Learn how to help your child to play independently (in 4 easy steps!)
so you can foster their growth and give yourself a little break too!
Whenever I mention that my one year old plays alone for an hour every day I am asked questions like “is that even possible?” and “how did you get her to do that?!” I am here to tell you that yes it is possible and today I will share step by step how to implement independent playtime in your own home.
The concept of independent playtime comes from the Baby Wise book series written by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam. Now, I will admit that I have never read these books but I know some people that really swear by them!
I just took my experience as a mom and former first grade teacher to set up a system where my child plays independently (without electronics!!) every single day.
Four Steps To Independent Play
Step One: Choose A Time
It is essential that you choose a time that is right for both you and your child. It should be during a window of time that you will be home most days. Children crave routine by nature and feel safe when they know the sequence of events in any given day. That is why most kids do well in a classroom setting because the routine day after day is comforting. I can’t even tell you how many times a parent of one of my students would say “My child is never like this at home! How are they so well behaved for you?” While there are a few reasons this was the case and some of them had nothing to do with me, it was mostly because the routines, expectations and procedures were consistent.
For us I noticed that the time of day my daughter was the most clingy was when I was prepping dinner. It was nearly impossible to make dinner with a toddler clinging to my legs so 4:00 became our time. She knows that every day an hour after her nap it is time to play quietly in her room.
Step Two: Create The Environment
Creating a safe, calm and clean place to play is the first step. For E, that space is her room. There are a few reasons why her room is the best place in our scenario. #1 It is child proofed and #2 we have a wall mounted video monitor in there so I can always keep an eye on her while she’s playing.
It might look different for you. It can be your child’s bedroom, a play room or even a section of the living room (provided it is gated off in some way and that you are not present).
I recommend choosing a space that doesn’t have any negative associations. For example, if you have your child go to their room for time-outs that wouldn’t be the best option since they might think they’re in trouble.
Step Three: Choose The Toys
For Independent Play Time I recommend providing only a few toys and handful of books. We have a small house and there is not a designated toy room. So while E does not have any visible toys in her room on a daily basis, there is one Sterilite Bin under her crib that we pull out during her playtime. These are toys that are only available to her during this time. I try to rotate these toys every month to keep them engaging and interesting.
Some examples of what we use,
She also has access to her bookshelves in her room that are filled with books.
(Click on the links to view the toys shown above. Grimm’s Rainbow, Grimm’s Seven Friends With Seven Bowls, Grimm’s Bus, Wonder World Natural Shapes Organizer, Similar Melissa and Doug Farm Animals Puzzle and Melissa and Doug Shapes Puzzle.)
Step Four: Carry it Out
(using the Gradual Release of Responsibility model)
While it sounds like a complex term, simply put it is the strategic transfer of responsibility from you to your child over a set period of time.
In an ideal world you would walk out the door saying “Bye bye, have a fun play time and I will see you soon!”. Then an hour would pass and you would reunite with your smiling child. But if your child is anything like mine, the first day will last for 5 minutes and your child will have cried through the whole thing.
Don’t give up. Remember, you are in this for the long game. Depending on the age and temperament of your child this could take a month or more to establish.
*Note: I chose to gradually release responsibility to E over a months’ time because she was only 12 months when we started. I know how beneficial a strong foundation is and it is always worth the extra footwork at the beginning.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model
I do (you watch): The first week we went into her room at 4:00. I played with her toys and modeled what I expected. For example, I showed her how to treat her toys, how to play quietly etc. E observed and joined in on what I was doing.
I do (you help): The second week we went into her room again at 4:00. This time I really tried to engage her in what I was doing. I still talked out loud about what I was doing and helped her to play with her toys as well.
You do (I help): The third week, we went into the room but I sat by the door. I interacted with her if she came to me but kept redirecting her back to play on her own each time. I encouraged from afar.
You do (I watch): By the fourth week it was time to set her up for success on her own. I explained that she would be playing on her own today and that I would come back to get her in a little while. Then, I left to go eat chocolate chip cookies while watching Ellen Degeneres for a whole hour!
Just Kidding…. Although I hope it ends up being that easy for you!
Depending on your child’s personality it might be that simple but for E it was more of a process. If you’re child cries the second you walk out the door, I explain what worked for us in the tips below.
Independent Playtime Tips
Tip 1. Work up to your desired playtime in 5 minute increments. (No more then an hour total)
It would be great if your child automatically took to playing independently with no push back but for most kids that isn’t the case.
I started with 5 minutes. The first day she cried the whole 5 minutes. I went back into her room and said “Hi! Did you have a fun play time? Let’s clean up your toys!” with a smile on my face.
A few days later she no longer cried when I left and I upped it to 10 minutes. The important thing is that you remain consistent. Once they’ve proven to you that they can handle 10 minutes, you don’t go back to 5. After a few weeks E was able to play in her room for 45 minutes to an hour and that’s where she remains today. I want to emphasize that she loves independent play time now and asks to go every day.
Tip 2. Problem solve
One of the things I learned while teaching and having to meet the needs of 25 six year olds on any given day is that most of the time you can prevent problems before they occur simply by being prepared for them.
For example, do you think your child might become thirsty during their playtime? Leave a water bottle
Is it possible that your child will rip pages on a paperback book? Make sure you put those up high and that only board books are available during playtime
Does your child seem to go to the bathroom at the exact. same. time. everyday? (or is that just mine?! 😛 ) Wait until after they’ve gone to start their playtime
My point is, try to create solutions for problems that don’t even exist yet. You will thank yourself later, I promise!
Tip 3. Use audible and visual cues
Audible: Music and sounds create deep connections in our brains. It’s why you will never forget that song that played during a memorable moment in your life or why you can hear “Bah Dah Bah Bah Bah!” and think of the golden arches even though you haven’t eaten there in years.
For E’s playtime, I’ve made a playlist with instrumental music that is an hour long and ends with “The Clean Up Song”. As soon as she hears it, she stops what she’s doing and starts to go to the bin to put away her toys. Music association is powerful!
Visual: We have a Hatch Baby Rest which is a night light, sound machine and ok to wake tool. We use the ok to wake feature as a visual cue for E. It is very easy to implement and everything is done through my phone. At 4:00 the light turns on and it is yellow. At 5:00 the light turns pink and she knows I will be coming in to help her clean up!
Tip 4. Use the same phrasing each time.
Our goodbye phrasing is the last thing we say as we walk out the door- “Have a fun quiet play time, I will see you soon!”
Our hello phrasing is the first thing we say when we walk into the room after her time is up- “Hi! Did you have a fun play time? Let’s clean up your toys!” Regardless of how your child is acting when you walk into the room, you say the same sentence each time in a positive tone with a smile.
The Benefits We’ve Seen Using Independent Playtime
We’ve been practicing independent playtime for 8 months now and I have noticed a few benefits
-E is able to problem solve more on her own.
-She plays independently when I am in the same room as her.
-She has more confidence playing with her toys.
-She is far less clingy overall.
-She recharges during playtime. I’ve noticed that when we have to skip a few days she tends to have a harder time because she hasn’t spent any time alone.
Is independent playtime something you would like to implement in your family? Let me know if you have any questions below in the comments. I am happy to help!
From my home sweet home to yours,