two babies laying on their backs on a toki mats play mat

How to Foster Independent Play in Babies

October 17, 2022

When your little one is just an infant, the idea of independent play may seem like a concept for the far distant future. You may associate independent play (a fancier term for playing solo) with a much older child quietly reading a book or playing pretend in their toy kitchen, but children can actually begin to play by themselves for short periods of time from an early age. Even if your little one is a “Velcro baby” who’s always crying to be held, they can still benefit from having some solo time at least a few minutes per day. When you engage in intentional, structured play with your baby, it builds a strong bond, creates a secure environment, and teaches them a wide set of skills that boosts their brain development. There’s no question that there is power in playing with your baby. However, by also giving them quiet, unstructured time to explore on their own, your baby is free of distractions and encouraged to discover their surroundings at their own pace and will. When your child plays alone, this simple activity fosters creativity and imagination, builds problem-solving skills, boosts confidence, and also teaches patience. However, like everything else, this skill starts with your guidance. Here’s how to foster independent play in your baby:

Be realistic

One of the most important things about setting the foundation for independent play is having realistic expectations. Every child is different. Even if your friend gushes about how their 6-month old baby can happily play alone for half an hour, most babies have an attention span of 2-3 minutes. Your little one may entertain themselves for only a few minutes before needing to be picked up, but those few minutes are a win. Setting a realistic expectation will minimize your frustration when your baby starts fussing after a few minutes. Although their attention span and tolerance seems minimal right now, they’ll become more independent as they grow.  

See to their needs first

The best way to set the scene for success is to make sure your baby is in a good mood before you set them down for independent play. A well-rested, fed, and clean baby is a happy baby, and one that will be more receptive to the task. After all, who would be content to focus on a task when they’re sitting in a dirty diaper or ravenously hungry? It might take a little trial and error, but find a sweet spot during their awake time when they’ve just been fed and changed.

Create a safe, comfortable environment

Laying a soft, comfortable play mat on the floor can be just what you need to keep your baby content as they explore their surroundings. If your little one is a staunch hater of tummy time, you can set them on their back in a play gym so that they have things to look at, toys to reach for and bat. You can also set up their mat inside a play yard, so you know the space is safe and secure in case you need to step away for a few seconds. Babies are surprisingly fast, even before they can crawl, and ensuring that their environment is free of hazards makes it easier to give them independent play time. 

toddler playing by herself on a toki mats play mat

Set aside time to give your undivided attention

If you want your little one to be able to play solo for short periods of time, make sure you give them undivided attention during the times you’re playing together. If you’re on your phone or distracted when playing with your baby, they may still need more of your attention afterwards. Fill up their cup first by being present and intentional with your time together, then let them enjoy a few minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time to play with their toys alone.

Pick open-ended toys

Although babies are often attracted to loud toys with flashing, colorful lights, these toys aren’t really conducive to play. With only one way to play (such as pressing a button), the novelty wears off quickly and your baby may soon tire of it. Pick open-ended toys, like a baby-safe mirror, rattle, sensory objects, etc. that they can explore in multiple ways. Whether they throw, squeeze, or roll the toy, your baby can play in a way that encourages their imagination and creativity. To put it simply, open-ended toys let your baby do all the thinking and learning.

Make it a habit

If you make independent play a part of their everyday routine, your baby is less likely to resist it. It’s important to note that independent play is not the same thing as unsupervised play. Your baby should always be supervised, and you can even sit next to them and simply observe. If your child prefers to have you sit with them, you can set aside time where you only observe as they explore their toys or surroundings. By staying quiet, you allow your baby to develop increased focus because they aren’t distracted by the sound of your voice. Make it a point to carve out these quiet play sessions a few times a day as part of your baby’s routine, and they will learn to expect it and even enjoy it!

aerial view of a baby doing tummy time on a toki mats play mat
How to Foster Independent Play in Babies

About the Author: Alice

Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.

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