We began encouraging independent play when our baby was a young age in order to help build confidence, independence and creativity. While a 2-month-old might not be “playing” actively, we made an effort to help Bibi feel comfortable being “alone” for very short, supervised periods. As baby grows and develops, this alone time will develop into active independent play for time periods that will increase according to their age.
While our earlier efforts at independent play included simple uninterrupted moments we gave Bibi in the crib, we later learned different methods to encourage independent play through various phases of baby’s life by reading and attending a 4-week course together with Bibi on how to foster baby’s IQ, emotional intelligence and social intelligence through play. In this post, I’ll go through how we encourage independent play in our home and the resources which we used to guide us.
Benefits of Solo-Play for Baby
Play is the natural way for babies to develop many skills. The two main types of play are: 1) adult-guided play 2) self-directed or independent play. “Play facilitates the progression from dependence to independence and from parental regulation to self-regulation. It promotes a sense of agency in the child. ” American Academy of Pediatrics.
Adult-guided play will make up the majority of play until children reach the age of 2 or 3, but independent play is developmentally essential and has many benefits for baby including:
- Confidence: Each time baby is successful in accomplishing a task without mom or dad’s help (i.e. getting to a toy they want) their confidence will increase.
- Problem Solving: When mom and dad are nearby supervising play but not interfering, baby will need to problem solve. In adult-guided play, we might have a tendency to step in and help baby too soon. Playing independently will let baby develop the ability to solve problems on their own.
- Focus: Independent play will help baby gain an increased level of focus because he/she will not be distracted by mom or dad’s face or voice.
- Creativity/Imagination: Self-guided or independent play will allow baby’s creativity to blossom. Younger babies will play with toys in creative ways without parents’ interference. Older babies and children will add their own elements of imaginative play as they are allowed to play independently.
Benefits for Parents
Parents will also benefit from baby developing the ability to independently play from an early age. Benefits for mom and dad include:
- Short periods of time to have a quiet moment for reflection, meditation or de-stressing.
- As baby gets older, longer periods of time to complete chores or tasks
- The satisfaction of knowing you are helping your baby gain important skills and gain more independence
How Long Can Babies Can Play by Themselves?
A realistic expectation of how long a baby can play by themselves is an important part of developing this skill. While there are no clear guidelines or recommendations for how long babies can play by themselves. Parents.com suggests around 5 minutes for a six-month-old, 15 minutes for a 12-month-old, 15-20 minutes for an 18-month-old and around 30 minutes for a two-year-old.
Recognize that the majority of baby’s play should include mom or dad. Knowing that independent play can only happen in small increments will make it less frustrating for both baby and parents.
We also found that the timing of independent play is crucial. Baby will be much more inclined to play independently when they are in a good mood. Before attempting self-guided play, make sure baby is well-rested, fed, changed and in a comfortable environment.
For Bibi, I find that she is usually in her best mood after she’s had a nap. She is usually eager to explore the world around her when she first wakes up and has had a diaper change and bottle.
2 months – 3 months
At this early stage of learning independent play, safety should be top priority. Mom or dad should be nearby supervising the self-guided play without interfering. A safe place like a baby crib or a playmat is ideal. Always make sure that baby is on their back for safety.
At this age, Bibi was still unable to flip over on her own so she enjoyed looking up at her hanging mobile while lying on her back. When she would wake up from her nap, we would give her time alone in her crib, as long as she was in a good mood and wasn’t crying for us to get her. Sometimes, we’d play some piano music for her as she laid in her crib.
2-3 months is still quite young so don’t expect baby to play independently for longer than a few minutes. As baby grows and feels comfortable and safe during these brief bursts of independent play, they will learn to enjoy themselves and their “alone” time will increase.
4 months – 5 months
At this stage Bibi was able to flip around onto her belly so we put toys in front of her to grasp. We had to be mindful that she wouldn’t become exhausted by being on her belly for so long making it difficult to flip back. Our little baby now required us to keep an eye on her during her independent playtime but since she couldn’t crawl yet, we pretty much knew she would be safe where we left her.
She especially enjoyed teething toys and items which she could explore with her mouth. This Baby Banana brush was her favorite, it is really meant to be a toothbrush but from the reviews, many babies seem to love playing with it, including Bibi. It has 2 handles that are easy for babies to hang onto.
Babies of this age and mobility might also enjoy playing in a reclining infant seat. These seats comfortably support younger babies and allow them to reach the attached toys by themselves. Another option for independent play at this age is an activity mat with hanging toys. Lying on the floor, baby will love to wiggle and grab at the colorful objects.
If baby begins to fuss during independent play with toys it might signal overstimulation. Remove the toys and let baby enjoy some quiet time with mom or dad.
6 months – 9 months
Bibi started to crawl at 6 months so independent playtime changed dramatically, that’s when we set up a “Yes Space” for her. A “Yes Space” is a safe area where EVERYTHING is safe for baby to use and explore. In here, baby is allowed to touch and explore everything without hearing a “no” from mom and dad.
Magda Gerber, the founder of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) first introduced the idea of a “Yes Space” as “one where if your baby was left on her own all day, she would be hungry, upset, and need a new diaper when you returned but she would be physically unharmed.”
Yes Spaces are ideal for helping your baby of 6-9 months safely develop their independent play skills because they will have toys to play with, and be in an area where you can feel confident they are safe and learning. To set up your own Yes Space make sure the area is free from any hazards (outlets, small objects, cords to pull on), include toys that allow for open ended play and are appropriate to baby’s age, and find a space where baby can be contained. Some people will place a baby gate in a bedroom doorway to create their Yes Space. Another option is a portable play yard or fenced play yard.
We used a fenced yard to fence off a portion of our home which was open to both the living room and kitchen. It allowed us to do our own tasks while keeping an eye on Bibi as she played. For Bibi, it comforted her knowing that we were well within her sight. Inside the play area, we laid soft play mats on the floor and covered it with a big quilt for easy clean up. If she spat up from lying on her tummy, which happened often, we would throw the quilt into the laundry machine at night.
Bibi enjoyed practicing her new skill of crawling so her Yes Space was great for all of us. She loved discovering new spaces and toys by crawling towards it and we felt comforted knowing that she could play safely in her Yes space for a short while if we needed to use the washroom.
Sensory books can be a great way to keep babies at this age occupied. Bibi loved to scratch the different textured surfaces that gave various kinds of sensory feedback.
10 months – 12 months
At 10 months, Bibi started walking so there were new hazards to worry about if we were to truly step away from her while she was in her Yes space. In the beginning stages of learning to walk, she was unsteady on her feet and sometimes fell and bumped into things. If we needed to step away, we felt comfortable leaving her for very brief moments when she was inside an activity center. This one allows baby to move around to different activities as well as practice walking skills and the seat can be removed as baby begins to pull up and walk independently. Although activity centers can be very engaging for baby and convenient for parents, their use should be limited to brief periods only. Overuse can hamper a child’s motor development. We had a 15-minute/day rule for Bibi.
Bibi also became more interested in a variety of engaging toys, regular everyday objects also captured her attention. For toys, she especially liked ones like block sets that she could bang together, specifically this set of Tegu magnetic wooden blocks. She loved exploring all the varying shapes and colors of all the different pieces and seemed to like the challenge of sticking them together.
The Tegu set is a favorite of hers so we decided to keep this toy aside only for independent play. Making a special basket of toys for use only during independent play will help keep baby’s interest.
Everyday Objects Can be Play Things
Everyday objects can also be very engaging for baby too. I know for Bibi and her friends, they find everyday objects even more interesting than most of the toys they have. If Bibi is particularly fussy and I need to walk away for a few minutes, I would give her a new object she’d never seen before. It usually captures her attention for a while as she explores the item with her hands and mouth. I usually find most of these items from the kitchen: silicone cupcake liners, plastic measuring cups, plastic bowls and plates, baby bottle caps, tubes of food paste, paper towel rolls, empty plastic jugs, fruits etc.
Keeping the Play Space Interesting
A good tip I learned in our play class for keeping the play area engaging for baby is to rearrange the toys in different configurations. Perhaps you can stack some into a tower or place them upside down, or put a few smaller toys into a bigger container for them to dig through. We don’t always need to buy new toys to keep baby engaged so this method of rearrangement keeps it interesting for baby. Bibi loves to tear down all the block towers I make for her. It helps develop her motor skills and teaches her about cause and effect.
Tidying up the play space – an often overlooked task in a busy home – is essential too. This lessens overstimulation from having too many objects around baby and reminds older children that the play space should be tidied when play time is over. It shouldn’t be the norm in the home to have a tornado of toys and stuffies strewn across the floor.
Once Bibi goes down for her nap, we always try to tidy up so the play space looks refreshed again. She loves digging through the toy box and her house for her toys again, giving her something new to do. It’s understandable that this is not always possible in a busy home, especially with multiple children. We have one soft toy bin where we can quickly throw all her little toys and stuffies in. I learned this simple method to cleanup and independence development from a great interview I read featuring Esther Wojcicki, the author of How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. She is the founder of 23andme and raised 3 children, one became a CEO and the other two, doctors.
They were not being served in the house like a lot of children are. They actually had to participate…When they were small, when they were eighteen months to two years old, they had to help clean up every day. I made it simple, but the concept was there. I bought a little plastic swimming pool. They’re available everywhere. The way that we cleaned up is every day they had to pick up their toys and put them in the plastic swimming pool and it worked really well. The next morning when they came out, all their toys were in one place in a plastic swimming pool.Livesay, John. “How To Raise Successful People with Esther Wojcicki.” Johnlivesay.com, https://johnlivesay.com/how-to-raise-successful-people-with-esther-wojcicki/“
Focused Together Time
Focused together time has become a very important precursor to self-play in our home after reading the book, Evaluting Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by RIE educator, Janet Lansbury. Here is the excerpt describing how our focused attention on baby throughout the day can affect their feelings on playing independently.
“Magda (founder of RIE) directed parents to give full attention to babies when feeding, diapering, bathing and at bedtime. Rather than treating these activities as unpleasant chores and rushing through them, Magda taught us to take advantage of intimate moments together by slowing down and including the baby in each step. When we do these activities with, rather than to a baby, we cultivate a relationship based on respect and trust. Daily intervals of focused attention refuel children, giving them the nurturing they need to spend time playing independently.”Lansbury, Janet. “An Easily Forgotten Gift.” Evaluating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, JLML Press, 2014, pp. 128.
Taking advantage of the times we “need” to spend with baby diapering, feeding etc. and using it as a time for togetherness has really changed the way I view parenthood. Sometimes if Bibi refuses to play by herself and would rather be stuck to me like we are Siamese twins, I always think back to these words. As a parent, I have the responsibility to set her up with the right “tools” in order to play independently.
Throughout the day, I try to involve her as much as possible in our activities together by narrating what we’re doing and having her participate where possible. And when it comes time to play independently, I help her get started with her play session by getting her involved in an activity which she finds engaging before I leave her to play alone.
Baby Refuses to Solo-Play
Even after providing the right conditions for self-play like being satiated, changed, and having enough sleep and together time, baby may still be in no mood to play by herself. Although we try to encourage Bibi to self-play because of the long-term developmental benefits to her and the short-term benefit of giving her dad and me time to do some other tasks, it is not always possible. Some days she thinks of herself as a koala bear and won’t detach from my hip without a meltdown. I try to keep into perspective that she really won’t be this young and this attached for very long. In a blink of an eye, I will be the one wishing that she would take her attention away from all the excitement in her own world to give her mama a call. I try to remember that some days will be better than others and then we wait for her cues on when it’s possible to start or extend independent playtime.
Things that Help Encourage Self-Play
Helping your baby learn to play independently may seem like a big task, but there are many simple things you can do to make the process easier including:
- Help baby feel secure by spending lots of time with them throughout the day. This will make short spurts of independent play less frightening.
- Help baby feel more secure by informing them when you leave and letting them know you will come back.
- Make sure baby is in the best possible mood for independent play: fed, changed, awake and feeling good. If baby is having trouble sleeping, it can make them cranky and clingy. Here are some posts on baby sleep training that might help: How to Train Baby to Sleep Through the Night, Baby is Up at 5 am: How to Fix Early Wakings.
- Choose a toy that is interesting and can be played with multiple ways to extend independent playtime.
- Keep independent playtime toys separate from other toys so they are exciting for baby.
- Turn on music that will help engage baby’s senses and distract them from the absence of mom and/or dad.
- Understand that baby will not want to play independently every day and that’s OK.
- Recognize that independent play is a new skill that will take time and patience to develop.
It is a very interesting process to see our baby learn and grow and watch her creativity and personality emerge through independent play. I hope this helps you as you begin the journey with your baby towards self-play. (Once baby grows, read: How We Encourage Independent Play from 1-2 Years Old.)