Toddlers and solo play

We know, we know. The idea of leaving Baby to play by themself probably sounds less appealing than salmon-flavored ice cream. First there’s the cuteness factor, because Baby is so adorable when they play. And then there’s the risky factor, because at this age, who knows what Baby could get into without you around?

Those are valid concerns for every parent, and we applaud you for keeping that Parent Thinking Cap firmly on the top of your head. But Baby needs independent playtime; entertaining themself is a really important skill that has many other beneficial effects on their development. Here are some reasons why solo playtime is necessary for Baby.

Ability to entertain themself

Just like walking or climbing, coming up with self-directed activities is a new exercise for Baby. There will come a time when you’re not beside them to hand them the next toy to play with – think preschool, or a playdate – and solo playtime is like rehearsal for when that day comes.

Imagination and problem-solving

We’ve all found ourselves alone in a room with no one to help us solve a problem. Maybe we can’t quite figure out how the printer jammed, or we need to creatively rearrange the curtains so that no light gets in the room while we watch our favorite TV show. No matter what the problem is, one thing is for sure: we don’t frantically call our parents for help. At least, not right away. Problem-solving takes self-confidence, and giving Baby the chance to play on their own can help them develop that skill. Baby’s problems might be more along the lines of, ‘how do I get this ball out from behind the couch?,’ but hey, it’s all relative.

Identity formation

Learning to play nicely and to share are important skills. But it’s also important for Baby to explore what they like, or is interested in, without the added voices and direction of one or more other toddlers.

Not only does playing alone help Baby pursue what they are curious about, but it helps Baby’s self-esteem, too. Strengthening their sense of independence teaches Baby that they can in fact entertain themself in small doses, which is a very critical step in forming an identity.

Time alone for you, too!

This one is obvious, and the amount of time alone won’t be as long as it would be if Baby were, say, 16 years old. But it will be reassuring to know that you don’t have to have your eyes on Baby every second of the day anymore. Stepping out of the picture, even for a few minutes, and even if it’s not very far, can build up the trust between you and Baby – they see that you come back each time. It can also give you a few minutes to take care of a chore, or just do your own thing for a while.

That feeling that you get when you walk away and redirect your attention away from Baby while still feeling secure and in control? That’s exactly what Baby needs your help developing!

How to encourage independent play

It’s one thing to be wary about letting Baby run wild and free through the house, Home Alone-style. It’s another to want to actively encourage Baby to learn and discover things for themself, without experiencing the fear that keeps a lot of toddlers by their parents’ sides.

Since Baby is still rather young, solo playtime shouldn’t go too far past 20 minutes or so. The best way to encourage solo playtime depends on the toddler, but start by just putting them in a childproofed area with some toys, books, or toddler-friendly objects. If Baby doesn’t ‘bite,’ play for a little, and then retreat far enough away so that they can see you’re occupied.

Try this a few times a day, every day around the same time, so that Baby gets in the habit of their new routine.

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