Teaching our children to play by themselves.
One of the best things I did early on in my kids' lives (and my parenting journey), was teaching them to also, play by themselves. Teaching my children to play by themselves freed up time for me to breathe and taught them the valuable skills of being with themselves, entertaining themselves, developing their creativity and problem solving skills. It contributed to my sanity and to them developing their independence. And if you are questioning your quality as a parent by not being with them all the time and playing with them all the time, let me tell you this: you are not supposed to. It is our job as parents and caregivers to give and teach our children the tools they need to succeed in life. It is not our job to entertain them all the time. Learning how to play by themselves with all that it involves at the earliest possible time, is part of those needed life skills and the more we wait to do this, the harder it is for us, for them and the less optimal our work is.
So here's how I did it. How I taught my children to play by themselves.
Start as early as possible and remember that even if you haven't started yet, it is never too late. Start today.
From day one, way before my kids were actually playing with toys, I got them used to me not being with them in the same room All.The.Time. I would come and go, in and out, especially during their awake time, in order for them to learn that sometimes I'm there, sometimes I'm not, and that they are fine. I made sure that whenever they needed me I was there, and whenever they were ok being by themselves, I allowed myself to be out of sight. This allowed me "to have a life" and them to learn that they could be fine even when I wasn't there. It allowed them to discover that they were capable and strong.
As they started to grow a bit I'd put a couple of toys next to them, made sure they were curious about them, and would leave them to engage with them. They would see me go in and out of the room and they'd always feel me there whenever they needed my help. This in an out of sight experience and especially the "I'm here for you when you need me" one, allowed my kids to grow confident that they were safe and to know that at the same time, they were capable of being with themselves and entertain themselves. My kids grew up in this system. They grew independent and feeling safe.
How can you apply this in your life? If your child is a baby, you may start by doing what I did. Just copy-paste, always making sure your child is safe. If your child is older, no matter if they are 2 or 9, here are the steps you may follow, always making sure they first are safe.
Share with your child that you are aware of how grown up they are and that now they can do some of the things mom/dad do, like playing by themselves for a while.
Now, for this to work, you must first truly believe this yourself. If you don't believe that your child can entertain themselves, don't even try. It's not going to work. And if this is the case, let's chat. We can always find together a way around.
2. Once you've shared with your child your belief that they can play by themselves, explain to your child how you are going to help them develop this new skill and be just like mom/dad. Tell them that you'll provide them with a toy/activity that is safe for them to engage with without adult supervision, and that they like playing with/doing. That you'll play with them for three minutes and that after those three minutes you will go get water/make tea/use the restroom/anything that works for you. Tell them this will take you two minutes, and then you'll come back and will continue playing with them for another three minutes. Start doing it and remember to announce your intention every time. "I'm going to play with you for three minutes and then I'll go make myself some tea." "I'm back, I made tea and now I'm back." "In three more minutes I'll need to go turn off the stove. I'll be back two minutes after." "I'm back."
Once you've done this once, keep doing it. Start gradually doing it more often and gradually increasing the time you are away from them. Remember to always tell them what will happen beforehand, and that you'll be back after x minutes. Keep your word. Every time you come back, announce "I'm back" and engage with them in play.
The idea is for our kids to get used to the idea that we come and go, and that they can entertain themselves. That they know what to expect and most importantly, that they can count on us because we do come back. We keep our word. When our children see that, start to let go, relax, and start to enjoy their play. They now know they can trust us. Our word is a word, and they are safe. As your child gets more and more used to this system, you can also allow yourself to say "I'll check in with you in a few minutes" and not necessarily "I'll come play again in x minutes." Remember, the whole idea is to gradually teach them to become more and more independent. You will see how after a short while, you'll find yourself more relaxed, having more time for yourself, and your kids more empowered with useful tools they need to succeed in life.
Remember, for this system to work it is key that:
- you believe that your child is capable of entertaining themselves for a while (age and development dependent),
- that your child engages with a toy/activity they really like. There's no way this will work if you leave them with an activity that is not interesting to them,
- you are assertive with yourself and with them. That you inform, you play, you leave and most importantly, you come back.
These are the basics to teaching your children to play by themselves. Give them a try and remember, every family is different, so if you have questions or the system is not exactly working for you, there's always a workaround.
I'm always here for you,
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