Many of my gentle discipline clients and workshop attendees eventually ask this one question:
“I feel like I’m non-stop entertaining my child. Is there a normal amount of time my toddler should be able to play alone?”
There is no normal amount time a toddler or preschooler of a certain age plays alone. This all depends on maturity, personality, and what has been expected of them so far- as well as how available to them you have been. It could be just a random 30 seconds or up to 45 minutes, depending on the child. Their depth of interest in the activity available actually plays a much smaller part than you’d think. Getting just the right sensory play activity likely will not do the trick here.
Ability to solo play has mostly do with secure attachment. Most people think attachment means always being together, but true secure attachment is created in processes of breech and repair as well and leaving and coming back- in gradually increasing timeframes. Begin asking your toddler to be alone for only 30 seconds and build up from there as they begin to do well with that time frame.
A) Exactly what you are doing to do/ where you will be. “I’m going to load the dishes in the dishwasher. “
B) What you’d like them to do, as a direction/ ask/ request. “I need you to stay here and play with this set of toys. I don’t want you to come into the kitchen. Please stay in this room.”
C) When you’ll be back and make an offering of reconnection. “I’ll be right back in two minutes to check on you and then I’ll play puzzle with you”
D) Thank you. Thank your child. “Thank you for staying here and playing while I took a break to load the dishwasher.” (This can later graduate to being able to just ask your child for a break where they can play while you rest on the sofa!) Thank you’s are not the same as empty praise, they are genuine trust-building person-to-person communication similar the kind of thank you’s you would give your partner for giving you time to yourself. We do want it to feel like a reward in he brain that the relationship feels good after you’ve respected your loved-one’s boundary.
Know that a desire to play alone naturally grows in time for almost all children but that how much they will want to play alone can have a lot to do with personality type and how inclined toward imaginary play they are. However, some children in our modern western culture do not even know it is okay to be alone and play alone until they are asked to do it and then can see that it was intrinsically rewarding and fun.
If your 2 year old has never been able to solo play alone for 10 minutes, even with you in the room- It may be a good time to speak with your pediatrician just in case, but nothing is likely wrong with your kiddo. You may just be in a habit or pattern of time-and-attention-intensive parenting that does not feel sustainable and you may need to set ...boundaries on your time and attention.
Our kids begin to gradually settle into their autonomy and safety in themselves as we gently set boundaries, take space and give space. Some good practices to support them:
1) Slowly back off on involvement over time when you are sitting down and playing with them. Start with touching toys less and asking open-ended questions about thier play more. This will encourage more independent play with you very, very nearby.
2) Have firmer boundaries about your time and needs but be a person of your word where your child can trust that you will bring your attention back soon. Don’t get down and play if you had said you wouldn’t, do get down and play exactly when you promised to. Be firm in communicating what you need and what is expected of your child.
3) Give just two choices and repeat what is expected. “Mama needs to rock the baby now. You may either play with toys in your room or sit here with me and look at a book quietly.” If anything different is happening that bothers you, repeat what is expected and give an explanation for why you need to be doing what you are doing. “Mama’s work is to feed baby Colby right now. Your work is to play quietly.”
4) Remind them when their next play time/ attention from you will be so that they have something to look forward to. “I can’t wait to play with you. Our play time will be after dinner.” “Later” does not mean anything reliable to tiny people and is rather disrespectful to say to anyone, in my opinion 😉
5) Be very clear, use consistent language, do not argue. If they come to you when you have set boundary of them having solo time and you doing something else- remind them right away what the plan is with short clear language – and say it the same way with each interruption. I am fond of stating the plan/ expectation twice and after that I’ll say, “I told you what we are doing. Now I can’t talk more until I’m done with X” (and then I ignore other bids for attention. This shows that I can be trusted to hold my boundary.)
5) Motivation. Some kids need a little extra motivation when they are first attempting solo play. Have special play baskets or bags of activities that you bring out just for the times you ask your child to play quietly or themselves. “You may have this play dough to play with, but I need you to play quietly with it here. I won’t be able to play, I’ll be busy on my computer.” I love how Montessori calls this sort of thing the child’s “Work.” In this context, “You do your work. I’ll do my work.”
Note that amounts of time little ones will play alone can vacillate over time. At 15 months my child was able to focus on “writing/drawing/play doh” for up to 45 minutes and I thought that was amazing. At 4 years it was actually less, just 20 minutes and there were times before when it was only 5 minutes! Interests change, attention span goes up and down. It isn’t “regression” or sudden onset of ADHD.
Again, the purpose of all of that focus on attachment in the infant years was to create a child secure enough to gradually begin to have time separate from us! It’s is we, the parents, practicing setting boundaries with our time and our bodies who guide the toddler age into making that transition to autonomy and feeling safe in a room on their own. Slowly. Gradually. Gently. Compassionately. But clearly and firmly. Attachment and boundaries are bosom buddies, not mutually exclusive!
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