One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever applied (from Babywise) was giving your baby independent playtime each day. Independent playtime is – as the name suggests – a time where the baby/toddler/child plays in a safe area alone for a certain period of time determined by you. Babies may be on a play mat or in a playpen (do they still call them that these days?) while toddlers and children can be in their room. When they are young it will be for a smaller period of time but by around 18 months they will be able to happily play alone for an hour. I know because my toddler does it. This single activity in my schedule allows me to do things like clean, work, check emails, rest, get dressed and simply to have a few moments to myself. And, it isn’t just for you, it’s great for them too.
1) They’ll learn to problem solve and start understanding cause and effect. The toy is stuck, they try to get it out. They throw their doll out of their reach and now they are one doll down. This is a time where they explore – on their own without your hovering or interruption – a little bit about life. Instead of everything happening to them (ie, when family members play with them and take them around, give them toys, etc.) this is a time where they determine their own course. Some days I’d go in and my girl would be sitting with about 30 books around her quietly reading, pointing, and laughing. Some days I go in and the room is still spick and span and she has been trying to climb into her crib. One time she climbed onto a small storage container and got stuck. Eventually I figured out she was stuck and came to the rescue, but she didn’t climb on it again. She learned her own lesson. Instead of us constantly solving their problems and making things simple, this is a time where they can start to figure out their surroundings and take control of a small area, if only for a short time.
2) When you aren’t hovering, they start to use their imagination. My grandmother said it best. “Boring people get bored.” Your child needs a chance to work their imagination because it is crucial for future problem solving and decision-making skills. If we as mothers over hover (a big tendency for me) then they aren’t left with the time and space to go into their own mind and make up a fun world. Dolls become princesses and rugs become race tracks. I never leave too many toys around, just a few, and this urges my daughter to really dig into whatever she’s doing. I hear her laugh, talk (or babble more like it) and move around. I can see her trying new things, fitting blocks into holes and stacking things around. I believe this is a time that encourages them to explore and discover a little without us.
3) Having playtime as part of the routine can bring discipline and security. Many mothers think that simply being near their child will bring security. While this is true in a sense (constant absence of a parent surely does bring insecurity and fear), the test of whether a child is secure or not is when the mother walks away. If a mother walks away and the child goes into hysterics then there is obviously less security than previously thought. This is one way to build a sense of security that will last. The child knows they will play alone and knows you will come back. They learn to play and even have fun using their own imagination and toys. Then, when you come back, they’re happy to see you. There will be times, of course, when they fight this playtime. When my daughter is sick, teething or super tired she doesn’t last long and I don’t make her. The routine is I go into her room with her and we play together for around ten minutes. Then I get up to go and (9 times out of 10) she says “bye bye mommy” as I walk out. 45 minutes to an hour later I come back and we are both happily reunited and play together again. Children – when feeling secure – have no concept of time. Also, if you must go back to work, this is a good way to transition into daycare or babysitting.
4) They get used to entertaining themselves. If I am out shopping and run into a friend I will stop and talk. Because my daughter is used to entertaining herself, she will rarely interrupt me or pull my skirt or say “mommy mommy mommy” and annoy the fire out of me. She will sit there, observe passersby or occupy herself. Same at church, with guests or at the park. If I am engaged with someone else she does not turn into a “look at me look at me” super annoying hybrid of herself just to get my attention. People frequently comment how calm she is and – while she has her fair share of hyperactivity – she is able to cope when I am occupied. I find this extremely helpful.
All in all, if you are doubting the merits of independent play time, I encourage you to Weigh Test + Measure it. It is a great activity to fit into your routine and gives you a good break and some alone time to stave off the desperate housewife syndrome!