How To Encourage Toddlers To Play Independently

**This is a post I wrote last year but didn’t get round to publishing. There is an update at the bottom. **

It’s a problem many of us have faced on our parenting journey, myself included. You sit down to read a book or do some paperwork, or crafts, or maybe even just to drink a cup of tea, and before you even hit the cushions, your toddler is clambering all over you demanding your attention.

We went through a tough time with this recently. As soon as I would try to get on with something, my top would be pulled at with requests of “Milk please” and no sooner than I would feed him, he would rush off to get a book returning shouting “Read it please!” Once he had had a feed and several stories had been read with appropriate funny voices and tickling, the whole cycle would begin again and my project would fall by the wayside.


This scenario started to become more and more intense, and I was feeling so frustrated that one day when I sat down to do some knitting for the first time in AGES, (After spending all afternoon playing together, I should add.) he rushed up and did the usual routine of “Read it please, milk please, read it!” and I reached my limit, shouting “Why cant I get a moments peace, this is ridiculous!”

(Yes, I’m human too…)

And it really was ridiculous, the whole situation was just silly. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t meet my needs, He had dropped his nap very recently and I was struggling to adapt to that loss of “Me time” which had always perked me up again. My reaction was more upsetting for me than him – He ran off laughing, but I knew we had to resolve this situation – and fast!

The problem was – as on closer inspection most of our parenting issues have been – entirely my fault. You see, in an attempt to meet my toddlers needs, every time he asked for my attention while I was trying to do something, instead of continuing with my task while meeting his needs, I would quickly give up, thus teaching him that nothing I do is as important as he is. That might sound like a nice thing to do, but it was not only giving him an unrealistic view of the world, but it was also giving him a role model who had no pride in her work. A role model who did nothing interesting to observe, but cook and clean and focus entirely on her child. In essence, although I hadn’t started out this way, I was becoming more and more child centred, and my own needs were no longer being met.

Of course, in a more natural, less modern setting, I would have no time to worry about such things. A mother has tasks she must do, and without modern conveniences such as washing machines, ovens and running water, her day is filled with busy work. She has to grind the grains from scratch, weave blankets, make clay pots, fetch water. There is no idle sitting watching TV or optional jobs. And so the children quickly learn that although they are indeed loved and welcome, mother cant always stop what she is doing repeatedly, and although she can stop to feed and cuddle with them, they must then get on with their own project, more often than not, an imitation of the adults work.

There are a lot of benefits that come with independent play –

  • Developing imagination
  • Discovering their own preferences and interests
  • Challenging themselves without feeling pushed by adult interference
  • Self reliance and confidence in their own abilities
  • Increased independence
  • Physical and psychological development

But what can you do if your child has become reliant on you to be able to play? How can you gently encourage them to give you the space you need, without damaging their feelings or making them feel abandoned?

The first step is to start slowly. Set aside ten to twenty minutes for yourself when your toddler is awake. Before you start your task, spend some time reading to them or doing an activity one on one with them. Offer them a feed if they are breastfeeding and remind them that they wont get a chance for a little while.

Next, make sure they have access to a few interesting activities, I find that crafts such as painting or playdough keep my sons interest the longest. Perhaps choose an activity that they have not seen for a while. It is also a good idea to have tools for your child to imitate your work if they choose – a drawing pad and pencils if you are writing, story books if you are reading, a ball of wool and chunky needles if you are knitting.

Make sure the TV is off. Staring at a screen does not equal independent play.

Then, tell them that you are going to sit down and do your work now. You will be right here in the room but you need to get on with this as it is important. Take note of the time and begin your task.

You will most likely find that the first few times you do this, you will have to reinforce your message. The idea is not to ignore them, rather than to work in harmony side by side. If they approach and ask you to read to them, or tell you to stop what you are doing, you can simply tell them, “Mummy is doing this right now, we will read when I have finished.” Then direct him back to his activity or let him sit and watch what you are doing. They will likely find it interesting and want to take a look for themselves. Remain calm and gently direct them to their own tools to investigate and copy with, returning quickly to your task.

You probably wont actually achieve much the first, second and however many more times you attempt this, as this new pattern will take some getting used to, but do try to continue for the whole ten or twenty minutes. (This decision will have to be based on our knowledge of your child and how long they can cope with.) This will get your child used to seeing you doing something, and to learn this new information, that Mummy is doing something important.

If you are reading this and thinking, “But my child is the most important thing in my life!” then I agree totally. If you have read my regular posts on this blog, you will know just how I feel about my child. He is the most important thing in the world to me. But, it is healthy for both of us that I am able to complete tasks and he is able to watch, learn and explore his own passions through play.

Once you finish your task, read that book, build that tower and enjoy it. Slowly, you will be able to increase the time until you find a balance that works for you both.

UPDATE

This post was written at the end of last summer and since then my toddler has developed his own interests and enjoys regular independent play. Back when I wrote this I was experiencing a strong unmet need to be able to have some time to myself after my son stopped napping. Raising children alone with no support during the day is not the natural way for humans, and many of us struggle with finding a balance to accommodate everyone’s needs. On reflection of my struggles after reaching my limits, I made a few changes. I made it a regular habit to do the suggestions I have offered above, but I also met my needs in other ways. I was aware that my son was not yet at an age where he would be able to play for extended periods of time, and that wasn’t something I wanted to force him in to. With gentle guidance his ability to play independently has grown over time.

In addition to this, I sought support elsewhere. I realised that I had a strong need for some time to be alone, and so began taking a break when Daddy came home from work, taking my writing and a cup of tea upstairs, leaving the two of them together.

This time to myself refreshed me and removed the resentment I felt at being constantly on call. Sometimes, we need to get creative to find solutions that we can all be happy with. This is what worked for us.

**************************************

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11 thoughts on “How To Encourage Toddlers To Play Independently”

  1. Oh this is a thought provoking read. I can barely ever have a cup of tea, never mind get some work or painting done when my son (nearly 3) is in the room. I do try to use the tip you suggested, but I am not sure I have a right to be firm about it, since I work outside home for 3 full days a week (I did reduce it from 5 to 3 recently and it might change in either direction again next year). I feel like it is unfair to not spend every free moment I have with him…but then I am human also and need to find some sort of balance. Wish I knew how!

    1. It definitely takes time to find a balance that works for both parent and child, but I think that the effort in the beginning is worth it, if it means that you get to meet your own needs, along with your child’s needs. Its when we forget to take care of ourselves that stresses mount up and little issues become huge problems, creating resentment to form within us. Guilt comes so easily to us parents, but perhaps reminding yourself of the reasons why you work and how your working benefits your child may help? Also, although play is a wonderful way to bond with our children, it is not the only way to connect. I hope you find a solution that works for you both!

  2. Thank you for a very good read and also for the useful tips! Your advice are extremely useful to me since I am a work-at-home mom. I have tried your techniques and they work like magic. :) Now, I can concentrate with work without having to worry about what my little kid is doing.

  3. Great post. I think it is so easy for us to think we’re doing the right thing by always putting our children first, but we sometimes fail to realise what this may actually be teaching them. And by we I mean me. It’s also important (as you so wisely pointed out) to be aware of your child’s developmental level. My son is 18 months and if he plays independently for 5-10 minutes at a time, I consider that a win! I’m looking forward to that time lengthening, but I know that will come naturally as he continues to develop.

  4. I have done this naturally … I guess because I’m lazy. I consider it my duty to give food or affection whenever asked because these are needs. But I don’t really think of entertainment as a need. I tend to say “just a minute” or “I’ll read you a book after I’m done with X.” If the child whines, I’m happy to pick them up and they can be bored on my lap or in a wrap till I’m done. ;) Turns out boredom is a powerful force and the kids do find something to do! That’s when you have the opposite worry and have to go check to make sure it’s not something dangerous.

    I must say this is a lot easier once you have more than one kid. It’s only when the baby naps that my almost-three-year-old starts whining for a story or some playtime. And I oblige more often, because that’s our “special time.”

  5. I love this post. I am a stay at home mum to a toddler and 4 month old baby. I get on with tasks I need to around the house and errands that need running and try to involve my toddler and let my baby watch (before putting the dry washing in the ironing basket from the washing line I put all the socks in a pile and ask my daughter to match up the socks, and get her involved with the preparation of cooking). But I haven’t done my own hobbies for quite a while now. Ive always done them when my daughter has gone to bed (nap time stopped months ago) but with a baby now, come evening time I just want to crash out on the sofa and watch tv as im too tired to get my artwork out or write. I knew my daughter needed to do some independent play but thought i had to be available if not directly involved and do feel like its up to me to get her involved in things or activities. I feel like a bad mum otherwise, like I should be doing more. Reading that you read, and do your hobbies in front of your son is hopeful to me. I really miss my hobbies, can I really use some time during the day when my children are awake to read a book (that isn’t a parenting book, that’s all I seem to read at the moment), to do some watercolour painting and maybe even write?
    Also, I love the idea of getting out for an hour or just going upstairs for a bit when my husband has a day off so I could have some me time but I feel guilty leaving him to juggle both children, feel that im being lazy and shouldn’t be so selfish wanting time to myself (ive always enjoyed time alone so have struggled with never getting that me time).

    1. Oh my! I don’t think I would last the day if I didn’t have time to read or write! I read for around an hour (or more) several times a week with my son playing nearby. It is definitely possible to establish, you just have to start slowly. When your daughter seems occupied with her play and is not clamoring for your attention, pop out a book and squeeze in a chapter or two. You will likely find that because she is not used to seeing you read, she shows an interest and will come to investigate what you’re up to. Keep persevering and doing it frequently, and the more she sees you do it, the more normal it will become. She will likely either go off to amuse herself, or cuddle up beside you while you read.

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