Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Independent Playtime Overview

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I very often state that one of my absolute favorite parenting tools is Independent Playtime. This block of time has immense benefits to the entire family. This post will take you through the basics on what it is (and isn't), the benefits of it, implementing it, and solving potential problems you might face with it.

Definition of Independent Playtime
Independent Playtime is a block of time each day that your child plays alone. On Becoming Preschoolwise states that "The most important aspect of this time is that your child is learning to focus on what he can do with the things he has" (page 120). 

Exactly what Independent Playtime will look like for your child will vary based on the age, ability, and maturity of your child.

I personally start the essence of Independent Playtime as a young newborn. The way I do Independent Playtime with a newborn is do put the baby at a floor gym (you could use a bouncer, swing, or even a blanket) and then sit a couple of feet away and watch her play. I don't talk to her or wave things in her face. I just enjoy watching her. Length varies from 5-10 minutes; newborns can't stay awake very long. 

Now, of course I do spend time each day talking to my newborn, holding her, loving her, kissing her chubby little cheeks...I am talking about one or two 5-10 minute block in a day when I let her play alone. I find doing this from the beginning makes the entire transition to "real" independent play as older babies seamless.

Once my baby reaches about 3-4 months old, I start to have the time be in the playpen every so often--maybe a few times a week. I might move the gym in there or I might hang a baby mirror and mobile in there and put some toys in there. I want baby to get comfortable with the playpen. At this time, I still sit in the room with baby, though I do need to be more creative about not being seen. If it wasn't possible for me to not be seen, I would sit right outside the door. 

Once baby can get to toys on her own, I will leave the room but stay really close. As she gets older, I will leave the room and move about the house, but I do always keep a monitor on the baby.

A Pre-toddler is in the age range of 12-18 months. Most pre-toddlers will be in the playpen still. Some might move to Roomtime, but most will stay in the playpen. You can play music for your child if she enjoys music. You will want to make sure you rotate the toys and books you give her to play with every so often so the toys stay interesting to her. 

Toddler, Preschooler, and Older
Sometime between 18 months and two years old, your toddler will move to roomtime instead of just the playpen. You want to make sure the room is child-proofed and safe for your child. You still pull out the toys and books for her to play with. For more on Roomtime, see my post Roomtime.

I continued daily roomtime with my oldest (now 6) until he entered first grade this year (his first year of full-day schooling). We now do it on weekends when we have the time. We do not do it on school days because he is already gone for so much of the day, I don't have time to fit that in with the other activities of  the evening.

This is taken from my post on Independent Playtime Lengths
  • 5-10 minutes once or twice a day as a young newborn
  • 10-20 minutes twice a day for first few months
  • 15-30 minutes twice a day for the independent sitter
  • 30-45 minutes at least once a day for the crawler
  • Up to 60 minutes for the 15-20 month old in playpen or room
These are guidelines. Some days may be longer, some shorter. For example, say it is Saturday and you have a family thing to get to. You can have a shorter than usual independent play so you can get to your family thing on time.

Benefits of Independent Playtime
On Becoming Babywise II lists several of the benefits to Independent Playtime on page 73:
  • Mental Focusing Skills
  • Sustained Attention Span
  • Creativity
  • Self-Play Adeptness
  • Orderliness
I have done Independent Playtime with all three of my children (6, 4, and 2), and I have found these benefits to be true. It is hard to judge the effects because for one thing, you can't live life in a vacuum, and for another, you can't live parallel lives where you do two different things with the same child and see which "thing" was the best. I do think that having three children who display these skills speaks volumes for Independent Playtime.

I also find that Independent Playtime results in happier and more patient children. If I am going to have a playdate that day, I make sure we do Independent Playtime that morning. My children consistently play better with others when they have Independent Playtime--whether those others be friends or family. For more on the benefits of Independent Playtime, I have two posts that go into further detail: Benefits of Independent Play and Baby Whisperer: Playing Independently.

This time also offers you some time to clean, cook, get ready, or simply relax. That should lead to a more relaxed and harpy parent, and that is good for the entire family.

Implementing Independent Playtime
Does Independent Playtime sound nice? Want to try? Here are some basic details on how to implement. Now, exactly how easy this is to do will vary. Factors will include age of the child, personality, and previous life experience. A 2 year old who has never played alone will likely resist more than a 2 month old.

If you are starting from the beginning of life--or quite early in life (say the first 4-5 months), it should be pretty easy so long as you are consistent. If you are startting later in life, you might have some protesting from your child. Either way, here are some tips.
  1. Pick a consistent time of day. Consistency is very important. I like mornings because I can always get it in during the morning hours. Pick what works for you.
  2. Keep toys safe, age appropriate, and rotated. Your child will not enjoy this playtime if she has the same toys for 6 weeks in a row. Also, don't give too many toys. You want enough to keep her happy, but not so many her brain gets overwhelmed.
  3. Stay in earshot. Either through being close in proximity or through a monitor. 
  4. If your child enjoys it, start with 10-15 minutes at a time. 
  5. If your child is not happy, start with 5-10 minutes at a time. Some moms find 5 minutes isn't long enough while others find it to be perfect. A timer can also be very effective. See my post on The Timer for more. 
  6. Clean up when playtime is over. Sing the clean up song and clean with your child. Hand her a toy and ask her to put it in the bucket/basket/whatever. When she does, tell her great job and thank her for helping you. As she gets older and more able, she will help on her own.
  7. Know what it isn't. Sometimes it helps to know what something is not to know what it is. See Independent Playtime is Not...
If you are starting late, see my post on Starting Independent Playtime Late.

Addressing Problems
You might run into some problems along the way with Independent Playtime. Here are the most common:
  • Resistance. You might have your child not want to do Independent Playtime, whether from the beginning or "all of a sudden." For more on this, see Resistance to Independent Playtime.
  • Ransacking. Your child might have a very fun time during Independent Playtime, but destroys the room in the process. For tips on dealing with this, see this post on Ransacking During Independent Playtime.
  • Sleeping. You might find your child falls asleep during Independent Playtime, which then messes with nap time, which of course makes Independent Playtime annoying rather than beneficial. For tips on this issue, see Falling Asleep During Independent Playtime.
Independent Playtime is well worth the effort it takes to implement it. Well worth it. If you have an older child and haven't started it, you can do it! I started late with my oldest child and he did great with it--it took some time to work up to it, but we got there. You will love this and your children will love this. 

Valerie Plowman blogs at Chronicles of a Babywise Mom.


Amy said...

Hi Val -- do your kids ever call for you or leave their rooms to find you during independent playtime in order to ask for help in doing something, give you a picture they colored, etc? I am struggling with this with my daughter. She always seems to find someone reason to come out during the time period. Wondering how you handle this sort of thing.


The Richards said...

Val-I'm a working mom and I feel as though my 4 month old gets much more independent time than you recommended. I work 40 hours a week and his daycare teachers do interact with him but with 7 other babies in the room, I'm sure he's getting more independent playtime. What do you think about development for babies of working moms? Thanks! Also-I LOVE your blog!!

Stori said...

I know this is long, but I started IP late and I wanted to share this link below if anyone is interested in starting late and wants some info on how! I highly recommend doing it. Its hard starting late, but worth it.


Laura said...

Does there happen to be a post anywhere that talks about the differences between blanket time, playpen time, and IP/roomtime? I have been doing blanket time with my 10 mo. old lately, but I don't really understand if this counts as her independent play time, or if these are supposed to be two different activities with different goals. We tried playpen time for a few days, too, but it didn't go so well and I wasn't sure if it was necessary to push it if we were doing the blanket time. Any side by side type comparisons of these three things would be AMAZING! :) Thanks for all you do!

Brittney said...

Hi! I just found your blog and I'm so glad. I've been doing babywise with my little girl since she was born and it's been working great. I have a question about sleep, though... sorry if I should ask this somewhere else! Several of my friends who did babywise and travel for their work for an NGO said they regretted only putting Baby down in the crib to sleep. Their kids then were not able to sleep on planes, trains, cars, or in hotel rooms. My husband and I have been putting our daughter down in 3-4 different places around the house-- playpen (which is her crib), car seat, on a bed (not a squishy one), on the floor on a blanket. She's 10 weeks old and seems to be doing really well with this as long as there is not a lot of stimulating stuff to look at around her. Any thoughts/ideas on this? We work for an NGO and travel overseas quite a bit, staying in various places. I want our girl to have the structure of a schedule but not have her sleep interrupted by the necessity of often sleeping in different environments.

amanda said...

Tips on IP in tiny houses? My little girl is only 7 months so playpen still works fine, but I am concerned about when she gets into the toddler phase. As of right now we live in a tiny house, she sort of has a room, half of it is her crib and the other half is storage. Do I just need to clear the other half out somehow when she gets a few months older. Also, when you have more than one LO in a tiny house what can you do?

Plowmanators said...


Yes--yes. That was totally Brayden for a while. Kaitlyn does it sometimes, but she was never persistent about it. I am sure the day will come with McKenna. How old is she? I was thinking I needed to do a post on this very thing because it is a common problem I haven't addressed yet.

So the first thing is to not let her stay out when she gets out. You need to have some rules, and some will be hard to judge. I have found it to be hardest with my oldest because I have been a parent as long as he has been a human, so we are on more even ground. I have some "up" on my girls. So you can tell them not to get out and decide on a consequence if they do, but there have to be exceptions. Like potty breaks.

I would just think of some rules (save your pictures for when I come get you--if you can't stay in then you don't get to draw during independent play the next day for example).

Plowmanators said...


Can you clarify more on your question? Are you asking if I think he should have independent play at home? Or how I think he will do developmentally in that situation? Thanks :)

Plowmanators said...

Thanks for sharing, Stori

Plowmanators said...


See this post and let me know if it answers it for you: Structured Playtime:http://babywisemom.blogspot.com/2008/08/structured-playtime.html

Blanket time is Structured Playtime, but not Independent Playtime.

Plowmanators said...


If it were me, I would try to clean out her room so she can do it in there.

Older children can do it in a family room so long as you aren't in there or in and out. You can also do IPT at different times for different kids if you have to.

Plowmanators said...


Glad you found it Brittney!

I don't like the carseat thing because there was a baby in my state who died last year sleeping in a carseat. So that makes me uncomfortable to do regularly.

The bed also makes me uncomfortable because a baby your age will soon start (if she hasn't already) wiggling around her sleep space. I also know someone in the last year whose baby fell off the bed and broke something. So I would worry about that.

I think your idea is fine and great. Have baby sleep in different places to be used to it. Have you ever heard of a peapod? We have one and love it. It is something you can easily carry with you overseas, and can hold up to a 5 year old, so you could try that instead of the bed and carseat rotation.

Another carseat thing, one reader tried that several years ago, but it ended up backfiring on her. I can't even remember the specifics, but she had that idea and reported it did not work. Rachel, who is doing the blogging with me this week, has one kid who sleeps in the car really well. So you never know what will happen with cars and sleep from child to child (she is a Babywise mom).

The Richards said...

I'm asking how you think he will do developmentally. Thanks -Kim

Laura said...

Yes, that helped some. So during blanket time, my child would play in one spot with chosen toys, but I stay close by and possibly interact, vs. playpen time where she plays on her own and I am out of sight? (And then eventually playpen time becomes room time?) Am I on the right track? :)

Rebecca said...

Hi there,
We moved my 21 month old son from the playpen to roomtime a couple of months ago. However we store most of his toys in his room and he has easy access to most of them.
This makes it difficult to specify which toys he can focus on & play with during IP as in order to do that I'd need to remove alot of toys each day and then put them back after IP each day.
Do you have any tips on how I can manage this better? Does having access to all the toys negate the advantages/benefits of IP?
P.s. I love your blog and have found it so very helpful so many times - thank you!!

liz22 said...

Hi Val,
You responded to me about this issue on the google message board but it has been nine months now and nothing has changed. My 3yo daughter has never played during roomtime. I rotate her toys, they are all age appropriate and interesting (she loves playing with them when she's in a room with me), I have tried music. She sits at her table and chairs in her bedroom for maybe 2 minutes when she first goes in, then climbs into her bed and lays there the entire hour of IP. She has only fallen asleep once. To me, this isn't what IP is for. She isn't learning to play alone, focusing on anything, being creative etc. It's still great for me because I can get done what I need to during this time but I almost feel cruel putting her in there. She doesn't complain about going but she just lays there without saying anything until I come in to get her. I've tried with her door open and closed and it doesn't make a difference. Thanks.

Plowmanators said...

The Richards,

The working moms I know seem to have children who have developed really well. I would imagine that there would be some factors like what exactly things are like at the daycare.

This blog: http://thegracefulmom.com/

is written by a Babywise mom who is also a working mom. I am sure she could give you much better insight than I could. She has done a guest post here, also, that might help. See the label "WOHM" or the Guest Posts on the blog index. Good luck!

Plowmanators said...

Laura, that is correct :)

Plowmanators said...


Glad you love the blog!

I would say if you don't want a 21 month old playing with all of those toys that you would want to think of a way to get them out of his reach.

Personally, I have never stressed about it. I get out a couple of toys, but if they get out a couple more while playing, it honestly doesn't bother me. My kids have all gone through a brief period where they seem to get every toy out in the room (well, the girls, not Brayden), but they all mostly really focus on one thing.

Also, as they get older and able to verbalize and make decisions, I let them have most of the say on what I get out each day.

All that to say, I think you will find that as he gets older and his attention span grows, I think you will find that even though the access to the toys is there, he won't get into all of them.

Plowmanators said...

Hi Liz,

I think you should start by talking to her about it. She is old enough to give you some insight. Ask her why she lays on her bed and why she does not play with toys. Let me know what she says.

An idea I had for you is to do like I did for starting Brayden in Independent play. Set aside a time each day when you go in her room with her and play with the toys with her.

Is she very imaginative? Could she be daydreaming?

Tori said...

Hi Valerie,
I have a question about what you do outside of IP with your babies (under 12 months). How do you balance child-specific activities, IP, and activities where you are with baby but not interacting with him/her directly (ie, making lunch and chatting with baby).
I have one ds who is about 8 mo now who is awake 2.5, 2.5, and 4 hours at a time, and even with 2x 20 minutes of IP, nursing (quick nurser), cuddle time, eating solids, playing together, stories and wind-down time (and a bath plus one or two walks a day), it seems like we still have a lot of time left over that I don't know what to do with. I don't know how much it is ok to leave him on the floor and chat with him while I do chores, etc. when he's already had independent play.
I guess what I'd like to know is, how much time do you spend in child-specific activities (ie, playing and interacting directly with baby and not doing other things).
Could you touch on this? I'm confused about how to organize my day, especially with just one child (I'd imagine sibling time takes up a fair amount of time)
Thanks for all you do,

liz22 said...

Hi Val,
I have asked her in the past and gotten the same answer every time -- "Because, I didn't want to play."
I've tried talking to her a couple times since I first wrote you (with the holidays and family visiting for the past week IP has been almost non-existent) but she is not interested at all in telling me why she is laying in her bed. She keeps giving me the same vague answer, "Because I wanted to lay" or "Because I didn't want to play". And when I push it she says, "I just told you why, I didn't want to play." Ugh. That's all I'm getting. Should I let it go again?
She is imaginative but it's so odd for her to be silent the whole time. I suppose that could be it. I'm going to try what you did with Brayden. Can you elaborate a little of do you already have a post on it? Do you do it during the scheduled IP time? How long do you stay? Thanks!

Plowmanators said...


Your question is a common one--especially for that age range. I have a post called "Spending Time with Baby/Child" that should help and also the "More than making it..." post for that age range. See those two posts and let me know if that answers your question.

Plowmanators said...


I do have a post. It is in one of the Independent Playtime posts. It should be starting late.

With him, I did it at Independent playtime time. In your case, I would shorten her independent play and then do it with her. So maybe 20-30 minutes of independent playtime (just to keep the routine and habit of it), then follow up with you interacting and showing her how she might play. Then slowly back off how much you interact but stay in the room. Get to the point where you are just in the room with no playing with her. I did this over a month period, but you could probably go faster since she is older.

Plowmanators said...

And maybe try to ask her less open-ended questions. Like, "Do you like to play with toys?" "Which toys is your favorite?" For a young child, it might be easier to go with yes/know and straight, concrete answers than answers that involve more introspection.

Tori said...

Hi again,
Yes, thank you! I hadn't read those posts yet, they were exactly what I was looking for. Please know how grateful I am, your words are very reassuring.

Plowmanators said...

Fabulous Tori!

Katie {My Paisley Apron} said...

Could you post your recommended lengths of IP/roomtime for older kids? (Or do you have that already posted somewhere?)

My son is almost 4 years old, and always has done amazing with IP. But I'd love to hear your thoughts on the minimum and maximum lengths of IP you'd recommend (both per day, and per session) for olds kids, if you have time.

Thank you!!

Plowmanators said...


I just stick to one hour once a day once the child reaches that length. I think if you are having a super busy day or something you could do 1.5 hours--but I wouldn't do it too often.

Melissa said...

Forgive me if I've posted twice but quick question. I am doing Ind. playtime with my 4.5 month old. Starting next week she will nap in the pack n play while I'm at work. Will that mean we cannot so ind playtime in it as well? Thanks!

Valerie Plowman said...

That is totally fine! Some babies might need some adjustment, but your baby eill get used to it and be fine. Before nap you will have a sleep routine and at IPT you will have toys. Babies are smart :)

Jack said...

I just now remain faithful to sixty minutes the moment daily if the baby extends to of which time-span. I'm sure for anyone who is which has a tremendous chaotic time or maybe anything you could potentially complete 1. 5 hours--but When i couldn't practice it too much.


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