Most parents of toddlers wish their little one could entertain himself. It seems only reasonable. Most toddlers can hold toys, flip board-book pages, and amble after balls. They've learned that they can do things on their own, and they often insist on it. Still, 1-year-olds prefer to orbit around their parents, which works against solo play -- the ability to entertain oneself.
"Toddlers don't magically play by themselves for extended periods," says Jane Foy, M.D., a pediatrician at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though 15 minutes is about the longest you can expect a 1-year-old to play alone, giving her opportunities to do so is worth the effort -- and not just because you need to fix dinner. Solo play encourages independence, self-confidence, creativity, and language skills, says Maria Luisa Escolar, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Development and Learning, in Chapel Hill. "You often see 15-month-old children jabbering to themselves as they play alone," Dr. Escolar says. "Such emerging symbolic play is basic to linguistic-skill development."
A child's ability to play independently depends on his temperament, Dr. Escolar says, and he'll have a harder time if he's hungry, tired, or sick. You also can't count on an older toddler's playing alone for longer periods than a younger one. A 22-month-old child has more developed cognitive and language abilities, but his desire for independence is also increasing, Dr. Foy says, so he's more likely to test limits and require close supervision and attention.
To extend your 1-year-old's capacity to play alone, keep four words in mind: interest, routine, structure, and direction. First, involve your child in an activity he really enjoys, whether it's nesting cups or pulling clothes from a bottom drawer (if you can stand the mess). Juliet Settlemier, of Campbell, California, keeps two bottom drawers in her kitchen filled with storage containers, plastic spoons, and measuring cups. The items delight her 15-month-old son, Jordan, and can usually buy Settlemier enough time to get dinner started.
Once your child is fully engaged, slowly move a few feet away or pick up a magazine. When he thrusts a toy at you, simply give it back with a comment and a smile, and continue reading. Over the following few days or weeks, increase your physical and mental distance, but never leave your child unattended. Make sure that whatever area your toddler is in has been meticulously childproofed; 1-year-olds have no sense of what's safe.
Surrounding your toddler with her favorite toys will simply overwhelm her. Instead, structure her activities by presenting them one at a time in a sequence. This worked with my own daughter, Ranjini. I kept her stuffed animals, board books, and other toys in a bedroom armoire. When I had bills to pay, I'd bring my work into her room and hand her first her teddy bear, then a hammering toy, and then a couple of books. She enjoyed thoroughly investigating each item in turn.
A 1-year-old needs direction, so when your child starts to lose interest in a toy, reengage her with questions. If she's playing with blocks, talk with her while you continue an activity, but don't get directly involved. You might say, for instance, "Wow! You stacked three blocks. Can you add another?"
Try to include solo playtime in your daily routine. "The key is to increase the time incrementally so your toddler gets used to the routine," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. Your initial attempts may yield only a few minutes before your toddler clamors for you. Don't respond instantly. Give her a chance to work things out by herself.
A good time to establish a solo play routine is after your child's bath or lunch, when he's feeling content. Avoid times when you may be frazzled. "Your tension may be reflected in your child's behavior," Dr. Foy says.
Remember that progress will be uneven. A child who plays well on her own one day may simply refuse a repeat performance the next. Just keep providing opportunities, Lerner says. Before you know it, you may find yourself with a full 15 minutes to enjoy on your own -- uninterrupted by a cry or even a clinging hand -- while your child loses herself in a world of play.