When my son Henry and his cousin Brian were 4, Brian would often go missing at family gatherings. Not really missing, of course. But we'd all be eating or talking or chasing after kids, and someone would ask, "Where's Brian?" When we'd look around, he'd always be right there, quietly and happily entertaining himself with a Matchbox car or some other toy he'd found.
Henry, though, never got lost. He preferred constant interaction -- if he was working on a puzzle, for instance, he wanted me to be sitting right there, handing him the pieces. He wouldn't have been tempted to play by himself if he'd had 50 Matchbox cars.
It's not that I minded building towers or zooming cars or playing Trouble with him day after day. It's just that occasionally I wouldn't have minded being able to read more than the headlines in the morning paper before Henry called me to my next activity.
As it turns out, it would have been better for Henry, too, if he could have managed without me for a Lego project or two. Playing alone is good for a child -- for his self-esteem, his imagination, and his ability to make it in the wider world, where Mom or Dad won't come running to amuse him every time he's bored, says Melanie Killen, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland. Good news: There's hope for me and other parents of kids who haven't come prepackaged with the "I love independent play" ingredient. What you can do, early on and as your child grows, to encourage this behavior:
Babies — A Few Minutes Matter
It's easy to feel as though you ought to fill your baby's day with stimulation and opportunities to learn. "When Sophie was a baby, boredom seemed like a sin to me," says Mikki Morrissette of Minneapolis. But when Sophie was around 6 months old, Morrissette noticed how much her daughter loved playing with her hands and toes, so she backed off. "She learned how to get her toes into her mouth quite nicely!"
Birth to 3 years is a key time for learning, as you no doubt know. But as Sophie proved, babies learn in many ways: by playing with you, by interacting with other children, and by exploring on their own. So while playgroups and time with you are great, it's just as important to let her sit around sometimes.
"Parents often see a child who is perfectly happy staring into space, and then intervene," says William Sammons, M.D., a developmental pediatrician in Boston. "They think, 'He must be bored, so I'll take him out of his crib.' That child will learn that the world is going to provide him with constant entertainment." Remember: Solo play may not look like much fun to you. But time staring at a mobile or into a mirror counts -- to a baby, that's entertainment.
Even when you do play together, let your child try things her way. You may think a ball is for rolling, but she probably wants to lick it, smell it, or sit on it. If she gets frustrated by it (say, it rolls away when she's trying to grab it), don't retrieve it right away. If you're too quick to step in, she may get the message that she can't figure anything out for herself. She also might expect you to help right away next time -- and the time after that.
Of course, with an infant, you shouldn't ask for too much when it comes to solo play. Five minutes to a half hour once or twice a day when she isn't hungry or tired may be all a baby's good for (with adult supervision, of course). By the time she's 8 or 9 months, she can probably manage at least half an hour at a time.
If you've tried leaving your baby in her crib or playpen with a toy while you read in the rocker, yet she still wails for you, add some more stimulation: a crib mirror, a set of wind chimes placed in front of a fan, or a bold, colorful poster taped to the ceiling.
Toddlers — Jump-Start the Fun
One- and 2-year-olds need help to start an activity -- it's not as if they were born knowing how to stack a block -- but once you set up, step back. Lucinda Mercer of Millburn, New Jersey, liked to make play dough with her daughters. "It was a fun project, and then they could keep playing while I did something else," she says.
As with play dough, some of the best activities for toddlers are often the messiest (the kind best done outside), like finger-painting or digging in the sand. This kind of hands-on play is great for little kids, who love new textures and sensations. That means your child won't mind as much if you're not elbow-deep in the dirt too. But be forewarned: It may take 20 minutes to set up the easel, paints, and brushes for an art session that your toddler will bail out of in 10. But that's 10 quality imaginative minutes for him -- and a bill or two paid for you.
Other items to set up for your toddler:
• Pop-up toys, ones with buttons and knobs, and shape sorters
• Mini—musical instruments, like a closed plastic container filled with blocks or a wooden spoon and a shoe box
• A big plastic tub filled with an inch of water (stay nearby while he plays), measuring spoons, cups, a colander, and other nonbreakable household items.
A toddler, like a baby, should entertain himself the way he wants to. If he's perfectly happy watching a colony of ants march across the pavement for five minutes, don't interrupt. So what if it's not a book or an educational toy? There's still something going on in his little head to keep him captivated. "After five minutes, many parents will say, 'He can't be interested in that anymore,' and try to engage their child in something else," says Dr. Sammons. "If he's looking at the ants for an hour -- great! Go busy yourself."
Preschoolers — Solo Play Takes Off
Around 3 and 4, kids are bombarded with rules -- no candy before dinner, no biting the baby -- but when it's time for play, they should have choices and be encouraged to make their own decisions. As your child gets older and better at playing alone, your role as game-starter will diminish.
"As soon as they could walk, my two boys never seemed to need or want me while they were playing," says Susan Laskaris, a mom of three in Boulder, Colorado. "But my youngest, Emma, ran to me for help for years. All it would take was one block to fall off the tower, and she'd come get me."
To help your child figure out what to do with her fallen blocks, experts suggest talking it out. "Uh-oh, this is getting hard," you might say. "I wonder what will happen if I try putting the block on this way -- will it stay put?" You can also do this to help her think of ways to play by herself, without you there to set up the play dough or the puppets. Try "Let's see. I'm kind of bored. What can we do with all these dolls?" Eventually, she'll be able to talk herself through her problem or a bout of boredom.
Show her how to find fun in everyday objects so that she can do the same for herself. Some ideas to get you started:
• Together, make a dress-up box filled with old clothes, gloves, hats, sunglasses, and whatever else strikes her fancy.
• Set up a tent indoors (or drape a blanket over a couple of chairs) for an instant fort, castle, or cave. And never throw away a cardboard box until your child's had a chance to turn it into a spaceship!
• Empty water bottles make good bowling pins -- just add a tennis ball for an indoor bowling alley.
Another way to encourage her to play alone: Rotate the toys you keep out (bonus: your playroom will be a little neater). That's what the teachers at Henry's preschool did, and each morning, the kids loved to see the "new" toys and enjoyed examining them on their own.
Art projects with crayons and markers are just right for this age too. Unlike toddlers, preschoolers are able to work with nontoxic glue and large pieces of fabric and paper. (Make sure younger siblings aren't assisting them.)
Giving your child these tools -- from art supplies to the ability to think up solo games -- is just as important as the time you spend playing along. And while she entertains her stuffed animals at a tea party, feel free to amuse yourself too!
Susan Brody is a mom of two boys in New Jersey.