I like to joke that as the oldest child in a large family, I raised seven kids before ever having one of my own. And while I may have endured enjoyed twenty years of parental preparation before the Little Butt made his grand entrance, there’s nothing that can truly prepare one for being a parent besides, well, becoming a parent.
As a brand new mother, I told my husband this was the worst decision of our lives. Don’t take this wrong—I loved my little guy fiercely. But, like many mothers, I was overwhelmed from day one.
And I had the audacity to think I could maintain my former workload while caring for a child? #delusional
That’s why, as I promised last week in this post, I want to share with you my number one lifesaver as a work-at-home mom. This one tool is what gives me the mental and physical space to accomplish anything work-related during non-nap hours. It helps my kids learn to be content on their own without the TV, and it gives me a chance to catch my breath.
*This post contains affiliate links. This means I receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase something through the links provided…and I only post products I’ve tried and believe in.
What independent playtime looks like for us
I was encouraged to teach Reagan to play alone in his crib starting at around 6 months old. Implementing this has been the best choice ever. Reagan is an extrovert to the core who never stops talking, so teaching him to be content on his own is important to me.
Independent playtime is simply a fancy way to say “let the kid play alone in a safe place where you can monitor what’s going on but he can’t see you.”
When starting with a baby, some suggest using a playpen to differentiate between sleep time and play time. Our teeny tiny house doesn’t accommodate that much space, so I simply removed blankets and added a special selection of toys. I also turned on music of some sort, depending upon what was needed: children’s songs, lullabies, or relaxing instrumental music.
We gradually increased the length of playtime, starting with just five minutes. These days Cassidy (17 months) plays happily for 30-45 minutes. Since she’s in the process of dropping her morning nap, I let her go for as long as she’s happy, because sometimes she decides that she does in fact need a nap and lays down for a bit.
Reagan, who is now four, has a Tot Clock which is currently set with a 90-minute playtime. Most days he’s happy to play in his room, dance to music, or play on his computer for that amount of time. But if we’ve just gone through a few unstructured days, it takes a while to work back up to the full 90-minutes.
Were our house larger, I might set Reagan up in the playroom, but for now his room doubles as a playroom. I work just ten steps away, so I’m able to keep an ear out for what’s going on at all times.
The benefits of independent playtime
There are three main benefits to practicing independent playtime.
Independent playtime helps your kids
As I mentioned earlier, my firstborn is an extrovert. Nothing would make him happier than to be with friends and family 24 hours a day. By teaching him to play alone, I’m teaching him that he is whole on his own, without other people. I firmly believe that this will strengthen his self-confidence.
Playtime also stimulates creativity. When forced to entertain himself, Reagan will design new Hot Wheels tracks or Lego space ships. He loses track of time as his mind plays with new layouts. With people around, he lacks the focus or patience to do detail-oriented “work” like this.
Cassidy, on the other hand, is most likely an introvert. She desperately needs alone time. We started playtime a bit later with her (perhaps closer to nine months), first out of desperation when she had meltdowns in the late afternoon. While she refused to sleep, playtime gave her the opportunity to recharge her batteries and join us for dinner in a pleasant mood.
With the constant stimulation of having an active older brother, there isn’t much time to sit in a corner and “read” other than during playtime. So in addition to recharging her batteries, playtime gives Cassidy an opportunity to increase her love of books.
Independent playtime gives you a chance to accomplish tasks
Here’s the cold, hard truth: I started practicing playtime out of desperation. Besides the fact that I love to work, I need to work. And honey, I’m too old to be of any mental use after the kiddos go to bed at night. My best hours are right after breakfast.
That’s why we generally start playtime around 9am. We’re early risers, so by this point we’ve dressed, eaten, read together, done some preschool work, and are ready to have our separate alone time.
During playtime you want to work hard-core. If someone other than your partner texts or calls, ignore it. Work from a list so that you don’t have to think about what to do. Just put your head down and do the work.
Independent playtime protects your sanity
I think it’s pretty well understood that moms—especially moms with preschool toys in the house—need their space. Someone wants something from you all. the. time. It’s draining.
There are days when I simply need playtime so I can sit on the couch and breathe or journal. I used to feel guilty about this, until I realized through time tracking that I work hard.
You cannot survive and thrive if you’re on 24 hours a day. You need downtime. You need to refill your tank, put on your oxygen mask, [insert the metaphor of your choice here], what have you.
How to begin independent playtime
Maybe you’re nodding your head and saying, “Yeah, Kendra, but my kid is three and I’ve never had him play alone in his life.” Or maybe your baby screams when you leave the room.
Start small. You could start by being in the room with your child the first few days, then easing out while giving them a five-minute playtime. Take the edge off with a drink or a snack (for them, not necessarily you). 😉 Turn on some music.
If you’re working with a younger child who has separation anxiety, you could try using a playpen close to your work station where they can see you. Then, over time, edge the playpen to where they can’t see you.
They might cry or fuss. But remember: you’re the parent. You know how to translate their cries. We are creatures of habit, and those habits start young. Be patient, and keep reminding yourself of the three benefits.
You want to maintain your sanity.
You have work to do.
And above all, you want to raise emotionally healthy, independent adults.
You’ve got this.