elevating child care

Stop Entertaining Your Toddler (In 3 Steps)

How can I get my 2.5 year old son to be more independent? He is my sidekick, my errand running buddy, and we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.  That being said, he seems incapable of doing anything without me right by his side, and honestly, it can get a bit frustrating. Am I asking too much of him at his stage of development?
I keep getting on his level and telling him that Mama needs to get some work done and that it’s his time to play, and when I’m done I will be able to play with him.  He seems to get to a point where he’s desperate for my attention and just keeps asking why I can’t play, or says “Mama play with me, Mama when can you play, etc.”  I almost feel as if we’re getting to a tough love approach, where I will have to impose “independent play time” each day so he’ll eventually learn how to play alone.  – Concerned Mom

Ah, the entertainment trap. It is such an easy one for doting parents to fall into, especially with the firstborn child. I would definitely have gone this route myself if my baby hadn’t sent me a profound and pivotal message in our first RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class together.

For the first three months of my daughter’s life, I’d been entertaining her nonstop, assuming it my duty to occupy and engage her every waking moment with my activity while she remained mostly passive (which is all I thought she could be). Then, following my RIE instructor’s suggestion, I placed her on her back on a blanket on the floor…and to my astonishment she lay there perfectly content for the two hour duration of the class.

My daughter’s message could not have been more crystal: Please stop keeping my mind so busy, Momma. I need a little time to think. 

Taking that giant step back to observe my baby was the ticket to an exciting adventure, because I was then able to begin to know and enjoy my daughter, while also witnessing the physical, cognitive, creative and therapeutic benefits of her play.

But even if we do get the memo about trusting our babies to be capable, active learners and allowing them some time to “be”, the toddler years present a whole new challenge. Toddlers are in the process of gaining independence and discovering their power. They are supposed to keep pushing until they find our limits – testing what it takes to make us jump and how high. This is not being “bad” — they’re just doing their job.

Taken at face value, our demanding toddler’s age appropriate testing might lead us to conclude, “My child obviously needs me desperately and can’t possibly play alone!” As parents, we may also be reticent to assert our own needs and wishes, because we want to avoid confronting our child’s strong emotions. Either way, we can end up causing our children to “unlearn” to play and decrease their tolerance for boredom.

Here are some key steps to freeing children (and ourselves) from play and entertainment dependencies:

1. Learn a less intrusive way to play together

Little-known fact: when we sit quietly and are passive, yet receptive and attentive to our children while they play, they feel just as nurtured by our companionship (if not more so) than they do when we are actively involved.  It is a profoundly validating experience for children to be able to hold our interest without having to ask or work for it. Without a word of our praise, our appreciation is palpable.

When adults play with children in the conventional sense, we almost always end up directing, dominating, or at least altering the course of action somewhat. We also tend to “hook” children on our involvement, which makes their transition to solo play a more difficult, almost foreign concept.

Learning to be a play “supporter” rather than playmate takes practice, entails sensitive observation, open-mindedness, acceptance and, most of all, restraint (especially for those more inclined to do than watch). But once we get this down, it is an incredibly relaxing, satisfying, Zen-like experience.

When and how should we respond so as not to interrupt self-directed play? 

We simply take cues from our kids, trusting them to request our input, which they usually do by looking at us or expressing themselves verbally. Then we respond by narrating or “sportscasting” succinctly.

For example, let’s say our child is stacking blocks and the blocks tumble. If she doesn’t look towards us, it’s probably best not to say anything or even assume that this is a problem. If she does look toward us, or perhaps we hear her groan, we would then narrate (or “sportscast”): “I saw that. When you tried to put the red block on the top, the green and blue ones fell down.”

What if my child asks for help?

Never say no to a request for help, but ask lots of questions and assist as minimally as possible. Using the block tower example, you might go close to your child and ask, “What are you trying to do?”

“I want to make a tower.”

“You have the blue and yellow blocks stacked here, what block will you use next?”

“That one.”

“Okay, so let’s see how you’ll place that green one on top of the yellow one…”

Usually, this type of support is all the help children need.

2.  Set limits with confidence, honesty and respect

“I almost feel as if we’re getting to a tough love approach, where I will have to impose “independent play” time each day so he’ll eventually learn how to play alone.”

If it were even possible to force independent play, that would defeat the entire purpose. Play isn’t play unless it’s a choice. But it is up to us to quit our job as entertainment director, get our personal work done, etc., and I certainly don’t see this as “tough love”. The child who whines, “Mama play with me, Mama when can you play” is only doing his job, seeking a straight answer from us about our limits. In return, our role is to:

Be clear — project confidence: “I am going to do some things in the kitchen” (Remember, our children can’t  possibly feel comfortable separating unless we are)

Offer a choice, if possible: “Would you like to help me shuck the corn or will you play in your room?”

Acknowledge feelings and desires: “Oh, I know you want me to keep playing with you. I see how upset you are. We can do that again after dinner. “

Develop routine times for independent play so that separation is easier for your child to accept.

Provide your child a 100% safe space and open-ended toys or objects  

3. Encourage play that is as mind-active as possible

The more time children spend in passive-receptive mode, the less adept and comfortable they will be playing independently. So…

Avoid screen use or keep it to a bare minimum

Offer simple toys and objects that make for more active, creative play

Instead of offering specific play activities, wait for children to invent their own

Have no fear of boredom

Let whatever children choose to do (or not do) be “enough”

 Remember these golden rules of parenting:

The more we do (or toys do)…

  •         the less our child does
  •         the more our child thinks she needs us (or toys) to do for him
  •         the less confident, capable, creative and fulfilled she feels

 

I share more about fostering independent play in my new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.

Here are some inspiring and informative online articles:

What is PlayAll They Need is Play, and just about everything else on Lisa Sunbury’s blog Regarding Baby

The spectacular four part (so far) series on play by Nadine and Anna of Mamas in the Making

Respecting Play: Observing & Interacting at the Same Time by Suchada Eickemeyer from Mama Eve 

Fostering Self-Directed Play: ten tips to help pre-schoolers entertain themselves by Gauri, Loving Earth Mama

My numerous posts on play, especially Becoming Unglued, Solo EngagementHow To Stop Entertaining Your Baby and 7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play

 

(Photo by sean dreilinger on Flickr)

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36 Responses to “Stop Entertaining Your Toddler (In 3 Steps)”

  1. You get so much across in this post!

    Reminds me of an experience. I once tried to get a roomful of parents to imagine what it might feel like to be two years old, with passivity imposed in so many ways yet autonomy expected on demand. Talking about it didn’t get the message across. So I paired them up and had one adult role play the parent and the other the child. The parent-actor had several goals to achieve, unbeknownst to the child-actor (somewhat like being a small child) and I gave them ten minutes. Very frustrating minutes for the adults playing the child role!

  2. Thank you so much for linking to my article, Janet. I love reading everything you write about independent play! Parenting is such an art, and with every article I learn something new and find a way to improve my relationship with my kids. Thank you!

  3. avatar mike says:

    What Janet doesn’t mention is just how difficult it is for some of us to observe. As a dad, with our first child, I’d come home from work craving interaction and connection. My natural compulsion was to suggest and direct games (daddy’s so much fun), whatever I thought would be engaging and fun and bonding. It took some time and considerable restraint to sit on my hands and observe, to learn my daughter’s cues, and finally feel the deep connection forged by simply being present and available. An evolution for me, and (I’m convinced) developmentally invaluable for my daughter. I didn’t attend RIE parenting classes but had the advantage of an in-home tutor. It was much easier the second and third times around.

  4. avatar Mary says:

    Try to introduce him to “make-believe.” Help him see himself in an imaginary place and time, whether in outer space, or in a less “pc” zone, such as a cowboy with a horse. Shop for toys that will encourage this side of him. As a girl I was always able to find ideas to do myself–with dolls, even with books, with fairy godmothers, etc.

  5. avatar Michelle says:

    Having only one child at this point, I am not sure what I’m in for as he gets older. He is 22 months now and is perfectly happy to play by himself most of the time, although sometimes he likes to play with us. From your experience, do children get more demanding about wanting to spend time being directly played with as they enter their 2s and 3s?

    • avatar Beth says:

      My LO is a month older and has become more demanding of us playing with him as he gets older :/ but I’m sure all kids are different!

  6. avatar Beth says:

    I wondered for a minute there if I’d written to you and forgotten about it, but my LO is only 23 months!

    I was going to write you almost this exact letter today. Thank you for this post :)

  7. avatar Brett says:

    It’s true that we doting moms can get a little over responsible for our first born especially if we allow our lives to completely revolve around them. As a mother of two who are now 17 and 19, here are some things to consider however, and that is there is nothing we can or should do about our first borns getting the first born treatment–it’s just what is. Secondly, the individual personality of the child will play a bit part in how demanding they are of our attention. Personality is another aspect of our child’s reality that we cannot and should not try to change.

  8. Thank you for a great and very timely post for our family, as my husband struggles a lot with this. This has taken some effort on my part over the past few months, but getting the hang of it. Being on vacation, we had the luxury of watching our son play at a playground on the beach for 5 hours a few days ago, and it was fantastic (and zen like indeed, as well as fascinating) to just observe what he came up with, how he approached other children, what he liked to observe, what he was able to accomplish. And I would say he requested our involvement maybe 30% of the time. I even had the guts to kindly ask another parent to not help my son walk up the slide ;-)

  9. avatar Claire says:

    I’ve always tried to be more of an observer than a director and most of the time my 22 mo son will play independently ONLY when I’m there observing him. No, he won’t engage me if he doesn’t want/need to, he’d contently play, but as SOON as I step out of the room (even with letting him know where and what I’m going to do, etc) he’d follow me and starts wanting me to go back and play with him, or he wants to participate on the things that I do. Most of the time, I try to include him, but it is impossible with the many daily chores that I have to do. I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Any thoughts?

  10. avatar Anna says:

    Happily, I’ve being using RIE philosophies since birth, and my 15 month old so far is wonderful at finding his own experiances around our toddler-proofed apartment. He asks for interaction with specific things sometimes, and I’m happy to be led by him. Partly this is RIE, and partly this is because I’ve been a single parent from the start, so have always had to leave him from time to time to get things done.

    The question I have is related to that last point – I feel I’m there for him when he needs me, but when he’s playing/exploring/working, I am usually using that time to get things done (I also work part-time, so I’m trying to balance son/home/work). When he wants my attention, if I’m doing something that can wait, I’ll be there, otherwise I’ll have to tell him that I’m busy (usually cooking) and will be there soon. I don’t have a LOT of time to just sit and observe since I’ve returned to work.

    Will my son still feel nurtured when I’m watching and observing as best I can, while also being busy? I used to have more time to litterally sit a few feet away and watch for great lengths of time (so amazing, even as an infant I could just watch, and he could just BE, and we’d be so content), but now I don’t. Maybe once a day I can spend 20-30 minutes just observing, and sometimes in that time he’ll lead some inteaction, and sometimes won’t.

    As I said, I play with him for short spells, but I do wonder if he’s feeling the nurture that you talk about, does he still feel the love and amazement I have for him, that I used to show by observing closely, and talking to him about that bird that flew by the window when he’s looked at me with questioning eyes…

    Thanks,
    Anna

  11. avatar Mary says:

    Thanks for this post, Janet. I discovered your blog a few months ago and have read everything–especially grateful for your thoughts on independent play, discipline and sharing/etc. It has definitely shifted how I interact with my 2yo daughter–and I am looking forward to using some of these ‘new’ techniques with my second baby, coming in October!

    My in-laws are visiting now and it’s so interesting to watch their interactions with my daughter through his new lense. They are so enthusiastic and pour a tremendous amount of energy into their interactions with their granddaughter. She adores them and clearly has so much fun when they play together–but they also dominate the interactions and interrupt/redirect to new play activities when she’s contentedly engaged in something. Previously I felt amazed by their enthusiasm–it was definitely not something I could sustain–but now watching it just reinforces this new path I’m on. I think it’s fine for her to have a weekend of those kind of interactions now and then ( they live out of state), but I really do think that my new style of attentive less-is-more parenting is better for my daughter on a day to day basis. Thanks for your guidance!

  12. avatar Nadine says:

    We had the EXACT same problem recently. Although we have been following RIE from birth we somehow ended up in this situation where my 3 year old was NOT able to play ON HIS OWN for even a short time. We went to a family counsellor and the advice we got was: Stop saying things like “I JUST need to do laundry (or whatever) and THEN I will be with you.” Because that way you just keep him waiting. We have a life too and we should continue to live that. We can play with our kids every now and then but what happened here was: I felt I needed to be at least attentive all day (which lead more and more to entertaining or playful) and I’m allowed to have little breaks for a coffee or cooking. Instead now I realized: I’m allowed to have coffee all day, I’m allowed to read a book or do housework and IN BETWEEN I can follow my child’s invitation to play.
    Ever since that shift in paradigm (for me it was like that) it is SO much better. And I get so much more done.

    AND even better: I enjoy playing with him again when he asks me to.

    It’s so important to step back every now and then and watch where you are going with what you are doing. And your posts Janet are of great help in that. Thank you! (And thanks for linking us mamas in there)

    Nadine

  13. avatar Deborah Carlisle Solomon says:

    Janet, thank you so much for this wonderful post! You provide a lot of food for thought here. I especially appreciate, “It is a profoundly validating experience for children to be able to hold our interest without having to ask or work for it. Without a word of our praise, our appreciation is palpable.” How wise and well-said!

  14. avatar Corlia says:

    I just need some advise regarding the safe play area recommended.
    I have created a safe play area for my 18month old in his room with open ended toys (balls, blocks, pots etc)and a safety gate to keep him from wandering to the rest of the house. When i need to get things done (shower, clean etc) I would take him to his room and sit with him for a while until he is happily playing and then calmly explain to him that i need to go do some errands (or whatever) and I will come back after a while but that he needs to play in his room in the meantime. The moment I step out he just drops everything and clings the safety gate for the entire time crying snot and tears. Its exhausting. Advise please. Iv read many of your articles but I have a feeling that Im missing something.
    PS. he does the same thing any time I need to leave him at a crèche (for church or other reasons). I feel like a bit of a rookie.

  15. avatar Jane says:

    Janet, I was so glad to read this–since I’ve ended up doing a lot of this over the years. But one question…what if it’s not 100% attention. I don’t mean sitting reading a newspaper next to kids–reading tends to take a lot of focus, but what about simple knitting or hand sewing/mending. I find that if I’m doing those things while sitting by kids playing, I still tend to pay a lot of attention to the kids, while still getting a chore/project done that I also enjoy a lot. Those things don’t take a ton of my focus.
    Maybe I’m over-analyzing a little here…

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Jane! No, 100% attention is certainly not needed all the time, just in spurts when the parents are able to drop everything and observe. RIE recommends focused attention during all “caregiving activities” (feedings and mealtimes, diapering, bathing, bedtime rituals, etc.) Refueled buy our attention during these regular intervals thoughout the day, children usually get all the nurturing they need to enjoy playing on their own for extended periods.

  16. avatar Alaina says:

    Hi Janet,
    My 15 month old daughter used to play amazingly well by herself. She would toddle around for hours just exploring and playing with her toys and reading her books. For the past month or so she pretty much exclusively plays with and reads her books, which is great, except that increasingly what she wants is for me to read her books literally all day. From the second I sit down with my morning coffee she is bringing me books and becomes quite upset if I don’t get on the floor and start reading. And then continue reading. I say to her “Mama is drinking her coffee so you read your book and when I’m done I’ll read to you”. I’ve tried taking the book she hands to me and placing it next to me and pointing at it saying “you read your book”. But that doesn’t work at all. If I need to make lunch she follows me to the gate we have at our kitchen entrance holding a book out and crying. I have no issue sitting on the floor reading her books and just being there while she plays, but I have no desire to do this all day.
    How can I gently help her play by herself again?
    Thanks in advance!

  17. avatar Juliana says:

    My son is fine playing alone while i do things, like if i say i need to make dinner. But sometimes i just need to sit and rest, and those are the times he really wants me to play and i just dont feel like I can say no, but then I end up exhausted at the end of the day. I know its more me that has the issue (he doesnt get upset or anything, but will repeatedly ask me to play), but I have a hard time saying no when I really do want to play and have no pressing needs except resting.

    • avatar Dafunque says:

      It sounds like you do have a pressing need: resting so you can be more present later.

  18. avatar Danielle says:

    Great article. I enjoy your insights and am doing my best to implement a gentle parenting style with my children 2.5 and 1, that respects both them and my husband and I. My 2.5 year old is a great self entertainer- my biggest struggle is that there are two. And while the older entertains herself, our biggest struggle is teaching her to use words instead of throttling her young toddler brother. I can’t leave them alone in a room together yet. I’ve tried and it seems too much for her and dangerous for him! I’ve found a lot of parenting literature that gives me great advice on teaching one child but few that help me incorporate that advice when there are two young ones. Surely I’m not the only one struggling with this? There are articles on hitting, biting and sharing- bit general existing and playing and trusting. Please help!

  19. avatar Kendra says:

    Thank you for this post and for re-highlighting on Facebook today. I have a question similar to a few others that have been posted here (and our children seem to be around the same age): what do you recommend for a mama of a 15 month-old who, b/c of our intentional RIE practices, played really well by himself as a baby, and plays well when I’m near him and attentive, but objects to his parents doing any chores, trying to sit down and eat, etc.? The moment we start getting dressed or cooking dinner or eating it (we don’t always get to eat at the same time he does), he’s desperate for our attention. If we speak to him respectfully about needing to do something now and ask him to play by himself, there’s a meltdown. He’s such a young toddler that I’m not sure how much he understands, or what to expect of him. Thanks in advance for any advice!

  20. avatar Breda says:

    Great article. Just a quick question I would really appreciate someone answering. Do you keep your 18 month old in a gated area to encourage independent play even when they resist it? My son stops playing the moment he sees me doing something in the kitchen and just follows me around everywhere.

  21. avatar Lucy mcnally says:

    I’ve never heard of this as a parenting style but I think instinctively I’ve been doing something similar and my baby is thriving. But thank you SO much because I wondered whether I was being a bad parent by gently letting her be (with support and loving awareness of course). Reading this blog has made me quite emotional as I feel very vindicated but also I can refine my methods and be confident that I shouldn’t feel guilty about not stimulating her all day. Thank you thank you

  22. avatar Caroline says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks for this article. I need some help! I have a 2 yrs and 3 month old son. He is our only child, and we live with my parents. he also has his own nanny as we both work full time. Everyone is very about him and I know we likely have “smothered” him with attention. He has become unable to really play with his toys, (which are likely enoguh to stock a toy store) for any time more than 5 mins. He seems to be just asking for one thing after another all the time. We started him in nursery, and he doesn’t cry when dropped off – however he cries blue murder when the class is doind something he doesn’t like. I’m told he wants to have the teacher with him most of the time by his side….what can I do at this stage?? Help!!!

  23. Yes thanks for this. Wonderfully hands on as usual. This is definitely what I need now.
    I’ve found gardening a great place to start. One added bonus is that getting really really dirty is allowed to. So much to explore in a garden this time of year. If I stop and smile broadly at my 2.5 yo son, when he asks for my attention, and really look him in the eye, and acknowledges what he wanted me to see, that usually is all he is after, and he will then got back to being absorbed in his work for another 5-15 mins.
    But I have much more to learn… So thanks for the reminder.

  24. avatar Erika says:

    We have a 23mo girl who does not play with toys or anything else, she wants us to play with her, well, mostly my husband. She likes to play “follow-the-leader”, her being the leader and my husband copying what she does. The only time she sits mostly by herself is the 1-hour/day where she is allowed to watch Finding Nemo. Even in playgrounds she wants us to play with her. Our daughter spends 9.5 hours at day care 5 days a week, and part of me thinks that her demanding out attention for the 3 hours she spends with us is only normal, but at the same time, I have chores to take care of when I get home.

    • avatar janet says:

      Erika – there’s a great difference between “attention” and “entertainment”. I agree that your daughter needs periods of your undivided attention while she plays! But I would consider being more receptively attentive and less of an entertainer, game leader, etc. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I will stay here on the grass and watch you play”, (and then really watch her), rather than going everywhere with her and entertaining her. This is still “playing together”, but it is more child-centered, and will be far more creative for your daughter…and it will also help her transition to be able to play more independently while you do chores.

  25. avatar Jillian says:

    Fantastic post! I’ve always had the mindset that activities my son and I do together should be mutually enjoyable as much as possible. That means we cook together, do crafts, read, run errands, go to the park, play board games… lots of fun things! But I’ve never been interested in playing duplos with him or building train tracks, playing “house” etc. Sometimes I’ll help him “set up” but then I leave him to it. People always marvel at his imagination and how well he plays! My only secret is that I have him play alone for a couple hours each day; amazing what such a simple thing can do for a child’s brain! Thanks for this post.

  26. avatar Emily says:

    So, I always took this approach with my older son (now 4.5), because it was consistent with my training in non-directive play therapy… Perhaps coincidentally, he developed a host of developmental concerns, particularly deficits in social and play skills, and I can’t help but wonder if they are connected – especially as teachers and therapists advise me to insert myself more in his play so that he is better able to play with peers who may not always do exactly what he wants (he plays well with peers in unstructured, outdoor play, but when indoors with toys will always choose to play by himself over negotiating with others). So… Just wondering if you have any commentary on this, or any suggestions regarding his younger brother, now 14 months.
    Thanks for any insight!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Emily! I have never heard (or experienced) that fostering self-directed play creates these issues you speak of. Has he had much peer play experience? One-on-one play will probably be more beneficial for him than groups. I’m also wondering if his need for control around play could be about his transition to becoming a big brother, since there is a HUGE loss of control involved in that experience. If you want to try inserting yourself more in his play, I don’t believe that you would hamper his self-directed play ability at this stage of the game.

  27. avatar Cristina says:

    Thank you for this! My kid is just this kid, and I’m just that mom. The receptive yet passive idea of interacting with a child is SO spot on!!!

  28. Thanks so much for sharing. This all makes so much sense. I sometimes feel kind of guilty when my 2yo has to play all by herself. I found some very helpful suggestions here.

  29. I love this post!

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