Independent Playtime.
  • Ransacking. Your child might have a very fun time during Independent Playtime, but destroys the room in the process. For tips on dealing with this, see this post on Ransacking During Independent Playtime.
  • Sleeping. You might find your child falls asleep during Independent Playtime, which then messes with nap time, which of course makes Independent Playtime annoying rather than beneficial. For tips on this issue, see Falling Asleep During Independent Playtime.
Independent Playtime is well worth the effort it takes to implement it. Well worth it. If you have an older child and haven't started it, you can do it! I started late with my oldest child and he did great with it--it took some time to work up to it, but we got there. You will love this and your children will love this. 

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