elevating child care

Independent Infant Play – How It Works

In A Creative Alternative To Baby TV Time I suggest following infant expert Magda Gerber’s advice to develop a baby’s natural ability to play independently.  A recent commenter on the post, Mary Ellen, asked some questions and raised issues I thought worth sharing:

i still would like to know what a parent is doing (or not doing) for a baby to play independently for 3-4 hours straight….

i would also like to know how many times a day this baby is playing like this…?….2-3 times a day for 3-4 hours straight…?…..if not then what is the baby doing for the rest of his 10 hour day beside the time it takes to nap..eat…and change a diaper….?….

does that baby ever protest being in his “safe” space…?….what does the parent do when this happens…?…..

i feel like i have set up the right conditions for long independent play to happen according to Gerber’s book and what i have read on this site……

safe play space…?….check.

interesting yet simple play objects…?…check.

baby…?…check.

what am i missing…..?….

it seems to me that the little soul i was gifted to care for wants to do things way before his time….like…he wants to sit up so badly….but can’t do it on his own yet….so i will watch him try to sit up from a back lying position….after so many times….he looks at me as if he is pleading with me to sit him up…..i know that this is his least mobile position…so i try to resist….but i usually end up giving in after a while…..

on a good day he will play independently for an hour or so before needing a “recharge”……his thing is rolling…..he is not necessarily into his objects but using them as a reason to retrieve discard and roll to the next thing….he will stop and explore a few objects like the spatula…wooden spoon….metal bowl…or random piece of string hanging from a pillow or something…..but after he has done a few laps across the floor and explored a few objects…he is ready to get up……

i find myself avoiding his gaze a lot of the time when he is on the floor…..especially when i trying to get something done (like get dressed in the morning)…..because i know as long as he thinks i am not watching him he will play….but the minute he realizes i am looking he drops everything and starts “pleading” to be picked up….

help.

ps….i KNOW there is a such thing as baby boredom…Gerber may say it is not boredom but lack of stimulation or disinterest in a toy…..but this sounds like the same thing it me….

..the idea of constantly putting your child in the “safe” space for 80% of their waking hours…even if you are switching out the play objects just doesn’t sound right to me…..please enlighten….

Hi Mary Ellen,

First, I want to laud you and cheer you on in your efforts to establish uninterrupted play periods for your boy. I know it is hard to do with only Magda Gerber’s booksto guide you…without classes or community support.  Please hang in there. I can promise that you will never regret what you are working towards.  Sorry if this sounds like a sales pitch, but I really can’t emphasize enough how well this approach works, and how beneficial it will be to you and your child in the near and distant future.

You’ll thank Magda Gerber when your friends and relatives react with astonishment that your boy is so “un-clingy”, can entertain himself and is so fun to watch.  They’ll chalk it up to his personality (and give you no credit at all).

You’ll thank Magda when your son’s teachers comment that he is such a focused, self-confident, independent learner.

You’ll thank her when your son only ever wants minimal help with homework.

And you’ll thank her when he is requested for play dates by other children and their parents because he knows how to create play.

How much time playing? Playing for one hour at your baby’s age is FANTASTIC!  Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes would all be excellent, too. Please know that the three to four hour example I gave was a one-and-only, truly bizarre experience I had with one of my daughters. I would never dream of expecting a baby to play uninterrupted for such a long period of time.

But I am suggesting that he spends the majority of his awake time free to move in safe play areas. You aren’t “putting” him somewhere all day. You are giving him a place where he is free to move and doesn’t have to be interrupted with “No, that’s not safe, don’t touch that”.  And you are also spending time there with him.

Sit on the floor to one side of his play area. Enjoy what he does. Respond when he looks toward you. Be available if he wants to take a break and be held, but stay there on the floor while you hold him so that he can easily choose to go back to playing.

Magda Gerber called this kind of engaged observation “Wants nothing quality time.”

Then, don’t sneak away, but say, “I’m going to do some work now (or whatever). I’ll be nearby if you need me.” If he objects, and you think he still has energy to play, you could say, “I hear you. You didn’t want me to leave. I’ll be coming back in five minutes.”

Don’t allow him to cry for more than a few minutes without returning to sit with him, but keep in mind that he’s never going to say, “Oh, go ahead mom and enjoy your time in the bathroom”.  Parenting is building a relationship. He has to learn about your needs, too. And he’s going to object to lots of things you do or want him to do over the years. He has a right. Acknowledge his differing opinion, but whether it’s reading the paper, working nearby, or going to get a glass of water, take care of yourself, even when he complains.

Sitting up.  Your boy’s desire to sit up, and you helping him to do so, is a big part of what is getting in the way with his independent play. Whatever we do with our babies becomes habit for them. And it sounds like your darling boy has the expectation that you will sit him up (eventually). If he was not used to you positioning him that way, he would not request that from you, or try to sit up that way himself. When babies sit themselves up they do so from an all-fours crawling position, or from lying on their sides, never from their backs (unless they are amazing, mini Jack Lalannes!)

When your son asks you to sit him up, talk to him. “I know I pull you up sometimes, but now I’m going to let you move on your own.” If he gets too frustrated and cries, pick him up and hold him in your arms to give him a break, but don’t sit him up on the floor.  Why? Because our baby gets in the habit of being positioned, and his anticipation of our intervention distracts him from playing and interferes with his natural gross motor development. Infants and toddlers need to practice and experiment with all the “in-between” positions, including twisting, kicking, stretching, rolling, pivoting, eventually scooting, rocking on all fours, then sitting, crawling, etc.

Rolling and pleading. The rolling is wonderful! When he “pleads” to be picked up, go to him and talk to him first, letting him know you hear him. If that doesn’t calm him, lie down next to him and try hanging out for a little while. If he continues to show discomfort, hold him on your lap on the floor. He may go back to playing. The idea is to intervene immediately, but as minimally as possible. Often our babies just want to know that we understand.

If he has rested in your arms, but still seems bored with playing, it usually means he needs a nap.

Mary Ellen, I wish you were in one of my classes…this would be so much easier to explain. Please comment back with more information to guide me…and once again, bravo!

(This is the first of several posts I’ll be writing in response to questions about the nuts and bolts of helping babies play independently. Please contribute any queries or comments.)

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24 Responses to “Independent Infant Play – How It Works”

  1. avatar Jeronima says:

    My baby usually plays alone for an hour or hour and a half in a row. This is specially true when she has just waked up (and is rested) and had something to eat. This are wonderful moments for her and for me!! I am so grateful to Magda Gerber for this.
    But still, I can identify with Mary Ellen. Sometimes when my baby sees me crossing behind her security gate, she will crawl towards me and start protesting. If I can take a break from what I’m doing, I will just talk to her and sit on the floor with her and wait. It won’t take long before she starts playing again by herself (unless of course she has a physical need). I stay there for a while just watching her play and enjoying the moment and then I tell her I’ll be on the kitchen (or wherever) and go.
    Thank you both for this post, because even though Magda Gerber and the RIE approach have been real life-savers, there are difficult days in which my patience is put to the test.

    • avatar janet says:

      Jeronima,

      I can’t thank you enough for sharing your very current experiences with independent play!

  2. avatar Marina says:

    Hi Janet, the specific point about positioning a baby really hit home for me. My baby is a butt scooter, and while she is slowly learning to pull herself up and cruise, she doesn’t seem too motivated to walk. She loves butt scooting, because it really gets her places. I wonder if there is something I am doing to encourage her to butt scoot? For example, when I put her down on the floor, I put her on her butt. Is that wrong? Would it be better to put her on her back or stomach and let her move into whatever position she prefers? Are there other things that parents do that discourage a baby from being motivated to walk. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

    Thanks!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Marina,

      The butt scooting is probably not holding her back from walking. But you could try placing her on the floor on her back or tummy to see if she will use other parts of her body for mobility and maybe crawl. She may just get herself back into bottom scooting position, though, since that is the position she’s used to…but it’s definitely worth a try.

      There is a wide range of ‘normal’ for walking, and you can trust her to walk when she’s ready. Be careful not to “walk” her. Allow her to find her strength and balance on her own. Adept scooters and crawlers sometimes take a little longer. Just keep giving her lots of opportunities to move!

      I had two ‘late’ walkers and I know how tough it is to deal with everyone’s comments sometimes. But the self-confidence your daughter will gain when you wait and trust her is much more important than the age she begins walking. Thanks so much for your question!

  3. avatar Jill says:

    We were just talking about this last night – the need for us to work harder to help our 15 month old play more independently. Thanks for the timely post! I have always felt independent play is so important (before I heard anyone talk about it). I see such benefits in our older child. Our 3 year old has always played well by herself – without much effort from us – it just happened.
    Our little one has always been very clingy to me and not only wants me to hold her – but hold her standing up while her head in on my shoulder, legs in the fetal position and hand down my shirt, on my breast! Sometimes I need to sit down and she has a tantrum – I fell I can’t give in at these times but it turns into a big mess of tantrums/frustration.
    One thing I realized this morning is that I need to have the two girls separated for their independent play. I think this will help the little one a bit. It worked for about 3 minutes today.
    I can’t help but feel that all of the attachment parenting practices I did with our younger one has created an unhealthy bond to me.
    This is where my patience is being tested I suppose. Thanks for this post as it helps me want to keep working at it.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Jill!

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. It think independent play is worth working on, too, and it shouldn’t be hard at all to help your little one create some new habits. I’ve always found that lots of openness and honesty is the way to go (even if total honesty feels a bit counterintuitive at times!)

      Please keep me posted…and take good care.

  4. avatar Roseann Murphy says:

    “As a parent and an infant/toddler care-giver, I can certainly identify with what Mary Ellen is saying. I noticed over the years that if I anticipated that a situation might not work for our babies, it usually did not. It was as though their “sixth sense” was working and they knew I was in doubt, that I didn’t trust what I was doing.
    A couple of things came to mind when I read Mary Ellen’s post…possibly the space is too large for her wonderful son. It may to too much space and too many toys. Limiting the space may give him more time to figure out about sitting up.
    Telling her son, “I used to sit you up, but I’m not going to do that anymore, I will give you the chance to do it on your own,” might put the subject to rest in her mind and her son’s. But she has to make sure that is what she believes. Without that conviction in her voice, he will know that “maybe next time she’ll come ’round and up I’ll go!! :-)
    In the RIE philosophy, respect and honesty and continuity are the key to the success of the techniques. If Mary Ellen is worried about not sitting her son up, she should mention it to him. “I am not sure that I am doing all the right things, but for now I am going to let you try sitting up on your own when you are ready.” Just the words alone sometimes give validity to the feelings that are standing in the way of success. It is all about consistency.”

    • avatar janet says:

      Roseann,

      Thanks for sharing your insights! You make some excellent points about meaning what we say, and our conviction. Infants and toddlers are so much smarter than we give them credit for. I especially love your example: “I am not sure that I am doing all the right things, but for now I am going to let you try sitting up on your own when you are ready.” Sharing that level of honesty is so freeing! And it is the best way to create a relationship with our child based on mutual trust and respect.

  5. avatar Ayu Underwood says:

    Greetings from New Zealand. I’m an early childhood teacher, working with infants & toddlers (sometimes with preschoolers, too). It is great to read this article and actually seeing it happening in real life (in this case at my work place), how independent play can positively impact children later on in their lives. Our infants are mostly independent, confident children who move freely and choose their type of play without adult’s intervention, or very little of it. A few of them are well on their way to become resilient, independent and confident children. I’ve seen our infants transitioning into preschool comfortably and finally settling in primary school with ease. It’s all thanks to Independent Play that we at the centre promote relentlessly.
    I’m expecting my second child. I can’t wait to introduce him/her to the beauty of Independent Play.

    • avatar janet says:

      Greetings Ayu,

      And WOW, thanks for this fantastic endorsement of independent play. I concur wholeheartedly! And what lucky children you have (and will have!)

  6. avatar Barbi says:

    Hello Janet,

    I was reading this and wondering if you have any suggestions for older children who may not have had “independent play” as infants?

    Unfortunately I was in college for my son’s first 18 months (he’s 3 1/2 now). Happily my mother wanted to and was able to watch him while I finished my degree, however, between school and my absolute inadequacies as a new mother and him being her only grandchild, I cannot remember how much independent play he really had.

    My mother and I both intrinsically parent similarly to Magda Gerber’s way (which is why I am so crazy about your site!), but my son has difficulty being left alone in a room and prefers to be with my husband or me when we are at home. He does not have difficulty focusing on a task or paying attention, but I do think he should learn to be happy to play or be alone more.

    Thanks,
    -Barbi

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Barbi

      If you want to encourage more independent play, all you have to do is ease off a little when you play together — try to stay in a more responsive mode and do less. This can actually be a fun challenge. Work on facilitating your son’s self-directed play rather than playing with him. Avoid showing him how to do things with blocks, legos, puzzles, drawing, etc. Help him enjoy the process rather than going for a result (like a tower, a drawing that looks like something, a completed puzzle, etc.)

      If he’s used to you assisting him, say, “I know I usually help with the puzzle. Now I’m going to let you work on it yourself for as long as you like.” Bounce the action back towards him. If he says, “Draw a house for me,” respond with something like, “How should the door look? Show me.” Be a patient observer when you play with him, just as Magda Gerber suggests we do with our infants and toddlers.

      When we join in, our presence can easily take over. Without us even realizing it, our child’s activity can become all about us. I’ve personally enjoyed the challenge of stifling my instincts to help with or add on to my children’s activities with my ideas, and instead allowing things to unfold. Even after doing this for 17 years, those instincts don’t go away! But the children usually end up doing something far more interesting when I stay out of the action and “wait”.

      Staying out of your son’s play this way will help him become more self-reliant. He’ll begin to enjoy his independence and won’t need the constant presence of the adults he loves to be happily entertained. And although some children are less tolerant of spending time in a room alone than others, when he wants you nearby he won’t need your attention as much. You can be in the same room, or in an adjacent area, doing your own thing.

      You’ll probably enjoy hanging out with him even more than you do now when you let him do all the “work”. You’ll learn more about him, too.

      Thanks for asking, and please let me know how it goes.

      (This post: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/ Becoming Unglued, is my reponse to the mother of a 2 1/2 year old dealing with a similar issue…)

  7. avatar Alexandra says:

    Hi Janet – haven’t read through all the comments, just the initial posting has hit a nerve for me. I have a safe-space set up, but am finding it difficult to create a truly safe-space for my daughter. I tried a baby-fence around one area of my living room, but the fence sort of wobbles when she uses it to hold onto to stand. She cries and complains. I try talking her through it- “I know that you are going to learn how to do this” works for a short while – but generally she isn’t happy to stay in the “safe-play zone” without me for more than ten minutes at a time. After supporting her through the frustration I will finally take her out, but there are so so many unsafe things in my home. I have tried to child proof other areas so that she can play independently nearby me while i work, but i feel like I am constantly re-directing. Additional connected issue: when other people see her play independently, I feel judged as if i am being neglectful when i let her play without the constant re-direction, just watching that she is generally safe, then re-directing only when absolutely necessary. Suggestions???

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Alexandra,

      If I was with you in person I’d be asking you a bunch of questions. Would it be possible for you to establish a divider that is less wobbly? She will probably use that use that space for another year, at least, and it might be worth investing in something more secure. Does your daughter have other, more secure places (like a safe coffee table) where she can practice pulling up to stand while in her play space? She needs a place where she can work on her motor skills.

      Also, keep in mind that she may be going through a very normal period of separation anxiety. I know that when our children are in those needier phases, it sometimes feels like it will be this way forever. It’s more than likely that this is temporary, so keep trying to make it work. You might want to go into her space when she’s needy rather than taking her out.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “redirecting”. Do you mean saying, “I can’t let you use that. It’s not safe”? It’s best to just intervene simply and honestly that way and allow her to make another choice independently rather than directing her or drawing her attention to something else. Remember, the less you do, the more you encourage her autonomy.

      If you were feeling more confident about your daughter’s independent play “working”, you probably wouldn’t care as much about what others think. But, let’s face it, these parenting practices are unusual (although my hope is for them to be the norm someday!) Chances are that those who may be criticizing you now, will admire your parenting (and your child) in the near future.

      So, now I will go into cheerleader mode and say…keep up the good work! I can promise you that you will never regret following the wisdom of Magda Gerber and Dr. Emmi Pikler. I thank my lucky stars every day…

    • avatar Megan says:

      In Montessori practices we use a bar mounted on the wall for a child to pull up on, usually with a mirror behind it so the child can see himself standing. Ideally it would be about 1.5 meters long, 45 cm from the floor, 10 cm away from the wall, and with a diameter of 2-3 cm. However, for some people that isn’t an option due to space considerations or inability to make it (since I don’t believe it is available commercially) and I’ve heard of families using a simple towel bar with great success. We also use something called the kiosks with bars, which is basically the same thing but with two bars mounted to cabinets, which have drawers and things for the child to open. Perhaps if you have something like that in her space she will be motivated to pull up on that rather than her gate.
      For all those people that seem to be judging you, just remember that you have good reasons for doing what you do and share them if you feel the person might be interested. Try not to be discouraged; you’re doing something wonderful that your child will thank you for later. Keep it up!

  8. avatar Elanne Kresser says:

    Lisa,

    Do you have any more concrete suggestions for ways to child safe an area. We are expecting our first child and our house is small. We want to create a contained area of our living room for baby to play in but I’m having trouble finding anything that looks like it will work well. I’ve found a few plastic fence-like things but they are so ugly and they look too flimsy like they will fall over once baby is able to push/pull on it.

    What have other parents done when they don’t have a whole room to devote to this?

    Many thanks.

  9. avatar Elanne Kresser says:

    Sorry I meant to address that to Janet! Getting my blogs confused! Any suggestions you have would be welcome.

  10. I found this post following links and I have to say it hit a nerve.

    I made the entire main floor of my house into a safe play area for my son…who learned to get to sitting on his own early, then just sat there. He was perfectly happy just watching the world go by. He’d play with what I gave him, but if it rolled away, it didn’t bother him. He was most interested in his surroundings from his baby bjorn. This went on for almost 8 months. Oh, the guilt: had I been holding him too much? was baby-wearing the wrong thing to do? was there something wrong?, then one day his dad stood him up at the coffee table.

    Eureka! Standing, his world changed. He had some trouble getting up on his own (yep, we helped), but he was walking holding on to one adult finger two weeks later, and interested in exploring everything. It took two months of very intense parenting (and sore backs), but before he was a year he was walking on his own, roaming all over the house. He learned to crawl a couple of months later.

    So here’s the thing: now, almost three, he is a happy and independent little guy who, most of the time, is perfectly happy to play on his own, though he’ll come find me if I disappear for too long. And I regret that I actually felt bad for holding my baby as much as we both wanted. So while I’m all for providing children opportunities to develop independence, I also think there’s more than one way to get there.

    Sometimes a little help goes a long way.

  11. avatar Heather Day says:

    I just want to chime in to agree with Frances. Janet – I love your advice, and I agree that independent play is really important, but as I know you know, each child has their own personality and parents shouldn’t feel guilty if their child doesn’t take to independent play right away. It took my son a good four years before he really took to playing independently. I gave him plenty of opportunities without forcing the issue, and he is now a very happy independent kid. If “attachment parenting” works for you and your child, go for it. It is not at all incompatible with independent play. Just start a little bit at a time and increase the independent play time as your child matures. If you respect and listen to both yourself and your child you’ll find your own style that works for you. And reading Janet’s posts will probably help too ;)

  12. avatar Magdalena Bonk says:

    Janet,
    My daughter is 20 months old and I have been trying since she was an infant to get her to play independently. During the day it is just the two of us and she always wants to engage me in her play or do whatever I am doing (e.g. climb on a step stool in the kitchen and reach for the kitchen utensils I am using). The longest time I have ever seen her play uninterrupted was maybe 10 minutes. I can’t seem to be able to do anything without her crying to pick her up or let her play with whatever I am doing (which I have). I avoid television at all cost but sometimes I do use it to get a few minutes and time to do something quickly and in peace. I have noticed that when we go to other people’s houses she plays with toys and objects all by herself and does not want to be interrupted.
    Please help!

    • avatar janet says:

      Magdalena – I have the sense that your responses are the issue here… It’s very important that you 1) believe your daughter capable of self-entertainment and, 2) not fear her complaints, whines and cries.

      Acknowledge your toddler’s feelings and proceed confidently with whatever you are doing. You seem caught up in trying to please her and keep her happy…and she is using that to her advantage. ;)

  13. avatar Gaby says:

    Hi Janet! I believe independent play is really important and that without noticing 15 months have flown by and I have not promoted it well with my son. I was overwhelmed during the first year and felt that I could not do anything alone.. I did not even shower until someone else came to watch my baby because I feared he would have a crying fit while I wasn’t there and that I would be letting him cry and that would be bad. I hope I have not ruined things .. Now that he wants to walk, how can I promote independent play that is safe? (Even with baby proofing I still fear corners and don’t really have a totally safe area). Thanks!

  14. avatar Jodie says:

    Hey, firstly well done to all the above mummies, sounds like everyone is putting in real effort to make safe place for independent play. I can’t praise RIE enough. I didn’t know about it with my first child and yet knew that bouncing chairs and the like were detrimental to her development, she crawled by 5 months and walked by 9. Completely of her own accord! While pregnant with my second I came across Janet’s blog, I’ve since read magdas confident baby book and another on order. My second daughter is 7 months and my friends often comment on how mobile she is, she gets whatever toy she wants somehow. She’s not crawling yet but she rolls and nudges herself forward. She’s never been aided to sit (only for solid food feeding) she is no where near as advanced as her big sister but she is way ahead of others her age. She will happily play for an hour on her own, she’s started crying when I go in another room, an laughs when I reappear, she knows she’s got my attention. They will reach each milestone when they are ready. Enjoy being on the floor with them, lie down, see the world from their perspective. Most of all, don’t expect anything and you will always be amazed. Xx

  15. avatar Lauren says:

    Hi Janet. I have been following your posts over the past couple months (on facebook) with great interest. My 24 month/2 yr son is a very busy, happy yet very demanding and very dependent child. As we stand now at 2 years i still can’t get him to play independently for more than literally 1 minute. he ‘demands’ that i am with him all the time and the (admittedly) few times ive tried to leave him to play independently, eg cook in the kitchen while he can see me, it always ends in tears, throwing, or tantrums, or he insists on joining me doing whatever im doing. Ive read as many of your articles as possible on independent play, which give great advice on how to instill independent play at 6/12/15 month ages. However, I’d really appreciate some direction on how I can do it at this very late stage in the game, when the child is no longer a baby but a toddler! I’m now pregnant with my second child and realize I need to fix my mistakes as soon as possible, now out of necessity! Your help would be SOO appreciated and valued… Many thanks, Lauren

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