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Three Tips to Encourage and Foster Independent Play with Your Baby

The topic of independent play is one that has been coming up A LOT lately for me, particularly in the age of Covid when people are juggling working full time with being full-time caretakers. I think with babies, this subject is particularly interesting because I often hear from parents that they feel they’re almost being neglectful letting their baby play independently. But independent play is a vital skill… really as important as interaction with adults in my opinion. Ultimately, allowing your child to play independently is going to help build their focus and their self-confidence.

Before we get into details, I want to stress that when I say independent play, particularly with a baby, I’m not necessarily talking about you being able to leave the room and she’ll occupy herself, though that’s certainly a skill you’re working towards. It’s really more, especially in the early phases, about being a less active participant and more of an observer in your child’s play, allowing him/her the space to engage on their own.

Re-Defining Your Role In Play

A big part of my philosophy as an educator is following your child’s lead and that starts with being an active observer. What I think you’ll find as you take more of an observing approach, is how amazing and capable children are, even from a young age. They have opinions and incredible ability from infancy, and when we give the space to explore without showing them the “right” way to use materials, it’s amazing to see what they come up with! Take a step back while playing with your baby and start to ask yourself questions like: What is your child’s interaction/play style? What seems to overstimulate them and what are the signs you’re seeing that indicate overstimulation? Are there certain toys and materials they gravitate towards?

A Space Where Your Baby Can Play On Their Own Safely

Depending on your setup, it might not be possible to have a special space completely devoted to your child’s play. What you want to think about here, is an area of your home that you would feel most comfortable leaving your child to move around freely without as much adult supervising. Maybe that means a gated play area!

Setting it Up: Materials and Toys and How You Present Them

Every baby is different, and therefore, every baby’s tolerance for stimulation is different. But I would say, as a general rule, think having no more than 3-5 items out at a time. What kind of items? In addition to more traditional toys (think taste/chew safe and easy to grasp for this age group), I’m a big proponent of thinking using what you have around you, as it often is equally, if not more engaging. Check out my previous post featuring favorite toys for the first six months my upcoming post featuring my favorite toys that aren’t really toys for some ideas!

You want to present materials in a way that’s interesting and engaging. I like to make a semi-circle (or circle if the child is mobile) around the child, placing items within reach, but a challenging reach. Get creative in layering your setups-- maybe you’re putting out your child’s favorite ball, but placing it under a scarf or inside of a soft felt basket. When you present things this way, in addition to the play and exploration with the ball, your child is also working on fine motor skill honing, problem solving, cause and effect, and spatial awareness.

Before your baby is mobile, you’re either going to position them on their belly or their back. I would encourage you to try both, but remember that laying a baby on their back is much less restrictive, which may be better served for independent play and engagement.

It’s an incredible thing to watch your baby’s independent play skills flourish!

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