This post was originally published as a guest post on Adventures in Mommyhood : Mommy Outnumbered and as Jesse gets more and more independent, I found myself thinking on this post often.
This may sound like an impossible dream, toddlers playing on their own and keeping themselves amused on their own accord for any length of time?!. Well, its not. We, as mothers, just need to re-programme our brains a bit when it comes to what we classify as independent play and me-time for us.
Is your toddler going to sit for an hour quietly playing with blocks and doing a puzzle, I'm afraid not, but it is possible that they will amuse themselves playing with a collection of plastic containers, or your mop and broom while you tend to something else.
Jesse spends many hours playing with his lab mix puppy out on the verandah (porch), whilst I am either busy on the computer inside or taking care of a task. This is ideal for us as his puppy keeps him amused and yet he is within earshot so I can keep an eye (ear) on them. I do get up every five minutes or so because either the dog has stolen his toy, or they have knocked over a pot plant or something, as I said, we need to reprogramme our thoughts on what independent play is.
I practice attachment parenting, but this does not mean I am a hover parent. There is a difference between being connected with your children, always available, and directing and constantly supervising their every move. In fact, by practicing attachment parenting I am trying to foster independence.
Have you read the article in the Wall Street Journal that claims that French parents are superior? Its by Pamela Druckerman trying to promote her new book. I find most of her admiration of french parenting unfounded, such as their babies sleep through at 3 months? Hello? Clearly not breastfed babies? But here is an excerpt I do agree with:
Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. "For me, the evenings are for the parents," one Parisian mother told me. "My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it's adult time." French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.Dr Laura Markham has written a retaliating article on why we shouldn't be so quick to put french parents on a pedestal that is worth a read. However, she too agrees that they have it right when it comes to one quality the french posses, according to Druckerman, is that they allow their children to learn to occupy themselves.
I'm buying this part of Druckerman's pitch. And guess what? The French don't let children under the age of three watch any TV. OK, I doubt they police parents, but it's frowned upon, and no programming is allowed for them because it's thought young kids should not be watching. My experience is that when kids never get used to TV, they learn to occupy themselves. I also like Druckerman's line that French parents have firm rules about what they consider essential, but beyond that they give their kid a lot of control. When kids have control over their own time, they learn to occupy themselves.
There's another important piece to this, though. Out of our own anxiety, we too often intrude on children's play. In fact, babies and young children need us available, but not running things, when they play. There's a whole chapter in my upcoming book on this exact issue, but if you want more info on this in the meantime, check out Magda Gerber and RIE.
So on this one? French parents get my vote. (Dr. Laura Markham - Aha Parenting)We need to let go of preconceived notions of how our toddlers should be spending their times, and allow them to simply be. The whole family needs to be on-board with this idea, as if one parent (or a grandparent!) constantly tries to amuse Jesse, I find he almost loses the will or ability to play on his own for a while, until I 'wean' him off of constant attention once again.
Even more important than those precious few breaks during the day where you can get something done in the kitchen or on the computer is that independent play builds key qualities in your child, such as:
- Elevated self-esteem
- Problem solving
So, how do we get them to amuse themselves? The key is repetition, join them in a simple activity such as stacking cups or blocks and then leave them for very short intervals, slowly stretching them long till they are playing on their own for 5 minutes at a time. If your toddler looks for assistance, then be available.
Try not to interfere or take over.
Alternatively, allow your toddler to find something that interests him, Jesse enjoys watching the chicken eating through the window, unpacking moms shoe cupboard or loading a toy wheelbarrow up with items (unbreakable) out of the grocery cupboard and pushing it around the house. Allow them to just get on with it. Do not feel the need to comment, praise or justify their every action, and, unless they are in harms way, do not direct their attention elsewhere.
They key is to be nearby so that you can quietly observe without their knowledge. Jesse gets a kick out of doing his own thing in the next room, although I can hear (with my super-mommy hearing) everything that is going on, and I am sound in the knowledge that that room is completely baby proofed. He's even started to close the door now, which is where I had to draw the line ;)
Alas, these moments of independent play are short and dispersed unevenly through the day. So have a few structured or planned games / activities that are educational and fun that you can join your toddler in on. I have a collection of just such activities on a board on Pinterest if you are in need of ideas. I have taken Dionna's lead from Code Name: Mama and planned two activities per day, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, although these activities may be as simple as playing in the mud. Mixed up with lots of time outdoors and a bit of movement / dancing my son sleeps very well at night, and I do too, reassured in the knowledge that he is getting sufficient stimulation.