We don’t let the kids watch a whole lot of television at our house. It’s not because I think letting my 1 year old watch reruns of Sesame Street is going to increase his risk of Autism (I don’t), it’s not because I think Sofia the First is incredible irritating (I do), and it’s not even because I think watching too much Daniel Tiger has the potential to make my son a wimp (I go back and forth on that one). TV may be a great babysitter in the short term, but I’ve discovered a direct correlation between watching television and increased whining around our house. I have no idea why this is, but no matter how much we limit the daily exposure, even 15 minutes of a boring, educational show turns my mostly respectful, obedient children into little whiney monsters. And I can’t stand it.
So if not television, how do I catch a break with 4 kids at home with me all day? How do I find a quiet moment to read the newspaper, check my email, or take a shower without being interrupted by endless refereeing (“Mom, Abel’s not sharing!” “Mom, Abel took my marker.” “Mom, Abel put his water bottle in the toilet!”)?
The answer? Independent Playtime.
Independent Playtime (IP) is the practice of sticking your kids in their rooms (alone) with a few select toys for a predetermined duration at a time of your choosing. That was probably a run on sentence, but each aspect is important so I’ll go over it below.
(In their rooms, alone): Until it is safe to leave a child unattended in their room, you can put them in their crib with the lights on/curtains open. Once it is safe, you put them in their rooms with the door shut or a baby gate to keep them in. Babywise refers to this as roomtime. My 1.5 year old and 3 year old do Independent Playtime (roomtime) concurrently, but not together. Not only is there value in a child learning to entertain themselves, but playing together naturally invites arguments and situations that require your attention and as we discussed before, the point of IP is to give you a break.
(A few select toys): Encourage creativity and imagination by limiting the number of toys available to your children in IP. You can rotate toys (offer different toys each day) but it’s good for them to learn to play with one toy for an extended period of time, as opposed to hopping from toy to toy. This also makes clean up much easier when IP is over. Currently, I usually put a basket of wooden blocks and a few cars with my son and a doll house with my daughter. I always choose non-electronic toys because a) my babies are napping in the next room and b) I hate the sound of electronic toys.
(For a predetermined duration): This is especially important when you are starting out IP. When it’s done consistently, I do think most kids grow to like it, but in the beginning, some (a lot) of resistance is natural – especially if you’re replacing TV time with IP time. You can start off with a short duration (like 10 minutes) but it is absolutely paramount that you do not end IP before the predetermined time. If you do this, your child will quickly learn that the duration of Independent Playtime is set by themselves instead of you, the parent. I usually set a timer on the oven. My kids can hear it go off in their rooms and it signals to them that IP is over.
(At a time of your choosing): You may have a child who enjoys playing by themselves in their room occasionally. This is NOT Independent Playtime. The time for IP is determined by you, the parent. This is important if you plan to use IP to catch your break, because it allows YOU to control when it happens. For example, I like to use Independent Playtime to take a shower and get ready kid-free. If both children are miraculously playing quietly by themselves at 4pm, that’s great and I love it (although come on, when has that ever happened?), but it does me no good because I want to take a shower in the morning. I need them to cooperate by engaging in roomtime when it is most convenient for ME.
How we do it: I line up Independent Playtime with the babies’ mid-morning nap (so sometime between 9-10am). Generally it lasts for 45-60 minutes, depending on what I need to get accomplished while they are in there. I do not do it every day because some mornings we are gone, but if we are home for the morning, I always do it. For now, only Vera and Abel do Independent Playtime, but as soon as the babies have longer waketimes between naps, they will also be expected to participate (but perhaps for shorter durations in the beginning). I will separate them for IP.
A few tips:
- Start young. I did not start early with Vera and I’ve definitely noticed that she is less content playing by herself. I started IP younger with Abel and he is much better at self-entertainment, even though he has had a sibling to play with his entire life.
- Be consistent. Truthfully, we go through phases of not doing IP for weeks. There is always a learning curve when bringing it back that involves plenty of protesting and each time I think “UGH, WHY DID I STOP DOING THIS?”
- Don’t worry if they cry the entire duration of IP for the first few days/weeks. In the end, it will be worth it. Just keep the time short in the beginning and always be cheerful when announcing that it’s time for IP or that IP is now over. They will get used it eventually, and you will love yourself for sticking with it.
- Keep hunger and tiredness in mind when scheduling IP. It’s generally best to do it around the same time every day so the child expects it, and it’s best to choose a time when they aren’t hungry (like right before lunch) or tired (like right before bedtime). For us, mid morning works best because they’ve eaten breakfast and had some time to play together, but they aren’t yet begging for lunch or itching for a nap.
Life as a homemaker can be surprisingly exhausting. Start doing Independent Playtime and catch yourself a much deserved break. You’ll be a better mom for it. And BONUS, you can stop going through every morning with the sound of Daniel Tiger running the background.