Independent Play, Part II

Joyful ToddlersThis is the second segment of a post that got too long. A mom wrote in asking how to help her son play independently, when he’s used to having her as his main playmate. I suggested that she alternate times when she pays direct attention to him, with times of ‘being busy.’ I wrote about the types of direct attention in the first blog, which you can find here: /2011/12/independent-play-part-i/

Be “Busy” Children love the excitement they get from having your direct attention, whether it’s you telling a story, snuggling with them, or even yelling at them (so be careful of that!). But having your direct attention all the time is like eating nothing but gravy: it’s too rich. So what you want to do is to make sure that children have a balanced diet of your attention. This doesn’t mean ignoring them; that’s simply less gravy. Instead, you want to give him emotional vegetables: alternate times of direct attention with times when you’re ‘busy.’ This will allow him to have more time where he’s playing on his own, and experiencing the world without the lens of your constant interpretation.

In order for both of you not to feel like you’re pushing him away, you’ll need to be busy in a very specific way: where you’re physically busy doing something, but you’re completely available both verbally and emotionally. Household tasks are wonderful for this, as is hand-work or craft-work such as knitting or needlework, and times when you’re relaxing in a way that’s visible, such as drinking a cup of tea on the couch. Then, when your son wants you to come and play with him, you can say, “I’m drinking my tea right now. You can come and sit with me, or you can play.” You are verbally available: you can chat with him as much as he wants. You are emotionally available: he can come and snuggle with you. But you are physically busy doing your thing, and not available to ‘be the lion’ or whatever else he wants to play. He can tell when you’re done, by looking in your cup of tea to see if it’s empty. Likewise, when you’re doing a household task, set things up so he can help, then start doing it on your own. If he asks you to come play, you say, “I’m washing the dishes right now. You can come and wash dishes with me, or you can play.” You are inviting him in; you are verbally and emotionally available. But you’re not at his beck and call. You are no longer his ‘main playmate’ during these times. He can tell when you are done, because the dirty dishes are all gone.

As you’re getting started with this new way of being, it will take your child some time to learn to play by himself. He hasn’t done it much, and just like anything new, he’ll get better with practice. During this transition time (and whenever he needs it after that), you can “be with him with your voice.” That is, you’re physically washing the dishes, but you can see him across the counter in the livingroom. Go ahead and “play” with him, with your voice. What would you say if you were over there playing with him? Go ahead and say those same things: “What will you find to play with? Oh, some play food? Will you bake me a pie? I’m feeling VERY hungry. Where’s a pie-pan to put our fruit in? Oh! There it is, you found it! Now, which fruit will you put in the pie? Ah, you chose bananas. I love banana cream pie.” However it is that you normally talk with him while you’re his ‘main playmate,’ go ahead and do it with your voice and your attention. I find that if I’m with a child with my voice and my attention, they often feel as if I’m really there with them. Your child may feel the same. This way, you’re not pushing him away, you’re not cutting him off cold turkey, but you’re laying the groundwork. As he gets used to not having you physically there, you can start to quiet down a little, and let him have his own experiences more and more. You are always available, but you will be falling more and more into the background while he plays. If he wants to connect, he can come and be with you, or you can connect verbally. Here’s a partial list of activities that are good for being ‘busy’ in this way. In each of them you’re verbally and emotionally available, and he can come and do them with you if he wants:

Ways to Be ‘Busy’:

-Chop veggies (bring your cutting board and a bowl to the kitchen table. Get a second cutting board so he can chop too, with a table knife)

-Set the table

-Clear/wipe the table (have a second cloth so he can wipe too if he wants)

-Wash the dishes (have a chair or stool set up so he can help)

-Sweep or mop the floor (get a tiny broom or let him hold the dust pan)

-Wash the windows

-Do a knitting or crocheting project

-Make seasonal crafts: make strings of fresh cranberries for the Christmas tree, work on a Halloween costume in front of him, make a birdhouse, get some wool to wash and card, then make felted balls with him in soapy water, etc.)

-Work in the garden (while playing outside)

-Sit and drink your coffee

The main thing to remember is that you must be available, so reading a novel tends not to work: you’re annoyed every time they interrupt. Likewise, being on the computer tends to make us emotionally unavailable. Some people can read the newspaper and still be available, others can’t. Crossword puzzles are generally fine. Also, you want it to be an activity where your child can see how far you have to go, and they can see when you’re done. That’s why drinking tea is great for relaxing. The first time he asks if you’re done yet, you can tell him, “You’ll know that I’m done relaxing when my tea cup is empty.” Then, every subsequent time he comes up to ask if you’re done yet, you can lower your tea cup and say, “Is it empty yet?” and he can answer for himself whether you’re done or not. So with other activities, it can be good to create clues for him to watch: if you’re reading the paper, get a pen or marker and put a check-mark by each article you’ve read. If you’re going to do three rows of knitting, get three little balls (or other toys) and say, “I’ll put one ball in this bowl every time I finish a row. When all the balls are in the bowl, then I’ll be done.” That way, he can check for himself whether you’re done or not. As time goes by and he gets used to you being ‘busy,’ you won’t need to go to such lengths. But for the transition time, it can be very helpful.

You don’t want to be ‘busy’ all the time. You want to alternate times of being busy with times where you’re paying direct attention. And those times of direct attention alternate between child-led activities and adult-led activities. When you first start out, your busy times will probably be pretty short, only five or ten minutes. Even then, as you’re getting started, you may need to go back and forth a little bit between your activity and your child. But each time, you help your child get settled, and go back to your task. He is invited to join you in your task, and you will be available to play after it’s done. Soon he’ll start to get used to you doing things other than playing with you. He knows that you’re still available, and you don’t have to do all the housework while he’s asleep! Good job, mom. Sit back and have a cup of tea.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith



  1. Work-at-home-mom says

    This is useful information but it doesn’t seem to work for me. I’m a writer and I’ve opted to work from home. This is really convenient as it gives me the option to be with my 4 year old daughter while I work. However, I need to work on the computer and that becomes impossible around her.
    This means I end up working late at night, once she’s asleep. I never seem to have time for myself.
    Please advise!

  2. Thanks for writing. Working from home is really hard with young kids! You can’t really be ‘busy-but-available’ in the ways I’ve described, because you’re not really available–you get annoyed when they interrupt you, so they want you more and more, because your attention feels scarce. My suggestion would be to get a babysitter for a few hours a day, and go into your home office and close the door so your child can’t see you. That way when you’re around, you’re actually available. Good luck! Are there any work-at-home moms out there reading this? What has worked for you?


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