Independent Play, Bonding, and Setting Limits

In this episode: Janet responds to two comments from one of her website articles, “Independent Play: 5 Hints to Get the Ball Rolling”. First, a mother’s question about reading and her 13-month-old’s demands for attention when she has other things to do; and then another mom’s critique of Janet’s advice. Both comments bring up helpful points but highlight certain misconceptions about Magda Gerber and Janet’s parenting approach.

Transcript of “Independent Play, Bonding, and Setting Limits”

Hi this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. This week I am responding to 2 related comments on my post “Independent Play: 5 Hints to get the Ball Rolling.” This is an article that I originally wrote for eHow. One of the comments is a question from a mother about her daughter’s independent play and how to encourage it and the other comment is a critique. Now, both of these comments bring up some really common misunderstandings about Magda Gerber’s approach to play and also her advice around parent-child bonding and I’d really like to clarify. So that’s why I decided to do a podcast on this topic.

Here’s the question I received. Again this is a comment on my post “Independent Play: 5 Hints to get the Ball Rolling”:

“Hi Janet, thank you a lot for this great post. My daughter is 13 months old and since 3 months doesn’t want to play too much on her own. She requires my attention and every play doesn’t last too long, so it’s difficult for me to even cook dinner or do anything else when I’m with her. I will try to use your tips and encourage her to entertain on her own, but I’m wondering, what should I do with books? My daughter loves books. She comes to me with books, sits down on my lap and wants me to explain images. Is it wrong that I do that and name animals or other objects?”

Okay, so first of all, it’s definitely not wrong to do that. It’s wonderful to explore books with our children. It’s wonderful to be responsive as this mother is being with the books and responding to her daughter’s interest and not having this big agenda of her own to get through the book and that’s the way to encourage reading and a love of books. So, yes, that is absolutely wonderful.

What’s also important to know is that we won’t discourage our child’s interest in books by setting reasonable limits and being honest about our needs and our boundaries in the situation. But one thing about books is that even a child who is in the habit of playing on their own, they discover at some point that their parent really has this sort of vulnerability around books because we’ve all heard, and it’s true, how important books are for our children and reading and we want to encourage this, and… can we really say no to books ever? Is that going to be damaging for our child in some way?

Of course, that isn’t true because children still benefit the most from a parent who 100% wants to be doing what they’re doing with that child and I think we can all relate to that. I mean there are places that I like to go, things I like to do that I wouldn’t invite certain people to, even my husband because I know they wouldn’t enjoy it. It ruins it for me if people aren’t into it and imagine for a child with their parent who really wants to be cooking dinner and feels that she has to keep looking at the book with her daughter because her daughter’s bringing the book to her and isn’t that sweet, isn’t that wonderful, but that just isn’t a positive interaction to have with a child. It’s not a positive way to engage, so I would absolutely be clear, and you know it’s always easier if we have the clear boundaries of what I call the “yes” space, so that we can actually say “I’m gonna go cook and I’m gonna have you stay here, I’ll be back in a little bit and I’ll check on you regularly.”

And then the 13-month-old is allowed to say “I don’t want you to do that.” Obviously, if it’s a very young baby, we’re not going to want them to get too distressed about it so we’re going to come back in a few minutes and check in and say “I hear you, I’m just gonna be a few more minutes and I’ll be done.” We obviously don’t want to stretch it out a long time with a young baby or even with a 13-month-old because at that age they’re going through separation anxiety sometimes and other things and we want to be sensitive to that. So, I would just do small periods and come back and then be very comfortable with what you’re child is expressing and want to hear it. “Yes, you told me no you didn’t want me to go.” And what we always almost always find when we do come back is that our child just was yelling at us and saying “No, I’m not going to release you now.” They weren’t feeling abandoned, they weren’t feeling crushed, they weren’t feeling unloved and alone and all those places that we can go in our psyche about it.

All those worries that we have, we might tend to go to those darkest places when we hear our child cry. It’s just human instinct, but it’s really a very healthy thing for children to do. I can already say that, this little girl, I would guess she’s quite a strong personality because she’s already figured out that she can come to her mother with books all the time and pull her mother into being with her when I’m sure she even senses at 13 months that her mother is trying to get away and trying to do something and hoping she’ll be okay.  And I think we all have the fantasy that our child is going to say “Oh, go ahead mom I’m fine over here just playing, take your time, make a lovely dinner, I’ll be fine.”

It just doesn’t happen that way. It needs to come from us as the leader and for us to be comfortable with that exchange. Especially as this little girl at 13 months is coming into toddlerhood, she needs that exchange with her mom around all kinds of things, both her parents. That’s what setting limits is, it’s saying “I’m going to do this, you want to do that, but we’re not going to do that and I’m going to do this and it’s okay for you to be mad at me about it or to be upset about it. You’ve got a right to have an opinion that’s different than mine about things and I encourage that.”

Anyway, back to this mother’s actual question, of course it’s not wrong that she does that, it’s wonderful that she does that. But I think it’s not helpful for her to feel like she’s stuck, that she has to do this. She can do 2 books, she can do 4 books, but she’s got to be clear with her daughter about when she’s going to be there and available to her and when she needs to be doing something else.

When children feel that clarity from us and that confidence, then they are able to let go of us, but we have to let go of them first without ambivalence. It’s got to be clear and then we’ve got to welcome them to have a different opinion.

So that’s how I would address this mom’s question. And now I’m going to explore this a little further by reading the critique that this other reader offered:

“Hi Janet, I’m a mother of 3 grown girls, and a special educator who works with children birth to 5 years old. I read your posts often. While I agree with some of your posts, I find some to be very extreme. For instance, when you suggest not rolling back the ball you are leading parents to question and fear their natural desire to engage with their children and to have the children connect to them. This questioning is evident in the comment by J … that’s this other parent … asking if it is wrong to name animals when her daughter brings her a book. She is concerned because her infant doesn’t want to play too much on her own. I work with many families and one of the most prevalent worries is that parents don’t spend enough time connecting with their children, whether it be lack of time, knowledge or something else, I believe we should wholeheartedly be encouraging and celebrating when children or parents reach out to each other in whatever form that takes, physical affection, being silly, wondering about life, creating beauty and not be worried about independence at such a young age.”

This mother makes some really good points and I agree with them. I think she’s misunderstanding my advice and that’s why I wanted to have this opportunity to clarify because these are understandable misunderstandings. But there’s nothing extreme about this advice. One of my suggestions, and I even say in the post that I realize it’s sacrilegious to say such a thing, but I suggest when you play with a child, when you’re giving a child that full attention, that you consider not rolling the ball back. The reason for that is, unless you’ve already done this and there’s an expectation by the child that this is the game that we’re supposed to do, “I roll this ball and she rolls it back to me,” if we’re really observing children we see that they have their own ideas that they’re exploring and one of the things they explore is what happens when I roll this ball. How far does it go? What does it do? Does it turn? Does it roll straight? What is it doing? If we leave a child to follow their own direction on this, then the infant will, if they are mobile, they will move over to the ball to see “oh wow I’m gonna follow this ball and now I’m going to roll it this way and see what happens.”

This is an approach that’s based on observation and understanding that children feel our presence. That infants feel our presence and they feel when they have our attention. I believe they feel when we’re looking at our phone or whether we’re there and really with them. And I recommend when we are playing with them to be really with them, not just half and half and then if we have to go be on our phone we say “Now, I’m going to go be on my phone for a bit, I’m going to look away.” But to show our child that we’re interested in their explorations, that they don’t need to bring us into their games to get our full attention and get our approval and interest and enjoyment of them, that is a gift. And it’s one that I would never have understood or known about if it wasn’t for Magda Gerber who, along with her mentor Emmi Pikler, observed for thousands and thousands of hours, young children 2 and under behaving naturally, playing freely, making their own choices in play.

So, the reason that there was advice about not rolling the ball back in an article about encouraging independent play is because the way we play with a child can help them to enjoy independent play. Giving them our attention, filling them up with that, engaging with them. So if that baby looks at us after rolling the ball we can say “I saw, you rolled that ball and it went all the way over there to the corner.” And now we’re engaging naturally with our child on their terms and we’re teaching them in language in a way that’s meaningful for them because they saw this thing happen and they’re having this experiential learning of these words that go along with what just happened and it’s coming through the relationship that they have with their parent or caregiver.

So this is another way of looking at connection and play and it’s taking away all those set ideas that we have as adults about, “Well balls are to be thrown to each other and …” We’re very limited in our ways of thinking or connecting as always playing with our child when our child wants to play with us. If we don’t do that we’re not connecting.

It just doesn’t work that way, in my opinion and experience. I truly believe that we’d all be happier parents, we would love our job, we would love engaging with our children and playing with them if it wasn’t something that we felt obliged to do. That we were trapped doing and that we were responsible for keeping our child entertained and keeping our child happy all day long and pleasing our child who really is mostly pleased when they are able to go up and down in their emotions and have leaders that are confident in taking care of them and understanding them.

Nurturing this incredible gift of self-directed play. So anyway, I do understand this person’s opinion and it does make sense to me but I think she’s seeing this in an extreme way herself rather than the way that I intend to share it.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet, I am so happy to have discovered you! I have a question for you and I really hope you could answer me. I have a 22 months toddler whose only play, lately, is talking to or showing things to his stuffed animals/dolls/any object (through me replying to him, obviously). I’m not sure if I should encourage (considering this is his “independent play”, since he is not talking to me, but to the animals) or discourage this type of play (as it can sometimes be bothering to me, as I have to keep answering him). Also, everything he does, he does to “show off” to them (dancing, painting, anything) and if there is no one watching/replying, he is not interested in doing that anymore. I’m afraid this might feed his external motivation, but also, I don’t know how to make him not want their attention anymore. Also, what is your opinion about Montessori activities? I often feel guilty I don’t have the time to prepare them for him and that he might miss out in his development. I would be very grateful for an answer.
    Greetings from Romania!

  2. I’m so, so happy I found this article. My 22 mo old daughter is obsessed with books and will sit and read them with me for hours. Since quarantine started and we can’t go out as much, it’s much worse. I’ve felt guilty about setting limits because they’re, well… books, and I definitely don’t want to discourage her from reading. My family even discouraged me from limiting her but they don’t understand how much this wears me out. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My daughter is 2.5yo and i feel she is really good at independent play. She will play for an hour often by herself several times a day. She invents her own play often with things around the house, i don’t mind her using the things she can reach as she wishes, there are a few off limit things and she knows about them and doesn’t usually play with them. She will call me when she wants me or needs help or will come and get me. I find this pretty convenient and i am proud that i have been able to support her in her interests however my husband is a bit more critical and says that she’s just running around not learning anything and that i need to organize activities her. We do lots of practical life things together when she is interested and things like art, i have a bit high so i don’t have coloring on the walls, and she will ask when she wants to do them. My question is, is there such a thing at this age as too much independent play?

    1. No, there is no such thing as too much independent play when a child chooses this! I would urge your husband to read a few of the gazillion studies on the power of child=directed play as a learning tool. There is no better education for her. Well done!

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