I love independent playtime. The first time I heard about it I thought it was genius and knew it was something I wanted to do. Heck, it was something I knew I wanted to do before I had even heard the term for it. What is independent playtime? Exactly what it sounds like. It is a time where your kids play by themselves. All by themselves, without you having to run interference. I love it.
I do want to say that I love playing with my kids. Don’t get me wrong. We had them because we want to be with them! That being said there are times when practically I have to get things done without little helpers. When I had Ben at the office it was very helpful to have blocks of time I could dedicate to getting work done. Even now I do work at home and need time without being distracted. There are also sometimes chores that need to get done without kids around, either for safety, for practicality, or just sanity.
There is more to independent play than just getting the kids out of your hair for a little bit. I honestly do think it is good for kids to learn how to play by themselves! Think about it. What if for your whole life you had someone with you to play with, someone to tell you how to play, what to do next? Then you were on your own and had to figure things out. It would be hard! We need practice at that kind of skill. Pat and I are trying to raise future adults. Adults need to be able to amuse themselves at times. It goes beyond that too. Adults need to be able to face problems on their own and work towards solutions. Having time on their own gives kids a chance to grow and practice these skills. I think it also teaches patience and natural consequences. I am never far away while Ben is in playtime, so he can call out to me if he needs something. If it doesn’t seem like an emergency (and it never is), I try to wait a minute or two before I go in there. I respond verbally to let him know I heard him, but I let him practice waiting for a moment. It is so hard for a toddler to wait! I like having this practice where he is safe in case he decides to have a tantrum. Ben went through a period of throwing his toys out of the play zone. Guess what? That means you don’t have toys! This is a great lesson of cause and effect. We had a series of weeks in which Ben only had soft toys in play time because he threw them so much. But he learned from it.
So how does it work? It is really pretty easy. When we started I plopped Ben down in the pack and play with some toys and left the room. Basically that is all you need to do. Okay, you need to make sure the toys are safe and appropriate to be played with alone. And yes, I was always within at least ear shot. (Part of the point is that the child can’t see you. I do peek in a lot though, it is so cute to see what Ben gets into!) I also tend to put fun music on. At the office and here at home Ben has independent play in the same place he naps. Having the fun music helps differentiate between sleep time and play time. It also helps muffle some of the sounds I am making.
This playtime has kind of come and gone in Ben’s schedule. I started it when he was around 9 months old. We built it up over time. At first he only played alone for five minutes. I would really praise him for it and he quickly made it up to about 45 minutes. Then we got busy with other things and it slipped away a bit. We went through a period when I used it when I needed to, but I wasn’t super consistent. This worked for us because as I said, Ben was pretty good at playing on his own. Where it became a great tool was when we were transitioning to one nap. Ben has always been on the higher end of sleep needed, so he held on to that morning nap for a good period of time. Well he started to not need a full nap every morning, but he really did need some down time. So I started his independent play during the time slot he normally had morning nap. The lights were bright, music was fun, and he had toys in his pack and play with him. But if he was really tired he could lay down and take a power nap. It totally worked!! He took about a twenty minute nap for the first couple of weeks, and eventually moved to just playing.
Currently Ben has his playtime every morning while the girls are napping. This is doubly helpful for me because I have two time periods in my day that can be child free- morning nap for the girls while Ben plays and afternoon nap for all three. Score! I am a much better mom when I have moments like this to get done what I need to do. We can skip playtime when needed. On weekends Ben sometimes uses that time to get one on one time with Pat. We also skip it for morning activities when they come around. But if we miss it too many days in a row I know Ben needs to get back to it. We all need time to recharge our batteries on our own, and this is what playtime give to Ben. If he is stressed, tired, or overwhelmed he actually asks to go to playtime!
Ben is still taking his independent play in his crib. Yes, I think he is getting a bit old for that. I have asked him if he wanted to switch to room time as babywise suggests, but he has said no so far. (The kid loves his bed. I don’t blame him, bed is one of my favorite places too.) This has been a blessing as we go through some changes here at home. I know his bed is completely safe for him to be in without direct supervision, and I don’t have to worry about the rest of the room for the moment. I do plan to switch him to room time very soon though. In the meantime the kid is so busy I think having a limited space to be in is actually good for him. He has to sit and play and think a bit, not just run run run like he does most of the time.
The girls are also starting independent playtime a bit late. Honestly with three kids our schedule feels busy enough. I haven’t had a time to put in independent play. I do try to set them up on there own with their mobiles and toys, they just aren’t in a separate room or play area. They aren’t mobile, so it works for us. They are still together, and especially as twins I want them to have time on their own, not just as a unit. They are second kids though, so some of the lessons of having to wait or entertain themselves come about naturally as I have more kids to take care of.
I love independent playtime. I love the skills it imparts and the freedom it gives me. I love the flexibility it has. It has been a great tool I can pull out as needed in the season of life we are in.