The benefits of independent play for toddlers

Teaching your child to entertain himself is as crucial as scheduling play dates.

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Dr Harvey Karp is best known for his book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, in which he outlines the five S’s – ways to soothe a crying baby. But clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Sumari van Rooyen believes his research and ideas around independent play for children are just as valuable. “In early childhood, play equals life. That’s why it’s so vital that we, as adults, ask ourselves what makes up our lives, and then realise our toddlers need all of that in play, too. For example, we need work and friends as much as we need ‘me time’, but most parents I see in my practice are so busy focusing on organising their children’s play around activities, constant stimulation and peers that they forget all about that much-needed time alone.”

Clinical Psychologist Wendela Leisewitz agrees: “The importance of solo play can’t be over-estimated. I often hear the phrase, ‘I’m not my child’s playmate’ from exhausted parents whose children are unable to entertain themselves,” she says. “When this is the case, it affects both you and your child.

Being regularly at the mercy of your time and possibly angry at your inability to play can have a far-reaching impact on your little one’s overall emotional and physical development. As a parent, it’s common to feel suffocated with no time for yourself, unable to complete necessary tasks and feeling frustrated and often angry with the constant needy and demanding behaviour. You may also experience feelings of desperation, because of your child’s tantrums if you’re unable to play with him, and a lot of anxiety when you see other children of similar ages being able to entertain themselves.”

ALSO SEE: Are you spending enough time with your child?

Benefits of independent play

There are many benefits of your toddler being able to play on his own, says Wendela. For you, it means you have more time for yourself and the time you do spend with your child is usually more pleasurable and of a good quality.

For your child, independent play:

  • Gives him a sense of freedom and mastery of his world
  • Stimulates him creatively and imaginatively
  • Helps him make sense of the world, problem solve, experiment with roles (goodie/baddie), positions (king/prisoner), feelings (rage/vulnerability)
  • Encourages him to do other things independently
  • Promotes emotional and physical growth
  • Is a form of stress relief and a way to self-soothe.

In addition, adds Wendela, solo play is the forerunner to becoming an adult who can be on his own, which we all know is extremely important.

Facing the obstacles

Parents can be the main obstacles when it comes to solo play, says Wendela. These include a parent who:

  • Is so anxious he/she won’t let the child be alone
  • Is overly involved, interfering and controlling
  • Is over-indulgent
  • Gives in to the child’s whining, complaining and tantrums.
  • Children also contribute to problems with independent play, she adds. Every child grows up in different circumstances and has a different temperament, which can either encourage or hinder independent play. For example: An anxious, fearful, timid and insecure child, who experiences more separation issues than other children may struggle more.
  • A child’s position in the family may be a factor: an only child, or where there are larger gaps between siblings, may develop a different strength (such as playing on his own).
  • A child who has gone through a difficult time, such as a bereavement, a trauma or a divorce, may battle to entertain himself.
  • A child who feels neglected, out-sourced, ignored and unacknowledged may be overly demanding of the parent.

ALSO SEE: How playing with toys can benefit your child’s development

Introducing ‘me time’

It’s vital to always consider your child’s temperament and age when you start to initiate “me time”, explains Sumari. “An even-tempered child may be more willing to engage in alone time at a younger age and for a longer period of time than a feisty, more demanding child,” she says.

“The older your child, the longer he can engage in solo play. For example, at six months, your child may be content by himself for five minutes; at 12 months, for 15 minutes; at 18 months, about 15 to 20 minutes and at two years, for about half an hour.” And remember, adds Wendela, “Playing on his own must not be perceived by the child as a form of time-out or a way to fob him off or get him out of the way, because if this is the perception he will most definitely resist.”

Helping your clingy child to go it alone

The only fear we are born with is the fear of separation, says Sumari. “As much as you need to be aware of separation anxiety as a normal developmental milestone, you also want to encourage a confident and independent toddler. Solo play is just the way to do it.” She offers the following tips to deal with your child’s clinginess:

Let him take the lead.

You can help your child to manage clinginess from a young age. Children can benefit from alone time from the age of four months, and start to initiate this themselves as soon as they can crawl. So, the next time your nine-month-old spontaneously crawls to the next room, understand that he’s initiating independent play and curb the urge to immediately follow him. Remember, even the clingiest child will engage in this and the trick is to be aware and to then wait a minute or two before you follow.

Use your voice.

Always talk to your child and tell him you’ll be leaving. Talk to him while you are going and reassure him that you will be back. If you’re not leaving the house and just going to the next room, reassure him with your voice when he fusses rather than rushing back to him.

Teach your child to tell the time.

Children have a limited grasp of time, which is why when you’re out of sight for even a moment they have no idea when you’ll be back and often cling, get upset or cry. Help your child grasp the concept of time with routine and by asking him to sing a song or count while you quickly leave the room.

Pop in and out.

It’s important to create the belief that you’ll always come back. When you’re playing with your child, try going away for a few seconds before returning to play again. Keep this up for a few days and your child will soon learn that it’s OK to be more interested in his toys and less interested in your comings and goings.

Encourage daily “me time”.

Establish an “alone time” period every day so he can get used to the idea. Put him in a small area that’s been childproofed and offer him a few favourite activities or toys. Start playing with him. After he’s involved in an activity, remove yourself from his immediate vicinity and offer words of encouragement. As your child gets more comfortable in solo play you can move to the other side of the room and later leave the room completely. Leave for short periods at a time, but always stay within earshot and regularly peek in.

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