How to encourage independent play in babies

Independent play reality

Do you ever wish your baby was able to entertain himself, even if it was just for a tiny bit of time? 

You may feel terribly guilty for even having such thoughts.  Maybe you think you are being selfish. That you put your own needs before that of your baby.

But what if I told you that your baby will actually benefit from self-directed play?  He definitely will and I will offer you examples later.  All forms of play support your baby’s development.  Independent play is one of them.

Once you have a good understanding of how your baby’s brain works and how to support your baby's natural drive to play, you can adopt a routine which encourages independent play.

 

The benefits of independent play

By definition play is “an activity that children engage in for enjoyment and recreation”.  Play is behaviour that is always freely chosen, self-motivated and personally directed. 

During play your baby will learn to seek out things that provide him with pleasure.  Knowing what you enjoy is a great advantage in a world filled with endless options. 

Having plenty of opportunities to engage in self-directed play will help your baby choose hobbies when he gets older.  Your baby will also learn to concentrate for increasingly long periods.  This will be a helpful skill once he starts school.

We often think that babies need to be entertained all the time.  But some child experts argue that boredom is good, because unstructured time gives children an opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds.  Parents that feel the need to avoid boredom at all cost are more likely to seek unsuitable alternatives for their child’s spare time. Activities like watching TV require no physical or mental abilities. 

If a toddler can entertain himself through play, it means he spends more time honing useful skills.

Think of a child trying to balance a toy on top of another, or doing a puzzle or playing on the floor, talking along during imaginary play.  These activities offer opportunities to strengthen muscles and develop coordination.  They require imagination and engage the brain in many ways.

Independent play is a lot more than simply time away from you.  And it pays to start early.

 

The reason your baby is resisting independent play

Independent play has many advantages, but often babies are reluctant to engage in solo play.  If you have a baby that clings to you from the moment he wakes to the minute he falls asleep, you are not alone.

Three reasons why babies often don’t take to playing on their own are: Nature, habit and understanding your baby. 

 

Nature made your baby want to be with you

Human brains don’t get upgraded like software. Only evolution can change the way our bodies function.  But evolution is a very slow process.  This means our brains have not changed over the last few thousand years.

For our species to survive, Nature has equipped babies with a brain that is hard-wired to demand constant connection with a caring adult.  A long time ago it assured the survival of our species.

At the beginning of life, babies rely completely on their parents for food, safety and transport.  This dependent behaviour of a newborn will naturally decrease as they get older if they are given opportunities.

 

It’s not your baby’s bad habits, it’s yours

To fulfil our newborn’s early needs we often spend almost 24 hours a day in the baby’s presence. Baby carrying, co-sleeping and breastfeeding are all desirable activities that allow mums and babies to bond. 

But with a contented baby in the pouch, we sometimes have to remind ourselves, that babies need the opportunity to kick their limbs freely to develop motor skills and coordination.

The problem is, being physically separated from you can cause your baby distress.  He needs to be able to communicate with you to stay mentally close.  So be prepared to stay close during this transition and respond sensitively to your baby’s needs.

 

Understanding your baby’s needs is the key

From the day he is born your baby is trying to communicate with you.

At first this happens through tongue poking, facial expressions and crying.  Later it develops into noise making and pointing.  And finally your baby will learn to talk. 

Whatever your baby is able to express, it is your job as a parent to make the correct interpretation.  This requires the power of observation and plenty of patience.

The key to independent play is understanding 

Here are some examples of what your baby might try to communicate:

  1. I want to be with you

Make sure that your baby can see you and regain connection with you as soon as he requires it.  The aim is NOT to extend the time away from you artificially.  Neither is it to get your baby to tolerate being without you for longer periods of time.  The aim is for your baby to be so absorbed in his own thoughts, that he doesn’t need you.

 

  1. I want to be like you

Babies love copying what they see.  Babies copy our facial expressions from birth.  As they get older they also copy your actions.  It always makes sense to support this kind of natural behaviour.

To encourage independent play, allow your baby to play in the same room as you doing similar activities.  If you are putting away laundry, allow your baby to play with rolled up socks.  If you are emptying the dishwasher or preparing food, offer your baby pots and pans to play with.

Babies love to imitate

  1. Watch what I can do and allow me to do it

If you observe closely, you will realise that your baby doesn’t necessarily want the toy that he has been desperately trying to reach. Rather your baby relishes the challenge of getting there.  If you hand him the toy you spoil the fun.

Independent play is a learning curve for you and the baby.

 

  1. I’m not sure you love me if you leave me

When your baby feels that his need for attention has been fully addressed, you will achieve the best results of independent play.  Having every need fulfilled allows your baby to enter a state of contentment and wanting to be on his own.

A good time to fill your baby’s need for attention is during routine activities like eating meals together, getting dressed, changing nappies and winding down for bedtime.

Your child needs to feel loved and valued to be content by himself.

 

  1. You just left me without warning. And I’m letting you know that’s NOT ok.

Spend time on the floor playing together so you learn to recognise when baby is interested in something.  Make sure he is really engrossed and don’t leave at the first opportunity.  A chance to leave your baby for short periods of time will occur when the self-absorbed play becomes commonplace.  Say a brief good bye (“I can see you are busy with that toy, I will be back in one minute”) and leave. 

Sneaking away is more likely to lead to your baby becoming clingy.

 

  1. I am interested in THAT thing. And guess what, it’s not a toy.

If you choose toys for your baby through the eyes of an adult you may not find one that is of interest for your baby.  Instead of choosing a toy for your baby, watch and see what your baby wants to investigate.  For a baby everything is new.   An overstimulating toy can be as off-putting for a baby as an under-stimulating one. 

Allow your baby to choose an engaging object.

 

  1. The toy you want me to play with is boring

New parents are suckers for marketing.  I know because I was one of them.  Toys with flashing lights that speak in two languages are sold to new parents as stimulating and helpful for brain development. In reality this is far from the truth

What your baby really craves are things that give immediate response to their action. 

For example:

  • A pot and wooden spoon – a sound results depending on the force of the contact.
  • A helium balloon on a string – the balloon moves more the harder it gets tugged.
  • A rattle or rainmaker - shows beads falling down producing a sound as a result.

Your child can use his muscle, observe the reaction and understand the connection.

Compare this to an electronic toy where your baby cannot relate his own action to the myriad of resulting lights and sounds.  Your baby will lose interest in such toys far more quickly.

 

  1. The toy WAS interesting, but now it’s boring

Offer two toys.  If your baby gets bored with one, he has another one to fall back to.  Babies have short attention spans.  The advantage of this is that babies often switch easily between two toys.  It appears they forget that one toy became boring whilst playing with the other.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking more toys will lead to longer independent play.  Babies get easily overwhelmed by too much choice and instead of choosing the best toy they don’t play at all.

 

  1. Please don’t interrupt my play

As adults we can handle a lot of noise without losing concentration.  This is a learned skill, and because we do it all the time, we forget that babies have not yet mastered this skill.

Noise can be anything that distracts a baby from the task in hand.  It can be actual noise.  It can be flashing lights or a parent suddenly making an appearance. The concentration is lost and independent play is over.

Safety is of course an important consideration.  Ideally you want to create a safe environment that does not require your frequent checking.  Try to only interrupt when there is a natural lull in the play. 

 

      10. I’m done playing and I want your attention NOW

Always remember that your baby’s attention span is incredibly short.  Allow your baby to be in charge of when independent play starts AND finishes.  Over time his ability to concentrate and explore will increase naturally.  Until then, he will be happier to know you are always available.

 

Final thoughts on solo play

Hopefully the article enlightened you to how to introduce your baby to independent play.

When you view independent play as a process rather than a goal you are more likely to achieve the desired result.  You will also enjoy the journey more and appreciate the small achievements your baby makes. 

 

Also remember that the right play mat can help.

 

  • A thick, comfortable baby mat for you and your baby allows you to relax before your baby’s solo play.
  • A familiar feeling mat or baby blanket puts your baby at ease when he is on his own.
  • If your padded play mat can be moved easily, your baby can play wherever you need to be.
  • Ideally a good play mat should last because children love to play on the floor for years.

 

Play to make your baby feel loved

 See our range of memory foam play mats.

Independent play for babies tips


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