When pregnant with my second baby I was terribly ill my first trimester, and I had to enlist help to get me through the days my husband wasn't home. I simply did not feel comfortable being home alone with my son because I found simple tasks impossible. Fortunately, I had my mom and sister to help me out.
How to Encourage and Make a Habit of Independent Play
While I rested my mom would play with my son and then help make dinner and other household tasks. One of the first things she noticed was how seemingly easy my son was to look after. She mentioned to me how she would be making dinner and he would be in his play area entertaining himself quietly. I was a proud momma, but I also knew that this behavior from my son wasn't an accident. This is the behavior I am raising him to have and a behavior that didn't occur overnight, but rather through forming habits early on.
I'm not an expert in child education or development, but I firmly believe in purposeful parenting. I know I'm not perfect, but I try my best to make conscious decisions throughout the day about how I engage with my son based on the behavior I would like him to exhibit. Today he confidently explores his play room and other areas of the house on his own. He colors, works on puzzles, builds towers, and rolls with his cars without the need for constant engagement or supervision. Below are a few of the tactics I implemented to drive and encourage independent play from an early age.
1. Independent play doesn't mean I ignore my son. On the contrary, in order for him to play independently for a time, I need to spend time focused and engaged with him beforehand. For example, right now he really enjoys music. Every morning he'll ask him to play his favorite songs, and we spend about 20 minutes dancing to them with instruments, playsilks, and other props.
The entire time I am 100% focused on him and I allow him to lead the way through the activity. By allowing him to select the songs we play and allowing him to lead how we play he knows this time is all about him. Once the activity is winding down I will let him know what I will be doing next. "We will play another two songs, and after mommy will begin making lunch." I then repeat it again, "This is the last song, and then mommy is going to make lunch." Once the activity is over, I can begin making lunch and he will begin playing on his own until I am finished and call him to eat.
2. I try not to interrupt my son when he is playing independently. I adopted the mentality of enabling my son and letting him lead the way through his own learning early on. I found he didn't need me for much when he was learning things early on, and the more I allowed him to focus without interruption the more he would practice what he was trying to learn. For example, as it got closer to his second birthday I began showing him the number two with my fingers and telling him he was going to be two years old. I also began playing a game with him where I'd count to five with my fingers and then tickle him when I got to the number five. After a few days of playing the game he began trying to show numbers with his fingers. This was a very difficult task for him, but he REALLY wanted to learn. I spent a little bit of time showing him how he could accomplish the task, but I did this only when he asked, and then left him to practice on his own. Many times I would spot him practicing sitting in his playroom or bedroom, but I never interrupted his focus by inserting myself into his practice time. A few days later he came up to me to show me how he could count with his fingers all on his own. Whenever this happens, I make a big deal of him learning something on his own.
3. Independent play starts early. Your child isn't going to be one or two years old and all of a sudden begin playing independently if this isn't the behavior he has been encouraged to have early on. It will take time for them to adopt this behavior, and most importantly, you will have to change your own behavior to help them. I fought hard to create a relaxed environment for my son since he was a baby. I would frequently lay him down for tummy time and play soothing music while I tidied up the house. If I was playing with him, I would select one toy and I would guide him through exploring it until HE lost interest. My point is, I tried to remove myself from being the point of his attention all the time.
4. One of the decisions that had the most impact on my son's ability to play independently was the types of toys we purchased for his playroom. I decided early on against electronic toys and I wanted to steer clear of most plastic. Initially I did this because I wanted to be careful about purchasing non-toxic toys, but I inadvertently stumbled upon something else. Open-ended toys. Open-ended toys have no fixed way that they should be used. There is no right or wrong way to play with them and therefore these types of toys allow children to make of them what they need in that moment. I didn't realize it then, but these types of toys would encourage my son to play on his own for long periods of time. One of his favorite toys have been wooden acorns. He likes them so much, I decided to make them and carry them in the store. Initially the acorn
where loaded onto various trucks and would get loaded from one truck to another. When he learned how to open containers the acorns were placed in and out of containers. Sometimes they're food for his safari animals and just today we built an impromptu acorn run with toilet paper rolls.
5. I set up his play area in a way that invites him to play. I always have a combination of open-ended toys and educational toys that are of interest to him. For example, he always has paper and color pencils/crayons available to him. Right now he has a special interest in his ABC's, so I have his favorite ABC puzzle available. His all time favorite cars? Yup, they're always available, and he'll pick them up several times a day.
If you have made it this far, thank you! I hope you find some of this useful in your own home. Independent play will not only allow you to get some things done, but will promote a more relaxed home and learning environment for your child.