How To Start Independent Playtime Late

Find helpful tips on how to start independent playtime with your child no matter the age of your child. Know how to set things up, when to do it, and how long.

Child happily playing alone

Did you know it is possible to have your child play independently each day?

As in, alone?

Alone, without anyone else providing entertainment. Without an audience. Without instruction.

There are so many benefits to having your child play independently. Some benefits include:

  • Mental Focusing Skills
  • Sustained Attention Span
  • Creativity
  • Self-Play Adeptness
  • Orderliness

Even with my four children now, we maintain independent play each day if we are home for an extended period of time. I find we all need time alone for a period of the day.

Preparing to Start Independent Playtime Late

You ideally start independent playtime with your baby. It is easier and smoother to implement with a baby because you can make it a normal part of life. I did that with my three girls and it was quite smooth.

Read: How To Get Your Baby Playing Independently

But life isn’t always ideal. You might not have known about independent play when your little one was a baby. Maybe you knew but didn’t have the capacity to try to implement it. Perhaps you knew but didn’t see a need since baby napped so much each day.

For whatever reason, now you know, and now you want to get started.

I didn’t get started with independent play until my oldest was 13 months old. This is how we successfully started late.

Independent Playtime late pinnable image

Pick Your Ideal Time

The first step is to choose your time of day.

I liked mornings when my kids were babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Since they have all become school-aged, we like it in the afternoon. It gives everyone a mid-day break from each other.

Choose a time of day you know you can be consistent. I find that I am home in the morning hours most days. Consistency is such an integral part of success with independent playtime, so choose a time you know you can stick with it.

Choose a time of day your child will not be grumpy. You also want your child to be well-rested and not hungry. If your child is too tired or too hungry to be happy when you leave him alone, you will have a hard time starting independent playtime. You also want to prevent your little one from falling asleep during independent play and ruining nap time.

One tip, if you have more than one child and will be doing sibling play, I find independent play to work best if done before sibling play. Then they go from playing alone to playing with siblings rather than the other way around.

Read: Structured Playtime with Siblings (Sibling Playtime)

Choose The Ideal Location

Exactly where independent playtime will happen will depend on your child’s age and maturity level.

Any child under 12 months old who can move on their own at all (even by rolling) should be in a playpen.

Most children stay in the playpen until at least 18 months old, though some (like two of mine) move to room time earlier than that.

Most children two and older can handle being in a room instead of a playpen; however, if you are just starting IP, you might need to start with the playpen first until the child can do that happily, then move on to the room.

Here are some location ideas based on age:

0-3 Months
I do IP at the floor gym or on a blanket. I stay in the room with the baby, but don’t interact at all. Since they can’t really see far and don’t look around the room, they don’t really realize you are there.

3-6 Months
During this time period, you will want to transition to the playpen at some point. Feel it out with your child. I would say by 4 or 5 months, you want to be in the playpen at least some days. If your child doesn’t roll or move at all, you can still do days on a blanket so long as you are in the room supervising.

6-12 Months
Stay in the playpen during this age range.

12-15 Months
I think it is best for most to stay in the playpen. Kaitlyn moved out at 12 months, but not only is she incredibly mature for her age (was and is), her room was really not much larger than a playpen, anyway.

15-18 Months
This age range has a lot of variability. The -wise books suggest the child is still in the playpen at this age. But if you feel your child is able to handle roomtime, go for it. If your child is content in the playpen, stick with it.

18 Months-2 Years
Most will transition to roomtime sometime during this 6 month period

2 Years or Older
Room time for most. Some younger two year olds might still need the playpen.

Now, if your child is in a playpen, move the playpen into a room where he/she cannot see you. Kaitlyn did it in my room. McKenna’s playpen was in her room, as was Brinley’s.

Like one of the -wise books says (I think it is Babywise II), it is not fair to expect a child to play on her own in the playpen if she can see you.

If your child is ready for roomtime, it can be in any room so long as the room is safe. It can be a bedroom, den, family room, toy room…

Prepare the Play Space

Once you have chosen your ideal time of day and your ideal location, it is time to set the stage well.

If your child is in a playpen:

  1. Add toys and books to the playpen. Not too many and not too little.
  2. I like to leave the child with a sippy cup of water if they are old enough to hold it and drink from it alone. 
  3. I like to play children’s hymns. This isn’t necessary.

If your child is in a room:

  1. Make sure it is safe. I think the best way to do this is to sit in the room with your child while she plays. Observe what she does. Remove dangers. 
  2. Again, I leave a sippy of water. 
  3. I play children’s hymns or toddler tunes. 
  4. Make sure there are age appropriate toys available.

Read: Great Toys to Encourage Independent Playtime

Getting Started With Independent Playtime with an Older Kiddo

So you have your time of day chosen. You have your space prepared and ready. Now it is time to get started. 

If Your Child is Happy With Independent Play…

Use a timer for independent playtime. It will help you know how long it has been and it will help your child learn that it ends when the timer goes off.

If your child is easy going and will play some on her own, start with 5-10, maybe even 15, minutes of you leaving her to play alone.

As she gets used to it, move the time longer by 5 minutes every few days. See Independent Playtime Lengths to know how long to strive for, based on your child’s age and ability. 

If Your Child is NOT Happy With Independent Play…

If your child is resistant to IP, you are going to have to take things more slowly.

Our history is outlined in more detail in the posts Independent Playtime and Resistance to Independent Playtime, but basically, with Brayden, we did independent playtime with him as a baby for a bit, then stopped.

We then started up again at 13/14 months. 

I started by playing with Brayden in his toy room at the designated time each day for 1-2 weeks.

Over time, I started removing myself more. I played less with him, but stayed on the floor.

I eventually moved up onto the twin bed that was in the room.

Then I would lay on the bed (I was in my first trimester with Kaitlyn, so this was great). 

After a month or two, I started to leave him in the room alone. We started with 10 minutes. Then went up to 15. Then 20, etc. 

Starting Roomtime

A great thing about me being in there with him was that I was able to observe him and make the room safe and also instruct him on what was and wasn’t okay. 

We started with Roomtime since I was able to observe him and make the space safe from the beginning, but you might prefer to start in a playpen (and might need to).

 See how we set up our roomtime at our house in this post.

Read: Roomtime–Your invitation

Starting Playpen Time

You might be able to do something similar to what I did with Brayden even when using the playpen.

However, since the child is safe in a playpen, since a child in a playpen will be younger, and since leaning over a playpen playing for two weeks doesn’t sound that comfortable, you might just want to go cold turkey.

In this instance, you would put he child in the playpen, set a timer for 5 minutes, cheerfully say good-bye, leave, then come back after the timer goes off.

Return cheerfully.

As your child gets used to this amount of time, gradually increase it. You might want to start IP off with showing her all of the fun toys to play with.

Use Phrasing Wisely

When you put your child in the playpen or in the room, say something like “okay, have a fun independent playtime! I love you!” Be positive. Do not apologize or act sad.

Then when you get your child out, no matter if he is happy or sad, say something like, “Hi honey! Did you have fun? Let’s clean up!” and be cheerful about it all. Don’t rush to console. Act like he has nothing to be upset over. 

How to start independent play at any age

Good Tips to Keep Things Smooth

  1. Stay Consistent!
  2. Rotate Toys
  3. Keep toys age appropriate.
  4. At the end of independent playtime, have your child help clean up as best she can. At the very least, clean up in front of her so she sees how it is done.
  5. Stay postitive

For Older Children

If you have a school-aged child who doesn’t play alone but you are wanting to start now, get a timer or set an alarm and tell your child to go into his/her room and play alone until the timer or alarm goes off.

Then stick with it. If your child whines about being bored, express that you have confidence your child will be able to figure something out. Also express that it is okay to be bored.

Stay consistent with expectations and have consequences if expectations are not met and you will have success soon.

Related Posts on Independent Playtime

This post originally appeared on this blog October of 2010

22 thoughts on “How To Start Independent Playtime Late”

  1. It is so funny you just did this post because I searched your blog all last week looking for instructions on how to implement IP. I just started it with my 13mo old a week ago. Luckily, I found your other posts and put a few things together and followed all the guidelines you suggested. Thank you! My LO can play 15 mins just fine.Quick question, I think has difficulty staying focused and happy though when she can hear me doing the dishes during her IP. We live in a small apartment so I need to be able to do things while she is awake because I am limited during her naps. Any suggestions on if I should let her hear me and she can learn to deal with it or if I should try to be quiet?Thanks!

  2. I found that putting our play pen right next to the window, thus allowing DS to look outside, REALLY helped with his general happiness about IP. I play the radio, which helps drown the noise of doing dishes, etc. I don't try to be quiet – I vacuum, etc. I DO have to be careful about going outside where DS can see me out the window – he loses his mind then…

  3. Hi Val! Thank you so much for this post! I have 16 month old twin boys and I'd like to implement independent roomtime. I just don't know how with two. Do you have any advice? I've searched the blog and can't find anything specific to twins. Thank you so much!!

  4. My 22 month old son has been doing IP in his room since he was about 16 months old. It's been a struggle, but we slowly worked up to about 30 minutes at a time. h was doing great for a while, but the past month he has only wanted to nap during IP. I've always done IP between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning so he wouldn't be sleepy, but he still wants to nap, which then disrupts his afternoon nap. Any suggestions on how to encourge him to play instead of sleep. I thought he might be bored, but even when I switched his toys around he wanted to sleep instead of play. And he sleeps great at night and nap time, so I don't think he really needs the sleep. Any suggestions?? Thanks!

  5. Kristen, I would play some music in there with her (like toddler tunes) OR put some white noise OUTSIDE her door to help muffle your sounds (like a box fan or a humidifier). Some research suggests white noise can cause speech delays, so I turn off white noise for playtime, but I think if it was outside the door, it would be okay.

  6. Eric and Darcy,I obviously don't have twins…As I imagine myself with twins, I would do one of two things1) this would be my first choice. Have two different rooms if there are two rooms available. This way you can get things done during IPT. 2)If there aren't two available, alternate the times. Have one do IPT while you do things with the other, then switch. I could see this being my first priority if I had twins just in order to get some one-on-one time with each child each day. I can do that with my kids now since they are different ages and nap at different times, but if they were all up and down at the same time, I think I would sacrifice some "me" time to get some "we" time in there.

  7. Megan, that is odd. My kids do that sometimes, but when they do it is because they need the extra sleep. Have you tried letting him sleep later in the morning? I don't have any ideas on that. Maybe music would help keep him awake?

  8. Thank you for all your info! Everything has been so helpful. Right now, we are struggling to do IP with my 10.5 month old in the pack n play. I know it's so important, but she is so resistant that she screams the entire time and is so worked up by the time I get back. We've started with 5 minutes in the morning (well rested and fed). I've followed all of your other tips but it seems she is still so resistant. Is there anything else I can do? Should I just keep trying even through the screaming?

  9. krock,Have you tried different toys that only come out at that time? Or music? Books on tape? Some moms have said they had to start with more like ten minutes. Five minutes didn't make any progress but ten minutes did.

  10. First, let me say what a wonderful and comprehensive site you have, with so much information! My questions is this. I'd like to start IP with my 10-month-old daughter, but her pack'n'play seems so small. I know that you recommend using a playpen well into the first year. How much space should the baby have? Our daughter doesn't have enough to really crawl/roll in there, and it seems that she won't like it for how small and constricting it is. We're considering setting up a "corralled" area in her room with plastic fences instead. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks!

  11. Ariana, I think that sounds just as great. I don't see a problem with it so long as it works (like, she doesn't knock the gate over).

  12. Hi, i am trying to implement IP with my 2 yr old daughter but she just couldnt focus in her play. What toys do you suggest suitable for IP for a 2 yr old girl? She seems to lose focus very fast and started to look for me. She also keep asking for my participation and respond when she plays.

  13. Let's see…the Busy Ball Popper might be fun. A stack of books. Dolls and/or stuffed animals. A baby piano (like Little Tykes makes). Blocks. Little People toys.See the "best toys" posts for toys that are great for that age. Good luck!

  14. Hi! first i wanted to let you know what an amazing resource your blog is. thank you a million times. i am struggling with IP to such an end. i started implementing it around 8 or 9 months in the playpen and after doing it for i think three days in a row for 7 minutes at a time…non stop screaming…i decided to try at a later time. she couldn't stand the playpen, would be standing the whole time and shaking the edge of the playpen. over the next several months my daughter has grown increasingly clingy when i'm at home with her (of course i regretted not sticking it out as i would have some progress by now). she is now 13 months and i decided we will do "room time" but because we don't have a gate i basically just set the timer for 10 minutes, try to release her death grip and go do my own thing around the house. the entire 10 minutes she is crawl/walking trying to follow me around…screaming the whole time with me telling her i know she doesn't like this and it makes her sad and mommy loves her…i've done this maybe four times and it's terrible. i feel like every time we're done shes' even more clingy and won't leave my side. when we're done i give her lots of love and affection and commend her for giving mommy some space. anyway sorry this is so lengthy…maybe i'm partly just not as committed to this process as i want to be. i read and completely understand the benefits, but do you think there are some personalities that need a different approach? do you think i should get a gate and try roometime that way? thanks in advance for taking the time to read this. i know i shouldn't be but i am a bit distressed over this as i want her to learn to play independently but i don't want to damage her fragile little self.

    • Would you be okay with just closing her door? If not, I would definitely get a gate and go that route. But have you done the approach of playing in her room with her at that time? Like I did with Brayden?

  15. Thanks for your response! the update is we do the timer…there is no more crying thank God! we still don't have a gate…i think i would prefer the gate over closing the door although maybe it wouldn't hurt to try. i leave and kind of hide. she looks for me for a minute and then goes into her room and plays….the caveat, we're good until she hears me at which point she comes out and hangs out generally in the same area as me. i still get my time to do what i need to do but she's not really learning boundaries. next step is the gate for sure (or maybe tomorrow i will try the door)…thanks for your input!

    • With the hearing issue, try playing some music. Some toddler tunes or hymns. That would help block you out and give her music time.

  16. After struggling with my 12 month old's behavior and reading Pretoddlerwise, I decided to try IPT, but I'm really struggling. My 12-month-old is VERY mobile – walking circles around the house is basically her favorite thing – so I decided to try "room time" in her nursery with the door gated off. Today is only day 2, but it's been a disaster :(. I tried ten minutes; yesterday she screamed at the door for the first five and then sat in the corner and sucked her thumb. Today I tried a playpen in her room; she did the same thing – screamed on and off and then sat down and sucked her thumb. Do I keep doing what I'm doing? Is there something else I should try?

  17. I love this idea of independent room time. My 16 month-old daughter is pretty good at entertaining herself, however not in a contained space like her room. I would really like to start doing this. The time I most need her to be independent in her room is 5:30-6 when I'm usually trying to get dinner ready. This can sometimes be a difficult time for her because she's getting hungry but we can't eat any earlier than that because that's when my husband gets home from school. So my quandary is this: do I "begin as I mean to go on" and aim for room time at 5:30 even though it is bound to be a struggle for a while or do I begin room time at another easier time and then change times once I know she has it down? Another thing to consider: we tend to do a lot of venturing out and play dates throughout the week and that 5:30 time is the only time that we are consistently home for with rare exceptions. Any suggestions on working towards this goal?

  18. We currently over in a foreign country in an apartment way too small for a playpen. Room time isn’t an option either as the electricity cables are accessible in all rooms.
    How do I do IP with my 11 month old. We are exhausted chasing him around and entertaining him.

    • I would just brainstorm and see if you can create a safe space for him to play in unsupervised. Playpens do fold up, so if it were me, I would strongly consider getting one and just set it up and take it down each time. You can also use the bed he sleeps in. Babies are smart enough to understand the difference between playtime in the bed and sleep time in the bed. One has toys, one does not. The lighting will be different as will the routine before sleep.


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