If you're ready for a little more peace and quiet in your day, here's how to do it.
Independent play, in which your children go off to entertain themselves and give you a break, can sound like a fairy tale to parents of clingy toddlers. When you’ve got a little one who sits outside the door and cries if you dare to use the bathroom without her, the idea that she can learn to be perfectly happy playing on her own might sound too good to be true!
You’ll be reassured to know that independent play is a natural ability for children, and with a little preparation and encouragement, it’s a skill your child can master. Imagine suddenly finding yourself drinking your coffee while it’s still hot, or maybe even cracking open your Magnificat for a few minutes of quiet prayer and reflection! Ideally you can start teaching this skill when your children are very young and build it up a little bit at a time, but it’s never too late to start.
1Prepare the environment.
It will give you peace of mind to create a “yes space” where your child can play without risks or restrictions. Child-proofing is the first step. Then give some thought to the toys you put in the space. Choose ones that are open-ended and leave plenty of space for your child’s imagination to take over.
You might consider keeping some of the toys in another room or closet and rotating them out regularly. A “new” toy your child hasn’t seen in a few weeks is a great enticement to jump into playing.
2Give your child your focused attention first.
It seems counter-intuitive, but children are much more receptive to focused, independent play after you’ve spent some quality time together. After you’ve invested a solid 10-20 minutes of giving your kids your full attention, they’ll be ready to play on their own. This might feel like a frustrating step if you’re itching to get to a project, but it will pay off in kids who happily play on their own instead of interrupting you constantly!
Reading a book to them for 10 minutes offers an easy transition: Just stop reading when you reach the end of the chapter. Another option might be to set a timer for 20 minutes and tell your kids, “I’m going to play whatever you want during ‘Special Time‘ for the next 20 minutes, but when the timer goes off, I have to stop playing and go work.”
3Start off with staying close by.
If your child is new to independent play, he might get anxious if you’re not close by. So you can start gently introducing the idea while you stay in the room or in sight, but without joining in your child’s play.
An easy way to encourage your child to play without you is to read a book in front of him. Not only does this set a good example and have a research-based positive impact, but it gives off an “I’m busy” vibe without saying a word. Looking at your phone has the opposite effect, as they will want to see what you’re doing on there, but who would be interested in looking at a boring, grown-up book with no pictures?
4Accept that things will get messy.
Kids playing (somewhat) unattended, without your direct supervision … Enough said, right? Toys will get dumped on the floor or thrown around the room. It’s the nature of the beast. Accept that you’ll have to rope your kiddo into clean-up afterward, and forge ahead boldly. It’s a price worth paying!
“Don’t interrupt? Are you kidding?” you might be thinking. “I’ll be thanking the Lord that it finally worked and she’s super focused on playing!” But when you see how cute her little games are, and the sweet and clever things she says as she plays, you might feel so tempted to take a video or ask her about her game. She is absolutely precious, no question, but resist the urge to talk to her; it’ll only “break the spell” of her focused concentration. Instead, take a moment to appreciate her sweetness, and then enjoy this stretch of alone time!
But what if you’ve done all 5 steps and your child still won’t leave your side? If all else fails, try going outside. Somehow nature is an endless source of entertainment for children. Step out the door, and your clingy toddler suddenly will find a way to occupy herself for a nice long time as she waddles around the yard on obscure errands of her own.
Once your kids can handle 20-30 minutes of independent play at a stretch, you might be ready to institute a daily “quiet time,” perhaps coinciding with the baby’s nap. Putting independent playtime on the schedule as a predictable daily event helps your child build this skill.
If you stop to think about it, throughout human history, independent play was just about the only kind of play children did. Parents were too busy with the hard work of survival to spend much time at all playing with their kids. This was true until pretty recently: Perhaps you even remember spending the whole day playing outside in the summer, and not coming in until the streetlights came on. You can feel confident knowing that playing on their own is good for your kids, building their creativity and concentration. And you can bet it’s good for Mom and Dad too!