5 ways to encourage independent play….
Independent play means happily occupied babies and toddlers, and relaxed parents!
Often tired sleep deprived toddlers and babies are not good at independent play.
Consequently as adults we interact, move from participating in play to taking over….the baby or toddler follows our lead, but they’re not initiating play or learning independent play.
We create a parent led play dependency …..born from a tired scratchy baby who doesn’t have the patience or concentration to play independently.
Once we sort their sleep, and we have well rested children we can start to encourage independent play.
1. Don’t panic if your baby cries….
Tired babies cry when placed on the floor to “play”, but for the sake of this article we are assuming sleep is good, and your baby or toddler isn’t tired anymore. (not true for your house...sort the sleep first...)
Why are they still crying when you put them down?
Have you placed your baby down, they’ve cried and you’ve panicked and assumed they hate the floor, and don’t like being down there?
Communicate with your baby, tell them what’s happening before you place them on the floor to play.
Understand your baby is not helpless, even as a new-born, they are definitely dependent on you, but are not helpless and have the ability to begin to learn, play and explore surroundings.
If they sill cry, and you’re sure they’re not tired, hungry, sitting in a dirty nappy, windy…. Lie down next to them and try to talk to them, comfort them, and offer an open ended toy or play object.
If baby doesn’t stop crying, pick them up, but remain sitting on the floor with them until they calm enough to try again.
Picking them up and walking away is reinforcing that playing on the floor is a bad option.
We want to support and encourage not discourage.
2. Avoid positioning your baby unnaturally
Marketing experts have expertly convinced new parents that babies should sit on their bottoms unaided before they can crawl or roll over.
The more common order of milestones is to roll from back to tummy, then push up onto all fours, then crawl (this creates core strength needed to sit), then finally push back from all fours to a sitting position.
All of these movement milestones create opportunity for exploring ones environment, learning, and playing independently.
Sitting and positioning baby in seats and bumbos create habits which baby gets used to, they discourage independent play as baby can’t reach objects as they haven’t yet learnt to crawl, so any falling forward is discouraged, movement in general is discouraged by these contraptions.
Lying down and starting to initiate independent play is also a habit baby learns. If you feel your baby already “prefers” to sit on you, or in a seat to “play” try gently encouraging more floor time by following the above steps.
Don’t rush away, stay with your baby as they start to explore, learn, and initiate play with open ended toys.
Be their safe base to come back to as they need.
3. Try not to problem solve
My sleep philosophy is similar to what I believe about play.
It is not my job to solve all the play problems my children have. Just like sleep training, I’m happy to stay and support and comfort, and be there.
But I discourage people from removing the problem from the baby or toddler.
If baby is struggling to reach something they want to play with, I will encourage the movement before I just quickly hand it to them.
If my toddler is annoyed they can’t make a big block tower, I might encourage them to try a different surface, but I won’t build the tower for them.
A lot is learnt from a point of frustration.
4. Create a safe play space!
The cot or a porter cot is actually amazing safe place for unrestricted play if you don’t have a play area with baby gates free of dangers to your baby.
Even if you think you’ve baby proofed your house, ask yourself… can your baby crawl or walk through the house, and not once be told no?
If you have to say no and place restrictions on what they do, we tend to redirect and restrict play, discouraging independent play.
Once your baby has a truly safe space, you can be the base for their exploring and just relax and let them be in that space. You’ll be amazing what they will do, learn, explore and play with.
5. Invest or search out open ended toys or objects.
Marketing experts have got us again on this one!
They have invented millions of “toys“ and gadgets to “entertain” our babies and toddlers, and fleece us of our money! My first was born at a time where as couple we had just bought our first home, were saving for a wedding, and I was staying home from work.
We were on a tight budget.
Apart from her floor play gym she had a ball, a bottle with some pasta in it which rattled, some stacking cups and one squishy mouse with crunchy ears a friend gave me, and some wooden blocks.
I felt terrible as a first time mum, but she thrived!
Learning quickly to crawl, and explore what the house to offer her!
She loved tipping over my pile of CD’s (yes it was the era of CD’s), smashing bowels and wooden spoons around, and was definitely not bored!
Open ended toys encourage creativity, discovery, and extensive exploration. Things like balls, metal bowls, wooden blocks, plastic containers, wooden ring rattles, plastic loop rings, different fabrics, wooden cars or trucks, different size buckets or containers.
Good luck on your independent play journey! It's well worth the effort in the end.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.