If you’re a mom, you know #thestruggle.
There’s this huge frustration about how their child can’t seem to play by themselves. There always seems to be a child tugging at mom’s sleeve to play or, sometimes the little one just refuses to play at all in favor of latching themselves onto mom’s leg and dedicating his/herself to being their shadow.
You’ll play dinosaur jail, see your kiddo for the most part content while you sit quietly in dino penitentiary 20 minutes later, only to hear the heart squeezing “moooommmy, why did you stop playing?” a few moments later.
This happened to me too. Slowly, without me even realizing it. One day my toddler was suddenly incapable of entertaining himself without me. He needed to at my side 24/7 or needed me to “help him play”. It was made even more glaringly apparent when I’d pick up my son from his grandparents. The comment was always the same- “he’s so easy to watch; he just goes off and does his own thing.”
So obviously, the factor here was me.
I ran across a parenting philosophy known as RIE (Resources for Infant Educators) and a lot of the focal points resonated with me. The main one being “our children’s play choices are enough”. Basically, our children don’t need our help to play and don’t need to be entertained 24/7.
My habit of entertaining my son and not letting them get bored resulted in him slowly being unable to entertain himself. So, I made it my mission to stop entertaining him for two big reasons:
I was doing him a disservice by being his own personal play-pal all day every day. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “being bored is good”
And my own sanity was on the line. I wanted to be able to cook dinner without my little one throwing a fit that I was preoccupied with something other than cars. I couldn’t get any work done, I couldn’t get a moment to breath, and as a single mom, those moments were already rare.
Taking a hard look at your toddler’s ability to entertain themselves has nothing to do with you enjoying their attention or spending quality time. Mom guilt played a huge role in me feeling the need to make sure he was never bored, especially since it was just us two in the home.
I love playing with my son, and happy that he enjoys time with me just as much as I do. Building a strong relationship with each other requires spending some time together, but the key here is quality, not quantity. And the amount of time I was spending trying to bust the boredom blues was ultimately affecting the quality. By Friday I often felt so burnt out, the idea of a fun family outing was exhausting.
My toddler had to learn how to start playing by himself.
I started undoing the damage by:
- I reduced his tech time. I’m not anti-tv or anti-tech for children, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice the correlation between how much he watched TV/used his tablet and his behavior. Basically, he had become more interested in watching YouTube videos of kids playing than actually playing. So, I reduced…a lot. Which meant I had to reduce my time with technology too!
I’ll be honest here, this was really hard because it was the quick way to get him to spend some time alone, but watching my toddler zone out and then not be able to concentrate afterward was disconcerting. I didn’t just throw out my TV and tablet, however. I eased into it.
I started by deleting Youtube Kids off my phone and not letting him use my phone any longer. I refused to hand him my phone in the store or car and had to struggle through the resulting tantrums, but he eventually got the hint. I then gave him a set time frame for TV/tablet and put his tablet away. He requested it a lot less when it was out of sight.
2. I reduced his toys. Seems counter-productive? You’d be amazed at how much more fun your child has with less. This eliminated the overwhelm from so many choices and the impulse to dump everything on the floor (which I would end up cleaning up anyway).
Toddlers have a lot to process in their brains and adding a million and one choices can distract them from fully engaging in an activity. It’s much like when we stare into a closet full of clothes and decide that we have nothing to wear. There’s just so many options that eventually we decide that none of them is an option.
So I helped eliminate the overwhelm. He has a shelf with a few baskets of toys and his art station available to him. After a while, if he’s losing interest in those toys I rotate them out. (and the feeling of not having my home look like a train wrecked Toys R US is FANTASTIC).
3. I got rid of entertainment toys. Going hand in hand with the previous one, I donated the obnoxiously loud toys and almost all of the ones that lit up and did tricks and magic and what-not. You know, the fancy ones with all the bells and whistles. I substituted them with “open-ended” toys that encouraged imaginative play and critical thinking.
Why? The loud types of toys, while fun from time to time, direct your child how to play. Like I said earlier, children know how to play and don’t need people (or alarmingly loud blinking toys) intruding on their creativity. And also… I don’t have to listen to it (bonus!).
4. I observed but didn’t intrude. I got into the habit of sitting with my son while he played, but not inserting myself into his play if I wasn’t invited. Imagine if, as an adult, you’re enjoying a game of solitaire (that’s an adult game, right?) and someone just came in and started moving the cards around for you without your input; not only is that frustrating, it instantly breaks your concentration and focus on your game; that’s the thought process here.
This included breaking the habit of me walking by and feeling the need to comment on what he was doing or saying something like “that looks so cool”! It’s harmless really but that instantly distracts them from their play and you want them to build up the ability to focus. I also noticed that sometimes his requests to play didn’t actually mean he wanted me to play either, there are moments when our children just want us to be close and that’s enough. Usually, I spent this time reading or journaling.
5. I initiated play first and let him lead. I offered to play with him first sometimes and basically got the ball rolling before letting him take over. For example, I’d ask what he wanted to do (cars) and he’d grab the toy and play. I became very careful about not directing him (for example if he showed me a car I’d say “ooooh, what is he up to?!” instead of “ooooh, he’s driving to the fire station” or if we were building and he’d show me I’d acknowledge it by saying “wow, look what you built” instead of saying “Look, you built a skyscraper”).
This became important because A: I was usually wrong; what I thought would be a skyscraper was usually something else anyway and B: this encouraged him to create and imagine and not depend on me for ideas. I’ll admit, remembering this is a work in progress but I’m being more mindful on how often I direct his play.
It’s certainly a journey finding the balance between spending time with my son and bonding and letting him dictate all of my time by entertaining him. I’ve seen a significant change in how he plays by making these changes and it’s been sticking! How do you plan on helping your child learn to play and entertain themselves?