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Mommy play with me
Some kids just naturally play by themselves.
Just as some moms seem to have this natural ability to play with their kids all day.
My kid is not one of those kids.
I’m not one of those moms.
Quick wee side note: Because I know how hard it can be to come up with fun games each time, I’ve created a 7-day challenge for parents of toddlers and preschoolers. This is a great way to get started if you’ve fallen out of the habit of playing with your kids, or to learn about fresh ideas and activities.
Each day for 1 week, you will receive an e-mail with an activity that you can do with your kids. Join the newsletter and start your 7 days of play today!
The fun-mom syndrome
When my oldest boy was first born, I was busy with him all day.
In fact, he wouldn’t even sleep in his own bed during the day, so whenever it was nap-time, I had him in a baby-sling, where he could sleep while I did some chores.
As he grew older, he did learn to nap in her own bed, but he never quite got round to playing by himself.
And as a millennial mom who wanted to be perfect and fun, I played with him as much as he wanted.
Basically, all day.
Chores, I did in the evening.
Independent play & mom-guilt
I suppose that I, and many other moms with me, feel like we need to entertain and play with our kids the whole day because lavishing them in attention is good for them.
Ignoring or scolding our kids, or giving any sort of negative feedback just feels wrong and makes us experience the infamous mom-guilt.
But is this right? Should we be playing with our kids quite this much?
End the mom-guilt
Let’s take a closer look at what happens if we don’t play with our kids. Gasp!
I want you to stop feeling guilty.
Get rid of the mom guilt, the strive for perfection and the pressure to be a “fun mom” all the time.
Let’s see what the consequences are of ending mom-guilt and killing the fun-mom syndrome.
The benefits of independent play
Ending mom-guilt and the pressure to play with our kids the whole day creates more space and balance because we can end the pressure of perfection.
We’ve heard so often about a parent’s influence on a child’s later success that we feel we need to be at our child’s service and guidance all the time.
But, in doing so, we’re missing the point and are needlessly stressing ourselves.
Some consequences of independent play
Independent play breeds actual independence
Having to play by themselves, and not having mommy at every beck and call, means that kids need to entertain themselves as well as solve problems themselves.
Say, my kids are playing with some toy cars. And suddenly, they want the same car (really? Does that happen?)
Noise levels rise…
If you were playing with them, you’d be negotiating already.
But you’re not there.
Which means that they have to try and fix things themselves. I know, a risky strategy, but hang in there for just a few seconds.
…noise levels rise to the point of screaming. You peek around the corner (hopefully without being spotted) to see if the hitting has started yet.
Both kids are holding the same car and staring each other down. One of them decides this isn’t fun and lets go in favor of a different car.
Sound to good to be true? Sometimes, yes. But about 50% of the time, they deal with it themselves. And that is when they learn a valuable lesson.
Even if they don’t or can’t deal with it themselves, the fact that they landed themselves in an argument and possibly in trouble is a lesson in and of itself.
They learn that this is not fun, that it doesn’t get them what they want. Next time, they might try a different tactic. (With next time, I actually mean over the course of the years, but all the same it’s a good lesson to learn )
They find out their own likes
Independent play helps kids figure out their likes and dislikes.
Often, when playing together, we are the ones making suggestions. And even when we don’t directly suggest what game to play, or which direction to take, our faces tell our kids a lot.
Nobody knows you the way your child does, and he can tell exactly whether what he’s doing is approved of or not.
However, if you leave the kids to play on their own, their games will evolve just as they please, without interference, direct or unconscious, from us.
This, in turn, helps kids to find out what it is that they like or dislike.
It helps them to develop their now tastes. And, later in life, this helps them to decide which direction they want to take.
For instance, when they need to decide what kind of education to get or which job they should apply for.
It helps to develop and maintain their creativity
Independent play helps kids develop and maintain their creativity, because they get into situations where they have to be creative more often.
I find, that whenever I hover around, my kids will immediately ask for my help when something is challenging.
However, if I’m not near enough, or simply don’t jump to their help fast enough, I find that they find all sorts of creative solutions to perceived problems.
Can’t get to that toy you want that’s on the table? If mom’s not there, or not moving in your direction, grab a chair and climb on. Of course, whenever kids start to get too adventurous, you have to step in. We don’t want them to get hurt! But use your judgement and see what solution they come up with on their own.
You can even spur them on a little, by asking, “If mommy weren’t here, how would you fix this?”
Encourage independent play in toddlers and you encourage them to use their ingenuity and problem-solving skills and they’ll have benefit from this for the rest of their lives.
It’s okay to have me time
It’s totally okay to have time to yourself while the kids are awake…and at home with you.
I talked to my mom the other day about this idea, that you have to play with the kids during large parts of the day. She told me that, though she played with me when I was little, she never played very long. Definitely not for hours on end.
And I seem to have turned out just fine on a diet of plenty independent play.
Kids copy behavior
One more note on why I believe it is very important to encourage independent play toddlers:
More than doing what we say, kids end up doing what we do.
And this is extremely important when it comes to mom-guilt and me-time. Just ask yourself, do you want your kids to feel guilty when they have children? Do you want them to go without any me-time? No hobbies on the weekends?
It’s not what I want for my kids. I want them to be able to do what they enjoy for the rest of their lives.
And the best way for me to reach that, is if I live the example.
11 Ways to encourage independent play in toddlers
1. Introduce a steady routine
One way to support independent play in toddlers, is to introduce a daily routine where independent play is just a daily feature.
I’ve talked about routines before, on multiple occasions, because I know they work very well.
In this case, introducing an age appropriate routine can help the kids to get used to playing by themselves.
For instance, I often take the kids outside in the morning. When we return, by the end of the morning, I often start preparing lunch while the kids play by themselves. They know that mommy will be busy, and often having had some fresh air, they skip into the living room and start to play by themselves spontaneously.
2. Give them your full attention first
Kids crave our love more than anything else. One of the most important ways that we can give them our love, is when we give them our undivided attention.
Before we try to encourage independent play in toddlers, we must first give them the love and attention they need.
If we try to do our own thing, first thing in the morning, without giving the kids some of our attention first, you’ll find that they’ll simply follow you around until you give them what they want and need.
So, if you want to encourage independent play in toddlers then make sure you give them your full attention before you expect them to play by themselves.
3. Gently encourage independent play in toddlers
Kids who are used to, and really prefer to, play with mommy or daddy will have a harder time playing by themselves. They have to learn how to play by themselves.
Encourage them to play by themselves, make suggestions to help them get started, but do not expect a young child to play all by itself from one day to the next. Not even for those 15 minutes that you need to drink a cup of tea. It takes time and patience.
And remember, that even though having the kids play by themselves for some part of the day is good for the kids and mom, they are still very little and are just starting to learn.
4. Turn off the screens
Or better yet, play where there are no screens. Though I freely admit that in our house that isn’t really possible.
We simply do not have a room where I can move out of the way, that is on the ground floor (no falling down the stairs) and that has no screen.
But I have noticed that as long as all the screens have been turned off, kids tend to prefer play over everything else.
It’s just that the colorful lights on the screen hypnotize them whenever the thing is turned on.
So I leave it off. Problem solved.
5. Observe what they enjoy most
Some toys absorb more of my boys attention than other things.
Both of my boys, for instance, can be completely absorbed in building a Lego city.
(Yes, the youngest too, though his buildings aren’t as advanced yet.)
A jigsaw puzzle, however, always requires mommy’s presence. Whether they know how to solve it on their own or not.
To encourage independent play in toddlers, I always look at what I think will get the boys into a playing flow.
So, ask yourself, what draws your child in the most when he or she is plays? Then use those toys to get them going with independent play.
6. Start play together, then step away
Often, it can help to start a game together, and to then step away once the kids have got going.
My boys often want me to play with the cars with them. Not really my favorite game, but they love their cars, so I try my best to make them happy.
After 15 minutes, though, they are usually completely absorbed in their game, and I can slowly step away from the game.
First by not playing anymore, but staying physically present and seated on the floor.
Then, by getting up and starting another activity that I would like to do.
In short, you can encourage independent play in toddlers by helping them get into the flow of play first and then leaving them to their game.
7. Have age appropriate toys
My sons are about three years apart. Which means that we have lots of toys that our youngest boy cannot play with on his own.
If I leave him with a puzzle that is simply too hard for him to put together, guess what happens…
Yep, he comes to mommy.
If you want to encourage independent play in toddlers, make sure they have toys available they can actually play with.
8. Do not interrupt!
Once you see that your child is playing by himself just fine, the first step is to step away.
The second step is to let them play by themselves.
Yes, if you want to encourage independent play in toddlers, you don’t make a sound.
This can be difficult, but don’t say anything. And don’t do anything that will interrupt them.
That also means no praise or any more encouragement. Once they are playing independently, just let them be.
9. Do stay close to encourage independent play in toddlers
Often, children only play comfortable when they feel that they are in a safe environment.
You are very definitely part of that safe environment.
The fact that you are physically close will make your child feel more at ease, and makes independent play in a toddler that much more likely.
10. Leave off the bling and glitz
The best toys to encourage independent play in a toddlers, are the old-fashioned once.
Leave the toys with lights and sounds in the toy box and present your child with blocks, puzzles or wooden toys.
These are the kind of toys that stimulate the imagination of your child the most and thereby encourage independent play in toddlers the most.
11. Play games that you enjoy
After I stopped catering to the kids’ games all day, I found that I still wanted to play with them some. I just didn’t want to drive cars up and down the carpet all day.
Instead, I try to come up with things that we will all enjoy. Coloring or crafting, for instance. Or playing hide and seek.
We play actual games, such as Uno and Monopoly Junior (two of our favorites). If the youngest wants to join in, we play goose.
I regularly scour Pinterest and Google to see what other parents have come up with and if I like what I see, I try it with my kids.
It keeps things interesting for me, but it’s also fun for the kids to play different games and try different crafts regularly.
Play with the kids and let them play alone
Kids need our time, for sure. And they deserve our time and attention.
However, it seems that somewhere on our journey together we slipped into the habit of dedicating all of our waking hours to our kids.
The question is whether this is healthy for the kids or ourselves. Personally, I don’t believe all of the attention all day long will do any good if it means mommy’s running on empty.
Nor if it means that my children never learn to play on their own. For their own healthy development, it is extremely important to encourage independent play in toddlers.
I believe it’s better to give better quality attention – shorter, but undivided and wholeheartedly positive – than to be grudgingly drawn into games all day.
If you find yourself giving more than you have, then I hope this post has helped you no longer feel guilty about needing some me-time.