How to Teach Your Child to Play Independently

This is a writing sample from Scripted writer Shirley Perry

As a devoted parent, it is only natural to want to spend time with your child. Spending time with interacting with your child is how you build a bond. Building a bond and fostering dependence are two separate things, however. If you encourage your child to be dependent on you to meet their physical needs and entertain you, you will never get anything done. Parenting is the slow procession of working yourself out of a job. Teaching your child to play independently is part of building the confidence he needs to begin meeting his own needs. It will also give you the space you need to accomplish other tasks. Here are some suggestions to help you encourage your child to play independently.

What Can You Expect?

The amount of time you can expect your child to entertain himself will depend on his age. Once a child is able to sit up unassisted, he can play on a blanket or in a playpen, on his own, for approximately 10 to 15 minutes twice a day. Gradually, this can be increased. By the time he is crawling, he should be able to play independently for between 30 and 45 minutes. By the time he has reached a year, or slightly older, he can play alone for an hour or more.

How to Start

You know independent play is important, but may not be sure how to get started. Here are a few tips to guide you.

  • Giving your child a safe environment where you can keep an eye on him without being seen. This might mean putting him on a blanket or in a playpen in the living room while you are working in the kitchen. You can stop what you are doing every so often to check on him. He may be less likely to be disturbed if he doesn't see you.

  • Make sure he has a few toys to play with. To keep him from getting too bored, switch out the toys every so often. Novelty will help to keep him interested.

  • The simpler the toy the better. He does not need electronic devices or toys that do all the work for him. Giving him simple things will help to build his imagination and creativity. Small babies are just beginning to explore the world and may be content with bits of fabric for texture and things that make noise like a bell or a rattle. As he gets older, he may enjoy building things with blocks or boxes. Dolls, figurines, cars, and structures he can climb on are also great to play with as he gets older.

  • One trick that might be useful is to set a timer. As he grows accustomed to the timer, he will understand that when the timer goes off, playtime is done. This can give him something to look forward to. It can also help you both to transition to the next thing.

Respect Your Child's Play

When you do play with your child, let him direct the play. As long as he is in no danger of hurting himself or damaging anything, there is no reason to correct him. On the contrary, if you take charge of playtime, you will teach him to have less confidence in his own ideas. He will begin to depend on others to show him how to play.

Also, respect your child's time. When it is time to switch activities or when you need to interrupt him, perhaps for a diaper change, try to find an appropriate stopping point. You might watch him for some sign that his attention has flagged or when he stops what he is doing to look at you. Then you can introduce the topic: "It is nearly time for lunch. Finish what you are doing, please." Or you might give him a warning, "You have five minutes and then it will be time for lunch." This is a less jarring way to transition to a new activity than to just pull him out of what he is doing.

How to Bond With Your Baby Other Than Play

You can have some play with your child, but play time does not have to be the only time. One great opportunity to give your child your undivided attention is during caregiving. Giving him your undivided attention while he is eating or taking a bath can allow the two of you to bond. Having your undivided attention regularly (but not necessarily constantly) can help him to be more confident about playing on his own because he will know that you will be there when he needs you.

Independent play is important to children. It gives them the opportunity to explore the world a little bit on their own and to develop their imaginations. It also gives you the chance to take care of household tasks rather than having to provide your child with continuous entertainment. Best of all, independent play can help to foster confidence and self-sufficiency which are things he will be able to use for a lifetime.

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