Should we encourage babies and toddlers in individual play or should we always try to play with them? Are they even capable of entertaining themselves? Is it possible to teach them?
Every child is different. Sometimes, when a toddler age child is out of sight and you don’t know where he is, you can expect trouble. Children are very creative – pulling out wet wipes or unwinding toiler paper, smearing anything on anything – toothpaste on tiles, dried dirt on walls, the content of a diaper or potty over on bed or floor…A toddler can entertain himself, but he doesn’t know how not to be destructive while doing it. A different child may surprise us by entertaining himself while not destroying half of the house. He plays with his plastic animal toys and cubes for a half an hour and then looks at a book for another fifteen minutes, without destroying it.
That fact is, that there are children that can entertain themselves from an early age, and then there are others who, without TV, would be pulling your leg up until puberty. Why can’t they entertain themselves? Some can’t, because quite simply, no one has ever taught them. But toddlers can still be taught. Mainly due to underdeveloped attention, they concentrate with difficulties and can do so only for a short amount of time. Many parents make it even harder for them – when they try to entertain their child for a while, they bring him toys as diverse as possible and when their child starts playing with them, they quietly leave. This is not the best solution. Children today are not threatened by stimulus deprivation; in fact the have too much of it. Their immature brain has trouble dealing with many stimuli at once and it can distract them, making it harder for them to concentrate. If you want to help your child to have on his own and help him increase his concentration abilities, limit the amount of his toys. More specifically, offer him toys gradually. Even a baby should know, that he could do something interesting with any item. For this he needs enough time to touch, taste and take apart the items (watch out for small pieces). If he doesn’t have enough ideas, inspire him. But wait for when he wants to put away a toy. Don’t be too quick in trying to show him what it can do. If you interrupt him when he’s interested in something, you aren’t really helping his independency and attention development.
The key is the feeling of security
Another thing that prevents babies and toddlers from individual play is a missing feeling of security. Recently, my friend Ema asked me how come her nine-month-old son Jacob can stay in bed for so long and play with just one stuffed animal and a blanket. And anytime later during the day he can’t stay entertained by any toy and what Ema doesn’t do in the morning, she does not have a chance of doing later in the day. Paradoxically, many mothers have an opposite experience – their children can play on their own during the day without problems, but they can’t stay in bed in the morning even for a minute. The key to this problem is the previously mentioned feeling of security. In order for a baby or a toddler to play alone, he has to feel safe. Some children feel safe in their crib. Others only feel safe it they are close to their mothers. But they definitely won’t be able to play alone, if you will frequently apply the strategy described in the previous paragraph. That is if once your child is interested in a toy, you slowly leave which he will probably figure out and his sense of security will be disrupted. Then, he will have trouble concentration on his toys, if he’ll constantly have to make sure his mother is not leaving.
A missing sense of security is also the reason why when we need our child to give us some rest (whether it’s because we need to get something done, or just because our nerves are about to explode), he is hanging onto our leg and demands our attention. A thirty-year-old mom Sabina describes what we probably all know well: “Elisabeth is a pretty independent child, that can play alone without my company with no problems. That’s why I was able to work from home. I usually have enough time, but when I have unexpected extra work to do, it’s like Elisabeth has a radar for it and starts demanding my attention and the time, that I so desperately need.” If your child has a radar – he can sense his mother’s uncertainty and stress, but is unable to recognize the reason. Children don’t know that the only source of their mother’s uncertainty are them and their behavior and they do what’s typical for all children – they resort to safety, which is their mother, and demand attention and comfort.
Fun. Is it even necessary?
Most mothers dream about a toddler that can stand being alone without her assistance, but there are also those that are convinced a mother on a maternity leave should always be with her child.
Is it even necessary for a child this young to be able to entertain himself? Can it harm him? As I wrote earlier, the ability to concentrate is very small – but training helps it and that’s good to remember in terms of child development. With independence, self-confidence increases and a child can then discover the world independently of his mother. He learns to solve problems on his own, to manipulate with items and to be creative. So yes, you should definitely support a child’s individual play.
I don’t have to point out that individual play does not equal freedom without supervision; safety is something you should always keep in mind. Mothers often ask how long a toddler should be able to play alone. That is very individual.
Even though theories indicate certain times during which a newborn or other children can pay attention and play themselves, with older toddlers my experience tells me it’s so variable that it’s unreasonable to follow recommendations. It’s not possible anyway, because play can’t be forced and if a child is not capable of playing alone than every parent soon finds out that giving him toys leads to nowhere.
The recipe for “play alone”
… unfortunately doesn’t exist. You have to adapt to your conditions and the personality characteristics of your child. Don’t try to teach your child independent play just when you really need it, because that usually doesn’t work. On the contrary, take advantage of situations when your child feels good and is doing something he’s enjoying. That is the perfect time to leave him alone for a while. However, if you haven’t tried to see yet if he minds it or not, don’t leave. Stay quietly beside him and just watch him or – if needed – encourage him verbally. Imitation works well for children that can’t entertain themselves.
Just about every toddler wants to do what his mother is doing. Is your child pulling you away from the stove when you’re cooking? Give him a small pot with a lid and a spoon and show him how you stir; and if he’s in a good mood, he’ll surely catch on.
Besides that, another good technique is “forbidden food”. The cabinet from which you are constantly trying to push him away, the toilet paper that you always put out of his reach, the package of tissues that you never let him investigate. Sometimes we tend to be overly careful and stress over little things. “My older daughter liked to take paper napkins and tissues off my kitchen counter and destroy them. I used to get mad at her a lot, but then I put them out of her reach, ” a 35-year old Magdalena remembers. “Now I have a one- year-old son and he’s the prototype of a child that constantly needs to be entertained. Once I had to take care of something, so I let my daughter play with him. I went into the other room for a while and when I got back, half of the kitchen was covered in torn pieces of napkin. I almost fell down at the doorstep, but I bit my tongue to avoid yelling at them. When I watched my son for a while (my daughter was already drawing) and I saw how passionately he was taking the napkins apart and was fine being alone, I though – maybe it’s worth it. Since then, I changed my mind a little bit about what I should let my son do, because taking anything apart is the most fun for him. Even though I have a little more cleaning up to do now, it’s worth knowing that I can relax once in a while”.
Instead of “forbidden food” you can also use a different strategy. No matter how carefully we protect our children, they end up having way more toys then they need or then appropriate.
Sabina advises: “After every Christmas or birthday I leave Julia just a few toys that she’ll have time to play with. I put away the rest. I also put up some older toys that she is no longer interested in. I gradually switch them around and sometimes we exchange toys with her friends. Thanks to this, Julia always has just enough toys and I always have something new in stock. Besides this, I also have a “last resort box”. There, I have a few toys that Elisabeth doesn’t know and it’s a type she likes – right now it’s a puzzle, a children’s telephone and a magazine. When I desperately need to entertain my daughter, I reach for this box.” It’s good to find out what works on your child. Some like colored picture books, other puzzles, building blocks or toys that make sound. Old colored magazines, a pack of paper tissues, cleaning out the kitchen cabinets or playing with water are fun for about every toddler.
Jana adds: “My younger daughter is quiet and can play alone. Even she can surprise me though. Like yesterday she slept in her room. Well, after being completely quiet for two hours, we though she was sleeping. When I decided I had to check and looked into her room, a child ran to me saying she “slept like a pink pwincess” and she actually was pink. Somehow, she managed to find a children’s pink lipstick that belongs to my older daughter (who is very messy by the way) and she completely covered herself. Yes, a quiet child…”
A predator in a school of fish
Did you ever think about why fish or small birds gather together when threatened by a predator? You would think that for a hunter it must be much easier catching a fish when there are hundreds of them, then if they’re is just one. But that’s not true. The movement of a school and the presence of many fish distract the predator and makes catching a prey more difficult. If the predator doesn’t manage to separate one fish, he usually leaves without dinner. It’s similar with a toddler who is surrounded by many interesting toys. He can’t look at one at a time and give it attention. He either (a better option) takes one that’s closest and plays with it, or he’ll wander from one to another and then to the first one and he will never actually stop and play with once, because of all the other ones are so interesting. And unlike the predator who knows exactly what to do with the prey (eat it), a child often doesn’t even know what fun to do with a certain toy.