My attention tends to focus most on interactive and cooperative play, being the social-emotional professional I am. While my goal is always to support my clients in finding independence, I always gravitate towards connection and togetherness. Now, as a first time parent, I understand the blessing that is independent play on a whole new level. I yearn for that 5 minutes my 10 month old is able to entertain herself and I giggle as she is now starting to gravitate outside the room without me.
Independent play gives our babies and children confidence while also helping them learn skills such as problem solving and self regulation. It develops motor skills, both gross and fine, depending on what they're playing with. But it also gives you a moment to sit back and revel in all your hard work, love and dedication.
I find play to be a skill that is heavily based on cognitive age. Many of the children I work with professionally demonstrate play skills that are around a 12 month old level, so I would have starting expectations at that level as far as attention span, problem solving and interests. By starting where our child is at cognitively, we are able to establish a firm foundation for them to develop later play skills on top of.
For children who are just starting to independently sit, say around a 6-9 month old level, an independent play span of at least 15 minutes is a great place to start. For children who are independently walking, around a 12-18 month old level, we can start to expect independent play sessions to last around 60 minutes.
This doesn't mean your child will play with the same toy for that entire time, but rather just feel comfortable exploring on their own without checking in. Also, the biggest factor in how long your child will independently play is how long they've played with you so far that day! Fill up their collaborative cup first with your undivided attention.
Infants and young babies will start just by "practice playing". This involved basic observations and sensory exploration of the toys and environment. This stage allows them to begin understanding the separation between self and other. Tummy time is a big focus here!
Around 6 months, when your child is starting to sit independently and gaining an understanding of object permanence, you will see the emergence of sensorimotor play. This is when our children start to test that cause/effect in so many different ways! You will still see lots of sensory-based play with messy situations and curiosity towards lights, sounds, textures. But you will start to see an expanding interest in objects and object-based play.
This stage also lines up with the two-way communication stage in Greenspan's DIR framework. Our children blossom into little scientists as they observe how their actions can impact and shape the objects and world around them. If you allow them appropriate windows for independent play, they will later want to eagerly show you what they've learned.
From about 18 months until 3 years old, we start hitting those tweenage years. They've tasted independence and now they are ready to spread those little wings; much like their older counterparts at 12-13 years old. For Greenspan, this often lines up with the symbolic thinking and early problem solving.
And after 3 years old, we see the emergence of true pretend and symbolic play with expanded storylines forming and wonderful imaginations blossoming. Again, with Greenspan, these build up to the high problem solving of hierarchical thinking ("I like the T-Rex more than the stegosaurus because he has big teeth"), gray area thinking ("I'm only feeling a little mad at my sister") and multi-causal reasoning ("It could have been the cookies OR the soup that made Daddy sick").
This skills are developed through our fostering, but also with our absence as we allow our children to explore and play independently.
Here are some tips to get started in building a foundation for independent play:
***Remember to fill their "parent attention" cup first!***
1) Set the scene. Pick a time when they are happy and alert. Turn off all screens! Maybe have quiet music if that's helpful, but may be best to turn off.
2) Pick 2-3 developmentally appropriate toys to put in the play space. I recommend keeping another basket nearby, but out of sight, with a few extra options too.
3) Sit with your child in the play space and introduce a few toys. Once your child appears focused on a toy, start to back away and leave. Don't sneak, but also don't make a huge deal out of leaving.
4) Stay within eyesight and if your child cries, respond! Go over to them, reintroduce the toy or swap for a hidden one if you feel that's better. Again, if your child becomes enthralled again, gently walk away.
5) Start with just 5-10 minutes and slowly notice how your child's attention and tolerance builds. Again, it's important to respond as best as you can if they start to become fussy while playing independently. You want your child to understand you are nearby and still "with" them.
I find "passive" toys encourage the best independent play skills. Passive toys are ones that don't do much and do not have batteries, like blocks and shape sorters. They require more brain power to play with and therefore can be more engaging as your child figures out different ways to play with them. Ultimately a mix of active toys (i.e., light up toys) and passive are a great combo to keep your child entertained and busy.