Nurturing Her Ability to Play Alone

Encouraging your child's ability to entertain himself is a lifelong gift.

Introduction

One recent Tuesday morning, I had a half-hour breather before I had to leave for work. The breakfast dishes were done, laundry hummed in the dryer, and my 1-year-old, Aidan, was happily tossing wooden blocks into his dump truck. So I sat down at the piano to practice a new song. I had played only three measures, however, before Aidan was crawling up my leg, screeching for attention. I sighed, peeled him from my leg, and settled down to build block towers, wistfully eyeing my sheet music.

Lately, I've had scarcely a minute to myself, because Aidan seems unable to play without my constant attention. My main comfort lies in knowing that I am not the only parent in this position.

"You find yourself doing desperate things," admits Elizabeth Pantley, author of Perfect Parenting (Contemporary). Pantley confesses that when her child was 1, she let her take the wrappers off all 64 crayons in a brand-new box in return for five minutes to herself.

Except for those deceptively quiet moments when they're getting into trouble, most toddlers have a hard time playing alone. And it may be partly our fault. "During babyhood, we're the most entertaining things in our children's universe, willing stars in their own private Sesame Street," says Pantley. "Toddlers haven't had the chance to realize that life can be just fine without Mom or Dad right beside them."

Solo Play Does More Than Give You a Break

By 12 months, children have the capacity to amuse themselves -- but not the motivation. Yes, they have the motor skills to reach toys, turn the pages of a book, and scribble with a crayon, but it takes practice and a gentle nudge from parents to get them started.

There are good reasons to give your child that nudge. "Playing alone helps your child develop self-reliance and an identity separate from you," says Pantley. "It also boosts creativity by encouraging your child to make her own discoveries about the world."

How long can you expect your toddler to play by herself? "Most 1-year-olds can keep busy for up to 20 minutes at a time in a crib or a childproofed area of the home," says William Garrison, Ph.D., director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, in Worcester.

At first, you may be tempted to surround your child with lots of toys and tiptoe away, but this strategy is likely to backfire. For one thing, too many toys may overwhelm her and keep her from becoming absorbed in any one activity. Plus, your disappearing act might make her feel abandoned. The trick is to wean her from needing your presence as the driving force of her play.

Start gradually by engaging your child in a favorite activity. Play with her for a few minutes, then stop and simply sit there, talking but not playing. Over the next few days, continue to distance yourself, gradually moving a little farther away. Begin with a distance of about an arm's length and keep moving back until you can sit across the room, still talking occasionally. Once your child seems comfortable with that distance, try leaving her for a few seconds. Be sure to tell her that you're going away for a moment, then step into the next room and come right back. Gradually increase the length of time that you're out of the room. When your child first realizes you're gone, she may fuss a little, but don't drop what you're doing and rush back in. "If you give her a little time, she'll probably settle down, especially if you reassure her by calling out, 'I'm just in the kitchen. I'll be right there,'" says Dr. Garrison. Over time, your child should begin to play independently for increasing lengths of time, confident that you'll be available if she needs you.

On days when your toddler seems especially clingy, get her involved in a project that's similar to what you're doing. For example, when Sharon Wright, of northern Massachusetts, makes dinner, she lets her 1-year-old, Sam, play at her feet with safe kitchen tools so he can "cook" right next to her.

If you work outside the home and feel guilty about not spending every spare moment with your child, make a point of setting aside at least a half hour each evening for the one-on-one time you both need. Play enthusiastically at whatever he chooses. "A child would rather have you totally involved for 30 minutes than sort of involved for an hour," notes Dr. Garrison. You'll probably find that he's more willing to play by himself after enjoying your undivided attention for an extended period of time.

A few days ago, I tried an experiment with Aidan. I read to him for a few minutes, then I let him play on the floor near the toy box while I sat down at the piano. Naturally, as soon as I started playing scales, Aidan started doing chin-ups on the piano bench. I took him back to the toy box, pulled out his favorite pair of trucks, then returned to the piano. Aidan repeated his performance. But this time, I shook my head at him and kept playing. "Uh-uh," I said. "I've got to practice or my teacher will be reallymad."

Maybe it was my no-nonsense tone, the time of day, or even just another week in a 1-year-old's development, but after a few minutes, Aidan stopped fussing and toddled back to the toy box. I played him a song while he played with his trucks, each of us happily engaged in our momentarily parallel worlds.

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