Independent Playtime: The Ultimate Overview

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Get a full overview on independent playtime. Learn all about independent playtime and its benefits as well as how to implement it and solve any problems.

Girl playing with a toy kitchen

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. Let’s discuss different age groups.


Read: Benefits of Independent Play


Independent Playtime for Baby

I personally start the essence of Independent Playtime as a young newborn. The way I do Independent Playtime with a newborn is to 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. 

She is playing independently because I am not interacting at all and not distracting her from her play at all. 

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.


Read: How To Get Your Baby Playing Independently


I find doing this from the beginning makes the entire transition to “real” independent play as older babies seamless. From the beginning of life, my baby learns that it is normal to play alone at times in the day.

Please note, do not despair if you are starting Independent Playtime later than this. It is totally doable at any age! See my post for Starting Independent Playtime Late for help getting started with an older baby or even older child. 

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.


Read: Great Toys To Encourage Independent Playtime


Independent Playtime for Pre-Toddler

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. 

Independent Playtime for Toddler

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–Your Invitation for more information on roomtime.

Independent Playtime for Preschooler and Older

I continue daily roomtime with my kids until they enter first grade this year. First grade is the first year that we have full day school. When my kids have been gone all day, we don’t have a lot of hours left in the day.

We will do it on weekends when we have the time. We also do it in the summer pretty regularly.

For more on this, see Independent Playtime for the School-Aged Child.

Independent Playtime Lengths

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
  • Up to 90 minutes for 21 months or older. Some people break things up and do more like 45 minutes twice a day. 

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.

On the other hand, you might have a new baby and get tied up with a fussy newborn and need to leave your preschooler in independent playtime for an extra 30 minutes while you attend to your newborn. 

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 four of my children, 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 four children who display these skills speaks volumes for Independent Playtime.

Read more benefits of Independent Play here.

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 a post that goes into further detail: 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 happy parent, and that is good for the entire family.

Read more about different ways to do independent playtime in your day each day here.

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.

 You can see more detail on starting Independent Playtime here.

Independent playtime guide pinnable image with a girl playing with a toy kitchen

Addressing Problems with Independent Playtime

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 Not…

On Becoming Preschoolwise (affiliate link) has some good tips on what Independent Playtime is not. “Concentration and creativity are developed during independent play. 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).

If that is your goal of independent play, you want to make sure you are doing it correctly. Sometimes knowing what something isn’t helps you understand what it is. This information is found on page 120.

  • Not a time your child chooses where to play
  • Not a time your child chooses what to play with (though I must say, I pretty much always let my kids pick things to play with during roomtime)
  • Not a time your child chooses how long to play
  • Not something you put off to the preschool years–by 18-24 months, your child should be able to play for 45-60 minutes uninterrupted (but don’t let this stop you from starting late–just let it encourage you to start early if you can)
  • Not a group activity
  • Not time for computer games, video games, television, etc
  • Not in a place your child can see you or easily hear you
  • Not a time for developmentally out of reach toys–don’t make them too hard. It will be frustrating
  • Not a time for developmentally “too young” toys–keep them challenging enough

Conclusion

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.

Related Independent Playtime Posts

Reader Questions and Comments

The Neal Family said: We just started independent playtime last week at our house. My daughter is 16 months, we got started a little late. But she stays in her crib (it’s the only safe place for her that she can’t leave) for 2 fun songs on her cd. She has special fun/engaging toys just for this purpose. Right now she is spending her 2 songs standing at the edge and screaming until the time is up. I am very hopeful we won’t have to do this much longer before she starts playing and lengthening her time. Screaming is no fun for anyone!

Muffy said: That’s a great way to look at it. I haven’t read Preschoolwise yet because I have a 9 month old. But I just noticed a dramatic improvement in her independent playtime when I moved her where she couldn’t see me! That was more by accident because she stood up in her crib the other day & I moved her pack & play into her room for naps until my husband had a chance to lower the crib. The first time I had her in her room where she couldn’t see me, she played for 45 minutes!!! Before, I had her in the dining room, and she would start fussing for me every time I walked by. She barely lasted 15 minutes! Now she LOVES IP! 

Maryea said: Thank you for this reminder! IP is a lot of work, but so worth it.

Laura said: I have no doubt you can train your baby/toddler to play independently, I’m just having a hard time knowing what kind of toys could occupy and entertain my 15 month old for 45 min? Any help or suggestions? We are just beginning to do blanket time and would love help on great, entertaining toys for this age. Thanks!
Plowmnators replied: Laura, see this post: Best Toys for Baby: 12-18 Months

Ellyn said: My son is 17 mo. old and really loves IP time (in playpen). I sneak a peak at him and he plays with his toys in ways I never could imagine. IP time builds so much brain power. It’s priceless. He goes through stages where he seems bored with IP time but right now he’s super into it and does 50 min. When he gets bored I think it’s because I have toys that are too easy for him. Right now he has 4 books in IP and it seems like he concentrates the most on books that show pics of real objects, like apples, cars, insects, more so than story books. I put puzzle pieces in a bowl and he takes them out and fits them into the puzzle board. He always plays with his jumbo legos and his stacker toy with rings. Sometimes he hammers on his xylophone. Another toy he loves is the hammer peg toy. He also loves shape sorters so I put the shapes in a bowl and then he has to take the pieces and place them in the shape sorter. I rotate the toys in his playpen every couple of days. I rotate his books everyday.

Ruth said: Ellyn,You are inspiring! I like your details about what you put in the playpen and how often you change them.My little boy is 18 months, and he loves IP too! He seems to like things that make noise, like a leap frog drum and his singing doggie named Spot (also Leapfrog). I put at least 1 book in there per day. I think he likes non-fiction books too (real photographs).Questions for Val and Ellyn:1. Since his interest are things that make noise, should I have more than 1 toy that fits this category?2. When should I put away the playpen and move to room time?Thanks,Ruth
Plowmanators replied: Ruth, 1. I would vary the type of toys and I wouldn’t put more than a couple of noise-making toys in at a time. 2. You can start any time from now forward. Some start at your son’s age (or earlier) and some wait until closer to two. I prefer closer to 18 month side.

Ellyn said: Ruth,My son loves Spot too! Just recently I had to take Spot out of IP because my son was bored with him and he wasn’t getting used. I will probably reintroduce Spot again soon. To answer your questions, my son likes noise toys too but I lean towards Montessori learning with is more about natural toys, real life objects, problem solving, etc., so I am careful about how many noise makers I introduce to him. So I try to balance everything. So let me think about this. I guess the only electronic toy I have in IP is a piano and I rotate that so it’s not in there much. I also rotate a xylophone and flute. Sometimes I have to sit down and really think, what will challenge him? He seemed to be too good at the big legos so I took those out and put in smaller more challenging legos. And man, oh man, puzzles are his new thing. We have 6 or so Melissa and Doug puzzles that really challenge him so that is the new hot item in IP. Sometimes I make a grab bag with random around-the-house-items like house keys, a flashlight, containers, pouches with zippers, mini cardboard jewelry boxes, a mirror, a glass container with beans so he can shake that (I make sure everything is safe and secure).  As far as roomtime, I am going to start that in about 2 weeks. I am really excited because the playpen is so small. I hope my post helps.

Ashley Gregg said: Hi there! I’ve followed your blog since before my 19month daughter was even born. It has been so very helpful…I refer all new mom’s to it!Anyways, I thought I would write to let you know of the independent play success we had this past week. Until now this has been the one area that is just too much for me. My daughter is a great sleeper, very obedient, great eater etc, but not so great at playing by herself. I think this is mainly due to her having ear infections almost her entire life. She had tubes put in about two weeks ago and the difference has been amazing! After this I was ready to tackle independent play etc. I put a blanket in her room and gave her clear instructions as to the toys she could play with and that she was not allowed to get up. After about 45 minutes of protesting (crying etc) she played nearly an hour by herself and has been doing so ever since.Thank you so much for you encouragement to stick with this aspect of babywise. I just want to give hope to moms that even if you have a toddler it can be done!

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