Encouraging Independent Play for Toddlers

Recently my sister had me sign up for an independent play challenge through Jamie Reimer for my two boys, who are two and one. My husband and I find that our little guys are very demanding of our attention and that it is hard to sit down and, for example, write this blog article. Do you also find that as soon as you sit down, your kids assume it is an invitation to play? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by your kids’ demand for constant attention? 

Now, it is definitely a work in progress for us, but I feel like there are two things I would like to achieve with my boys:

  1. To convey to them that they matter to me by spending the time with them every day to prove it.

  2. To guide them in their play and behaviour while periodically stepping away to do my own work and other tasks and projects. 

I thought Jamie Reimer offered some great advice. I also like the activities she presented, a couple of which I will describe below. 

What is Jamie Reimer’s Independent Play Challenge?

Jamie Reimer is the mom of three boys. And as the mother of boys, she probably knows as I do that they have a short attention span. For example, you can set up an activity and then have them lose interest a few seconds later. With her 5-day challenge to parents, Jamie promised:

-Simple go-to activities that will keep your child busy playing by himself for those times when you need to get the dishes done, talk to a friend, fold the laundry

-That these activities will keep her engaged (without you having to completely focus on her)

-That you don't need the TV on in order to get things done

-Having independent play activities ready will help you have a better attitude in your home

-That you can spend more time with your kids when you're able to and not feel guilty when you don't.

OK, so you’re thinking, sounds great, but will it work for my kid?

After about five days of more or less following through with the activities (life gets busy even for the well-intentioned!) I learned a few tricks that I think could translate to any child. 

Lower Your Expectations

My first suggestion is lower your expectations. Lower your expectations for yourself to be able to accomplish that huge to-do list and lower your expectations for your kids to be always in the right mood to go along with your plans. In that regard, I have two suggestions: make a list of what you would like to have done in the day. Include in that list anything that must be done and keep it short. The second suggestion is to have a grab bag of activities, like the ones Jamie offers, to keep your kids occupied while you accomplish your tasks.

What Your To-Do List Should Look Like

On your to-do list for the first day, make three columns:

  1. In the first column list three house chores you need to do, this can include something as simple as folding the laundry, running an errand, and making dinner. 

  2. In the second column list two things you would like to do with your kids, for example, spending 30min in quiet play (with a new activity!) or taking a walk to the park. The reason why I only put two activities in the kids column is that I already spend quite a lot of time with my kids (especially since I am home full time)--feeding them, clothing them, putting them down for naps, and so on. But adding play time with my kids to my to-do list gives me the space to be with my kids and feel like it was intentional rather than “stolen time” from my other tasks. And sometimes, if I am not intentional about spending time with them, a whole day can go by without my having spent any one-on-one time with them at all.  

  3. In the third column, write two to three things you would like to do for yourself, such as read for 10min, call a friend, or pray. What do you love to do? What helps you relax? Try to do one of these things every day for at least 10 min. 

Now prepare for the unexpected and be ready to flex, as usual. At least your goals are clear and your expectations are delightfully low.

Kids and Life

So, on maybe the second day of the independent play challenge, my kids were in meltdown mode. They cried a lot (teething??) and needed a lot of attention. It was raining, and I had some errands to run. All in all, it was survival from start to finish. So even with low expectations and good intentions, life happens and it’s better to go with the flow than to fight it. 

Trying the First Activity

The first of Jamie’s activities that I tried was her “paper” activity. In this activity, you find all the rolls of paper (toilet paper, kitchen paper) and present it to your kids. Then she suggests that for about fifteen minutes you play with your kids, fully engaged (no electronics or interruptions if possible). Show them a few different ways they can play with the paper rolls, and then let them explore their own games. After this engaged play, tell them that you have to step away to do one of your tasks. I suggest doing one of your house tasks, such as laundry. I find that when my kids see me moving around and doing work they are less likely to get upset that I’ve stepped away. 

When my kids see me step away to do some housework, they sometimes don’t mind but oftentimes they get really upset and want me to return to playing. Picture my kids crying and hanging tightly around my legs. In this case, I give them two options: to continue playing with their toys, or to help me in my work. Sometimes they want to help me in my work. Even if they do it poorly, I give them a cloth if I am cleaning the bathroom, or I allow them to help me empty the dishwasher or unload the laundry. Often their “help” degenerates into a little more work for me, but if you have the time I find their “help” with the house chores can be a bit of a game that can be fun for all of us. 

Keeping Kids in Independent Play Mode

Usually in the 10-15min that I’ve stepped away to do something else, my kids need me to come back and play again. I then usually then sit down with them for another 5 min or so and play. Obviously this interval is variable, but they often need me to touch base, usually it’s because someone has hurt someone else and they need some kind of intervention. If I can’t step away immediately from my task, I just speak to them about their game from a distance and tell them that I will be there shortly (and follow through).

OK, does it work? 

With a two year old and a one year old, Jamie’s method is rather effective, but for my kids’ personalities I do find that 15min engaged play is not long enough. They usually want longer. I find for myself that if I do an hour of engaged play in the morning, then after lunch I have some time (like today) to go on my laptop and do some focused work for about half an hour. Of course, this is not always the case (maybe even the exception) but I do find that not getting frustrated in the morning, giving them the time and attention they need first thing, really pays off as the day goes on. 

Kids Time or My Time?

I think for the independent play challenge to really work, I had to make my priorities clear in my own mind. My kids and their needs come first, I come second. This way I am not disappointed every time they interrupted “my” time. I am here for them and available until they are ready to be independent of me completely. Of course, my needs are still important. So besides squeezing in time here and there, my best kept secret is a mother’s helper. Once or twice a week I have a teenager come and watch my boys for 1-2h while I work on the G & J Show or do some other projects. The time is always used for personal projects (at the suggestion of my mother-in-law!); I rarely make dinner or do housework during this “me” time.

Dealing with the Guilt of Stepping Away from Our Kids

In a nutshell, if you spend time with your kids every day, likely you won’t feel guilty about having to step away from them periodically. Also consider, if you don’t step away periodically, you may resent the time your kids demand from you. We all have needs of personal fulfillment and they are important, they may come second, but they are still important. 

I find if I don’t give myself time to myself then my whole family loses out on a better me. Sometimes I just can’t get that time to myself during the week and that’s when on the weekend I get my husband to watch the boys for an hour. Also, don’t feel guilty about leaving your kids alone with your husband! He may feel overwhelmed if you are the primary caregiver, but you can also guide him, give him ideas about how he can manage. Raising kids is a team effort--it’s not all up to you!

I hope this post inspired you to expand your horizons for what you can do during the week with your kids while finding time for yourself. Please offer any comments below.

Jamie Reimer’s site: handsonaswegrow.com

Her Free Independent Play Challenge on Pinterest.

Independent Play Activity #2 (From Hands On As We Grow):

Fill up your sink with soapy water. Allow your toddler to wash his/her toys in the bubbles!