Over the last couple of weeks I've gotten a few questions from moms that basically boil down to: How do I encourage independent play for my toddler or babies? Which I get! What parent doesn't want a few minutes to themselves while their child self entertains and plays alone? Or on a different note, how frustrating is it when you buy toys or set up an activity for your child only for them to not engage with it at all?!
Today, I'm going to share some tips for getting your 0 to 3 year old to play independently and to encourage them to actually engage with the toys you've bought or activities you've set up!
- Watch Montessori Independent Play Tips For Babies To Toddlers:
- Tip #1: Don't interrupt
- Tip #2: Model it.
- Tip #3: Observe
- Tip #4: Repeat. Reflect. Relax.
- Tip #5: Let go of expectations.
Watch Montessori Independent Play Tips For Babies To Toddlers:
Tip #1: Don't interrupt
Encouraging concentration is one of the EASIEST things we can do as parents, but also can feel like the hardest. Typically we are over stimulated ourselves, so after a few months of slowing down in that fourth trimester newborn haze, we can feel eager to get back to life and go-go-go or do-do-do.
Instead though, try not to interrupt. This time in your child's life can feel kind of boring for parents or caretakers in my experience. Heck, when I nannied the 18 months-3 year old phase was my LEAST favorite BY FAR (I was legit scared to have kids because of how little I enjoyed this stage). I was a very go-go-go and hated sitting still and slowing down.
But from the time we bring our babies home to their adult life it's important to not interrupt them as much as possible. This could be as simple as not turning the page of a book you're looking at with your newborn. Or letting your toddler finish stacking blocks before making them eat. While it may look like they aren't doing much, they are absorbing SO much in these first few years, that it's important to let them get to a natural completion on their own.
Instead of wondering, “what's the next thing we are going to do?” just sit back and daydream yourself. Wonder what they are looking at? Try to envision the world through their eyes. I fully believe children are our greatest teachers, and we just need to get out of our heads and learn from them. I like to think of all babies as little Yodas 😉
Tip #2: Model it.
Child not engaging with a toy you bought or activity you set up? Then play with it yourself – without expectations!
In other words: lead with your hands, not with your mouth or mind!
Again, kids are absorbing everything at this stage. They aren't paying attention to what you are saying, but what you are doing. So laying out some random object to them and telling them to pour back and forth probably isn't going to accomplish much. Instead, show them how things work.
In my Lovevery The Realist Play Kit Review, I said I thought the pouring containers were a waste of an item because my daughter had already been pouring between containers for a while. Someone asked how I taught her and I realized I hadn't. When we did bath time or pool time though, I would take a set of nesting cups that had holes in the bottom and pour water in them so she could watch the flow out. Little did I realize at the time she was actually learning how to pour. It was something I never really thought much about the practical life skill she was picking up or practicing, it just seemed normal.
When you are thinking about toys or activities to do with a baby or toddler to encourage independent play, remember that they'll model what you've done. So if you independently play, they will. If you independently engage with an activity, they will.
And this generalizes to bigger practical life skills like going to the bathroom, personal hygiene, getting dressed, cooking, and so much more. Just do these things in front of them to encourage independence. While washing our armpits may not seem like “play” to us, it does to them. And in the words of Maria Montessori herself, “play is the work of the child.” So anything you consider household work, is an opportunity for them to play!
Tip #3: Observe
Dr. Montessori always stressed the importance of a prepared environment for children. One of the easiest ways to prepare our montessori at home environments is to observe our children. See what they are naturally gravitating towards, staring at, or engaging with. And remember, don't interrupt! It doesn't matter if your baby or toddler isn't using an item “the right” way. They are little scientists experimenting in new ways.
How we implement this with a new toy:
When we get a new Lovevery Play Kit or KiwiCo Panda Crate, I'd take all the materials out of their packaging, place them back in the box, and then give my child the box. Then I observe.
What is she naturally engaging with? Which items does she seem frustrated with? I'll usually leave the box of toys out for 1-2 days literally just in the box. No fancy or orderly display. I pay attention to which items one's she goes back to.
If there are items she hasn't touched, I'll start playing with them around her – but not engaging with her. So let's say she is in her playroom watching her iPad or playing with her dollhouse. I'll go to the box, pick up an item I haven't seen her play with yet, and just start playing with it myself in the room. Not saying a word to her. Does that change anything for her? 9/10 she wants to play with it herself.
From there, I let mama's intuition and what I observe dictate which items go on her montessori toy shelf and which go into toy rotation storage.
Implementing this with fussiness/whining/tantrums/clinginess:
BONUS TIP: I look at fussiness or tantrums as my child trying to tell me something she doesn't have the words for yet. About 60% of the time it's that she wants more responsibility or independence – and the only way to get her to more independence is through more involvement. It's a small upfront investment for a long term gain.
Similarly, if you observe your child whining on the kitchen floor or getting fussy whenever you try to do something in the kitchen, you may consider getting a toddler learning tower so they can observe you (after all that's all modeling really is!).
Tip #4: Repeat. Reflect. Relax.
If you want your child to play independently, then it's helpful for them to see you doing it over and over again. Which means putting your phone is away and engaging with life around you.
Instead of worrying about what you can set up for them, ask yourself what you can set up for yourself? If you hate doing crafts, then don't do them! It's a lot easier to repeat this process if you actually enjoy it versus feeling like you are creating more work for yourself.
If you love spa days, then set one up at home and let your kiddo hang out with you in the room.
Miss meditating or yoga or working out? Guess what? Babies aren't mobile right away! Start getting back into it while they are awake in the room with you.
If your child is mobile or a toddler, I know this can be harder to begin implementing so you may need to get creative. It could be recognizing that you'll only be able to get 5 minutes in. It could be doing it while your child is outside exploring.
As they get older, you can begin to communicate an important boundary to them: I see you want me to play with your right now. I'm meditating and taking care of myself. Give me 5 minutes and then I'll join you. If you'd like to join me, I can show you how.” For toddlers and elementrary school kids a visual queue of what “5 minutes” is can be helpful. You can use a sand timer like this and say “when the sand runs out I'll be done.”
Tip #5: Let go of expectations.
Every child and parent will have a unique attachment. Every situation is going to look different. Letting go of expectations about what independent play for a toddler or baby looks like is key.
What keeps me sane is remembering the only person I can change is myself. Instead of trying to have my daughter fit into a box, it's easier for me to keep my cup full and energy grounded/positive. Kids observe energy too after all!
Going back to something I said earlier about fussiness/tantrums: the other 40% of the time it's because the energy was off and my kid is just a product of that. Babies and toddlers especially are SO sensitive. If there is tension in yourself, home, etc. they feel it and try to make sense of it. Often times they are just reflecting back to us something we don't even realize is happening within us.
For me that's meant letting go of expectations on both myself and my kids. Letting her show me where I have to soften, be kinder, gentler, heal, or on the flip side, advocate and speak up more. Kids are the biggest mirrors into our internal world.
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