The first year with a baby involves a lot of singing, stacking, reading and sitting on the floor. But eventually, your little guy will reach that miraculous milestone of amusing himself on his own for a few minutes. And you will be able to do small tasks (you know, like unloading the dishwasher or peeing) in peace.
Lauren Bergmann, a mom of two in Bedford, NS, has a busy 19-month-old toddler, Cohen. At this stage, she says, “he’s happy doing the same thing—whatever he is playing with—whether I’m sitting right there with him or not.” That includes playing with stacking rings and building blocks, and “helping” his mom in the kitchen. “If I’m cooking a meal, I’ll let him go into the bottom pantry cupboard full of plastic containers and placemats, and just let him pull it all out,” says Bergmann.
While one-on-one time is certainly important for strengthening the bond between you and your child, knowing when to give her space to play without your input is important, too. “Play is vital to children’s development. It supports them on all levels—physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally and spiritually,” says Stephenie Gillingham, program coordinator and professor of early childhood education at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. “What they’re gaining when they’re playing on their own is curiosity, autonomy, learning to take initiative and problem solving.”
When should my toddler learn to play by himself?
Learning to play solo is an important skill kids begin to develop very early on. “I think there’s that classic view of seeing a child sitting separate from a parent and engaging by themselves, and often we envision that around 14 or 15 months. But even children who are infants in their cribs are beginning to learn to play alone,” Gillingham says. “They’re playing with their voices, making sounds. Or they’re experimenting with their hands. Parents just may not recognize it as such, because they’re so young.” Around 12 to 15 months old, babies will engage in more complex activities, like building and stacking, which allows them to play for longer periods.
Time spent playing independently typically extends as kids age, but the duration and ability to concentrate will be very unique to the child, Gillingham explains. “If it’s something that’s just developing, then you’ll be happy at first with just a couple of minutes. By the time children are 18 to 24 months, you’ll likely see them being able to sit for 10 to 15 minutes, engaging in things. And some kids could be very happy to spend 20 minutes to half an hour or more. It all depends on the child, your relationship and the environment—setting up a safe and comfortable space they feel secure in.”
How to encourage your child to play by themselves
Your toddler will actually provide clues that he is ready for unaccompanied free play. “When you’re observing your child, you’ll see those moments when he is engaged and doing something on his own that allow you to step back a little,” Gillingham says. “That may be as simple as moving from one end of the couch to the other, or moving across the room from your child. As he gets older, you can even say, ‘I’m going into the kitchen, and I’ll be right back.’” When you return to check on your toddler, it can be gratifying to see that he’s still engrossed in whatever game or toy he was playing with before you ducked out of the room.
When choosing an activity for your child to try on her own, focus on the things you know she enjoys, whether it’s looking at books, stacking blocks, building a train set or banging pots and pans. For two-year-old Madeleine, it’s colouring and “cooking” in her play kitchen. “It helps if she is making a picture or pretending to cook for someone in particular,” says her mom, Karla Doig of Ottawa.
The activity doesn’t have to be complicated or involve a lot of toys or playsets. “For young children who are very much engaged in exploration and trying to figure out what things do and how things work, it could be as simple as giving them some plastic containers with measuring cups inside. For other children, it may be more sensory-based activities, like playing with playdough.” And if you have an active kid who loves to run and climb, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities for solo play, too. Giving your little one space to explore the playground on his own—while keeping a watchful eye for any safety issues—is a great example. “The nature of a playground is actually aligned more to solitary play,” says Gillingham. “There are other kids around, but your child isn’t always paying attention to what they’re doing.” Indoors, let your toddler dance to music or make a pillow fort. Taking this step back helps his independence—and imagination—flourish.