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Independent Play – Moving to Room Time

I got a lot of positive feedback from my first Independent Play post, so I thought I would continue it, and share some thoughts on how to keep it in place for your older child. Obviously, there will come a point when your toddler will no longer want to play in a playpen. I would say somewhere in the 18-24 month range, your child is going to be ready to move to doing independent play in their room. Room time can be a wonderful thing – it allows for more play options for your child, a wider space, and hopefully, some time for you as a parent to get things done while your child is happily entertained. It forces them to not only find ways to play by themselves, but to also choose between various options. I find that Brandon behaves better and is more focused throughout the day when he has his time to play alone. What a nice treat for mommy and child!

Here are my keys for moving from the playpen to room time:

  • Make it Safe – it goes without saying, but you must baby proof the entire room. We have locks on the closet doors, outlet covers, straps for the furniture, etc. Watch your child while they play in their room and notice if anything seems like it potentially could be dangerous. Always ere on the safe side.
  • Limit the Fun – when you are just starting out, having all their toys accessible to them can be totally overwhelming for a child. It can also cause for a huge mess since they will probably pull out anything they can get their hands on. Limit what they can get out (at least to start), and keep the toys in rotation so that they stay interesting. I actually have a special basket that I keep in the closet that is full of toys that Brandon only gets to play with during this time. He has his regular toys as well, but these additional “special” toys add extra appeal.
  • Give them Boundaries – after spending months in the rather confined space of a playpen, a whole room can be very intimidating. My husband thought of a great way to help with this, and actually brought out the mat insert that sits in the playpen and put it in the center of the room. Brandon spent the whole first week on that mat before he eventually ventured off (further proof that kids actually respond well to some boundaries!). We still put out a special quilt that my mom made during his room time, and he usually sits on it most of the time. Moms of rambunctious boys – you will be totally shocked how your little crazy man will sit still when he is finally given the option!
  • Be Accessible, but Hidden – a baby gate in the door frame is the perfect way to keep your child in their room, without closing the door. Try to stay out of your child’s line of sight, as I’ve found that once they see mommy or daddy they get distracted and will often want to come out to play. Just like when they were younger, a monitor (especially a video one – just because it’s fun to see what your child does when he thinks no one is looking!), is really helpful here.
  • Give it Time – once you move to room time, you really can, and arguably should, stretch the amount of time your child spends playing alone. I have personally seen the benefits a child reaps when they are forced to figure things out for themselves, and you need to provide them with enough time to do so. I would try and do at least 30 minutes. We do 30 minutes with Brandon (who is now 26 months) twice a day when he doesn’t have school (once when he does). You could also do one hour once a day. Fit it into your schedule and try and make it a consistent time each day so that your child knows what to expect. A great tip is to get a timer and set it for the amount of time, that way your child knows when it goes off that time is up, not when they just decide to whine for you to come and get them.
  • Expect Good/Bad Days – there are inevitably going to be days when your child does not want to play by themselves, even after you’ve worked them into it at the beginning (yes, there might be some tears and whining when you start out – stay strong and keep the time frame short, they will grow to love it!). I’ve come to find with my own children that they get a little more clingy when they are either teething or about to get sick. On these days, I don’t force the issue and I just skip independent play. But children are smart, and if they realize that putting on a pout will get them their way, then they will continue to do so even after that little cold is gone. At that point, it might take tough love for a day, but we get back into our routine and they are good as gold before you know it. On the flip side, there are many days when Brandon doesn’t even want to leave his room after his time is done. He will figure out a new toy (one that he would have whined to me about helping him had I been there) and want to keep playing. This is what it’s all about.
  • Clean Up – another great skill for your child to learn is the art of cleaning up the messes we make. At the end of each room time, help your child to put away their toys and leave their room tidy. Sing the song and slap high-fives when they’re done, most kids (surprisingly) seem to think this part is almost a game.

I am (rather obviously) a huge advocate for independent play. It’s good for the kids while they are doing it and allows me the time I need to accomplish things, so that I can focus solely on the kids once they are done. Please let me know if you have any comments on what has worked for you and your family, and whether your kids like to play by themselves – I always love to hear new ideas!

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Independent Play – Starting Early

Establishing independent playtime can be a great gift to both children and parents. It allows the child to learn to entertain themselves and also provides a wonderful environment for experimental learning, since mom and dad aren’t there to help them out. For the parents, independent playtime means a break in the day that they can use to accomplish any number of things (or accomplish nothing by cruising the internet the whole time- not that I’ve ever done that), knowing full well that their child is in a safe environment.

We started Brandon out with independent play when he was only a few months old, and now at 2 years, he will play happily by himself for up to an hour in his room (he might actually go longer, but that’s the longest I’ve ever kept him in there). On most days, we do two 30-minute sessions – once while I’m showering in the morning and once in the evening while I’m cooking dinner. He actually looks forward to it, and is more well behaved on days when he gets some time alone. We started Rylan out early as well, and now at nearly 6 months, he does 15-minutes on a blanket while I prep lunch, and 30-minutes in a playpen while I cook dinner.

Here’s some of my keys to implementing independent playtime for your young baby (before they can crawl):

  • Start Early – I know it’s hard to part with your little love in the first weeks they are home from the hospital, but as soon as you can stand it, leave them alone on a playmat (or under a mobile in the crib – just need something for them to look at) for a few minutes at a time, several times during the day. They may fall asleep during these early weeks (and then you do the happy dance), but as time passes they will become more engaged.
  • Start Small – Try 5 minutes twice a day, then 10 minutes twice a day, etc. until you work up to a point you are comfortable with. The key is getting your baby used to the fact that they don’t need mom and dad there to entertain them all the lit long day.
  • Schedule the Time – If your baby is a little older and has a good routine going, make independent play a regularly scheduled part of your day. Try and do it at a similar time each day, so the baby knows what to expect (they know more than you would think).
  • Create the Space – I currently use a blanket on the floor (over padding) and a playpen. Whatever you use make sure it is safe. If your baby is rolling over, they could easily roll off a blanket, so you have to be sure there is nothing nearby that could be harmful. If I’m going to leave the room at any point, I use the playpen just to be sure. I also use a video monitor if I’m leaving the room.
  • Hide – Your baby will be better able to focus and less likely to call out for you if they don’t see you, but you still need to be able to observe them. Try and keep yourself out of their line of sight, but where you can still safely monitor how things are going. I love a video monitor for this.
  • Make it Fun – Put a mobile on the playpen, some mirrors in the corners, and of course, a few soft toys. The toys should be things that the baby can explore independently and safely. Be careful to not put too many things at one time though, as you want them to learn to focus and not be over stimulated (which can lead to crankiness very quickly in small babies). Rotate the toys every so often to keep it interesting.
  • Avoid Overuse – Don’t leave your baby in independent play for so long that they become bored and frustrated. This is a time meant to ease them into it, and for their (and your) enjoyment. It’s great to be able to comfortably leave your baby in a playpen while you attend to another child or other emergency, just try not to abuse it.

Have you had any luck/problems with independent playtime? Do your kids enjoy it?

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