Stay at Home Mom

Teaching a Child to Play Independently (Hint: No Electronic Devices Required)

teaching a child to play independently

Ever dream of a morning where you are drinking a cup of coffee, checking e-mail, paying a few bills, and you are without interruption and it’s quiet?! This is no dream. Teaching children to play independently, while you get some business done around the house, is totally possible, and you can start from birth! Today I’m continuing on with my Babywise Basics series and talking about Independent Playtime (If you missed my previous Babywise Basics posts on Why We Chose Babywise and How to Sleep-Train, be sure to check them out).

The idea of children playing alone comes most commonly from the book Babywise II. Using the Babywise method or not, anyone can teach their children this really awesome, mutually beneficial skill with a little bit of parental diligence.

1. Independent playtime defined.

Independent play time (IPT) is a daily scheduled time when your child plays alone, without parents or other siblings around. You choose the time of the day and with which toys your child will play. Occurring at approximately the same time every day, IPT typically takes place in a pack ‘n play or play yard for younger babies/ toddler. Older toddlers and children will transition from the play yard to their rooms and have IPT in their room or other room of the house.

2. Benefits to the child (according to Babywise 2).

Mental focusing skills: Playpen time helps a child develop the ability to concentrate on an object and apply knowledge to the activity at hand without distraction.

Sustained attention span: The interval during which a child can concentrate on a single object or activity will gradually improve and lengthen over time.

Creativity: Absolute freedom eliminates the need for creative thinking, while boundaries facilitate creativity. The child will learn to find enjoyment out of what’s available to them. The child will create meaningful new methods and interpretations during play.

Self-Play adeptness: With freedom from influence, support, or aid from others, the child will move from dependent to skillfully independent.

Orderliness: When the child takes part in keeping their play area clean, they learn to keep things tidy. The child can help clean up after IPT.

3. Benefits to the parent.

IPT offers us the parents to get a few things done around the house: clean up, put in a load of laundry, catch up on email or simply just take a moment to relax. Giving myself a little bit of time each day to get things done really helps me be more attentive as a parent. I am able to play more intentionally with my son, without frequently thinking about household chores or tasks to get done. It’s good for everyone all around.

3. Getting started.

Schedule playpen time at approximately the same time every day when the baby is the freshest (for example, just after resting and eating). Put several age-appropriate toys in a basket for the baby to play with and position the playpen so you can easily check on the baby without being seen.

If you are just beginning, start with just 5 or 10 minutes and work your way up in 5 or 10 minutes increments each day until your reach your goal amount of time. If the child doesn’t appear to like the playpen, give it a few minutes and gradually increase the time each day.

Set a timer in the room to signal to your child when IPT is over. This will help them learn that IPT is over when the timer rings rather than when they want it to end. When IPT is over, offer praise and have the child help put away the toys.

Below is a chart, containing some of the information found in Babywise II, to serve as a rough guide for what is appropriate for a child given their age and skills. Make adjustments as needed.

teaching a child to play independently

4. Things to keep in mind.

Avoid interacting with your child during this time. You want your child to play on his own.

Check on them every so often to make sure they are okay. If you can, try to do this discretely so your child does not see you. When my son sees me he usually gets upset because he thinks I am coming to get him out. My son is much happier if he plays alone without seeing me.

Don’t overuse IPT. Keep it limited to the time allotted to prevent your child from becoming frustrated.

Independent play is one of those really awesome things both you and your child can benefit immensely from. If you are just starting, be encouraged. Once you get going, it becomes second nature to your child, and he will learn to really enjoy this time. Teaching our children this important basic skill offers an opportunity to encourage creativity, problem-solving, orderliness, and independence just to name a few.

Thanks for hanging around! What are your thoughts about teaching a child to play independently? I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. Currently 8 months pregnant with my second child and love the idea of incorporating IPT for my 18 month old, so I can get some things done around the house and he’ll be more open to playing by himself when baby comes. Currently I leave him in his room to play, but he comes out looking for me after about 5 minutes. Do I need to close the door? Put up a baby gate? What do I do to ensure he plays independently without coming to search for me?

    1. I found a baby gate was a game changer. It didn’t happen overnight but without being able to get to me, he slowly learned to just play. And now it seems second nature.

  2. I have a 10 month old who has severe separation anxiety. If I put her in the play pen she imediatelt screams. I’ve done five minute timers the past three days and she’s screamed the entire time each day. Do you have any advice? I turn the timer on and leave for the full 5 minutes. It’s so difficult. She wants me to carry her all day long or sit right next to her and play. It’s exhausting and draining. Really need encouragement.

  3. After we put a gate in-between the kitchen and front room, it naturally caused my child to learn independent play because he couldn’t get to me after meals when I would be cleaning up. Gradually he got more and more comfortable playing by himself in the front room and his bedroom. But it’s always after every meal so that part is definitely crucial. Glad you posted this because I think a lot of moms feel like they have to be martyrs and sacrifice all their time for their children when it’s really ok to have time to do other things.

  4. My lo is 2.5 months old but doesn’t spend time alone. He needs me 24/7. How do I start off and introduce some sort of schedule in his life in order to make him independent.

  5. This article is great. I have some questions though about getting started with two children! My daughter is 34 months, and has always been very focused and organized and sleeps very well, so I never felt the need for anything like IPT until late second pregnancy and of course once the new baby came. I am very engaged with her throughout the day, and she does very often find herself immersed in something independently and I am able to do other things. But there is no clear boundary on that, which is starting to matter. My son is 5 months, just barely beginning to sit on his own. What would be the best way to go about beginning IPT with both of them? Our playroom and her bedroom is upstairs, and his play pen is downstairs. Thank you!

  6. I love this post, it has been so helpful to me! Do you have any tips about transitioning and 18-month-old from playpen to playing in her bedroom? I will have a newborn next month, and would like to make the switch now. But I’ve been entirely unsuccessful in getting her to play or do anything but scream when I leave her in her room. I have tried using a baby gate, or just closing the door. But she throws a fit. She has never had a problem with the IP in the playpen though. Thanks!

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