Being able to spend time playing with your child is great but there are times when you’d love for them to be able to play alone. It’s ok to want that glass of wine and to chill for a bit. It’s also a great habit to develop for yourself and your child to have time that is unstructured.
So often these days we are filling our time with something. Whether it is watching TV or being on our phones. Helping your child to develop the ability to be in the moment and comfortable with his own company will be of lifelong benefit. So take the pressure off yourself, you don’t need to be always engaged with your child and always filling their time with ‘perfect mothering’.
In this article, I’ll show you how to set up a Quiet Time session.
These are some of the main benefits of independent play for your child.
- Creativity. In independent play, your child is free to follow their own ideas. They will make up their own games and stories. You will be surprised at the wonderful things they come up with.
- Learning. We all want our children to learn and be smart. To learn well, we need to be able to focus and concentrate, and independent play is great for practising those skills. Structuring time for this kind of play will allow your child to really get into something.
- Autonomy. Independent play encourages autonomy which is a sense of being in control and having the power to choose. They will learn to decide for themselves without judgement. This is important for their development and helps with problem-solving.
- Calm. Children who can play alone have less need of being given things to do. They are calmer in their own company.
- Resilience. Independent play helps your child to manage their own frustration. They will develop the ability to keep on trying when things go wrong and soothe themselves when things don’t work out. Resilience is a key characteristic of confident people with high self-esteem.
- Relaxed. We all like our alone-time. And you will often see this in your kids too. After a busy day with friends or at school, they may naturally go off by themselves. Having time alone can help with emotional regulation and stops them from becoming over-stimulated.
Some children struggle to play by themselves or to have time away from their parent. This could be for a number of reasons. Children who have suffered abuse or neglect can have significant problems being alone. If your child is adopted or fostered, this is something to take into account.
Some difficulties may also be related to your child’s age and developmental stage. Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development and can be seen between 6 months and three years. They will usually grow out of it. You can help this process by gradually introducing periods of independent play.
Don’t forget safety. Never leave your child alone in a room with possible dangers.
The Balance Of Play
The first thing you need to do is balance the time your child plays alone with time playing together. It is important that you plan some time to play together with your child. There will also be times when you are interacting but not playing. Conversations over breakfast for example. And times when you are in the same space but doing different things. All of these different ways of being together and apart make sure your child’s needs are met and this will make it easier for them to play alone.
Don’t expect a child who previously hasn’t been able to play alone to suddenly do it. Build up the amount of time gradually. For example, start with 5 minutes then add increments of time slowly as their confidence builds.
Model how to play too when you are spending time together. This depends very much on the individual child’s imagination. If they are coming up with their own ideas, let them, and you follow their lead. If they struggle to know what to do maybe do some story starters then wonder with your child about what will happen next.
Arrange the play space in the same room as you to begin with so they can see you there and you can continue to chat with them if they need this, before expecting them to play in a different room to you. You could also have a box with toys in each room so there is always something there for them to do.
Age And Development
Considering their age and developmental stage. Younger children won’t be able to play by themselves for very long. Make sure the toys are also appropriate for their stage of development. Have a visual timer to help young children and those who are not used to this experience.
Think about when you are going to a Quiet Time. A good time is when your toddler is beginning to grow out of the need for an afternoon nap. Do you remember those days when you knew you had an hour to yourself? Schedule the session for when they would have had their nap.
You could also think about doing this when they come in from school or nursery. They will have had lots of stimulation and social interactions so a Quiet Time could be helpful. But remember you know your child the best. Some children will want time with you when they’ve been to school all day. So follow their pattern. For an older child whose bedtimes are getting later, a time for independent play might be better before bed. This might include colouring, listening to music, even yoga.
In typical routines of school and nursery, Monday to Friday, scheduling Quiet Times are easier to do. But when it comes to weekends and holidays, having some alone time is still just as important and can be a lifesaver for you. Many of the children I work with who have been fostered or adopted find these times the most challenging. They seem to cope better when there are routines and structures and then when they stop, their behaviour can be challenging or their upsets more pronounced. But all children seem to cope better with routines, so even when you are on holiday or at weekends try to plan some time for independent play.
Give them enough time to get really engrossed in their play. Sometimes it could be that we interrupt their play so they never get to really get lost in their imagination. Obviously there are limits to this but try to allow 45 minutes to an hour that they could use to just play.
Turn Off Distractions
Turn off any distractions, like TV and phones. But it can be useful to have some music on in the background. This can act as a signal to let them know this time is different. Try to stick to one type of music or song. Calming music is good.
Create The Space
Create a play space. Arrange it attractively with a limited amount of items so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Try to think about what you put in the play space so these items compliment each other and encourage imaginative play. For example, you could put farm and wild animals with some bricks and scenery and add a few natural objects like shells, leaves or small stones.
Create play zones in different rooms so they have a range of alternative play spaces. For example, you could have a quiet calm space in their bedroom and a creative-imaginative space in the lounge. You don’t need a lot of room to do this. This will work for both your Quiet Time but also just for random times when you are busy so they have something to get on with. Sensory items are also good to have in different spaces so your child can soothe themselves if need be.
Choose the toys for these Quiet Times carefully. Consider the toys that develop creative, imaginative play rather than loud, jumping about play. You may also want your choices to avoid messy play. I am a big supporter of messy sensory play but not in their Quiet Time because they may need your help more, and it will make more mess so will be harder for you to relax.
Use structuring phrases to help your child know when Quiet Time has started and ended.
“This is our Quiet Time, we have 15 minutes to play alone. I’ll let you know when we have 1 minute left to finish.”
“That’s the end of Quiet Time for today, it was good just having time to ourselves.”
Just comment on it and don’t expect a reaction or comment back.
Just Enough Rules
Try not to make lots of rules, instructions or expectations so your child feels free to go in any direction they choose and doesn’t fear getting it wrong. Let them be the creator of their play and their imagination can run free. I find saying something like this helps:
“You can do almost anything you like with these toys, it can be anything you want it to be. If there’s something you can’t do I’ll let you know.”
You are providing the environment for their play, scaffolding a Quiet Time, but you aren’t telling them what to do.
Resist saying no to mess and ‘correct’ ways to play. Do you ever hear yourself saying “play nicely”? Children can use characters to fight play for example and you may correct them. But play is not real and just because he plays fighting between two animals doesn’t mean he has violent tendencies. As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of messy play during these Quiet Times, but if you do want to go there, prepare for this. For example, put down a wipeable mat and provide an apron and water or wipes close by. Try where possible to contain the mess rather than restrict their imagination.
Change It Up
Rotate the themes so you keep play fresh, interesting and enticing. Think about having boxes or tubs that are easily found and easy to pack away. If you have more than one child you could rotate the spaces so each child has Quiet Time alone in different spaces. An older child may be OK to have time in their own room. A younger child may want to be closer to you.
I had a family with a child who really struggled at times when his emotions overwhelmed him. This could happen at any time without warning. If anyone tried to talk or reason or distract him, it just seemed to inflate his upsets. So we tried something else.
His adopted mum kept a bag of homemade soft dough on the kitchen counter and just moved it towards him or put it within his eye line when he was upset. He’d oftentimes begin to poke it then began using the dough to roll, punch etc, and within minutes she noticed he was getting calmer. She could see his body visibly relax.
Once she could see he was relaxed she’d just comment something like, “Feeling calmer now, looks like sensory dough helps you feel better.” Then later when he was relaxed they would have a reflective conversation about why he was feeling the way he was. We also introduced a calming Magic Box so he had items that weren’t as messy for other spaces in the house. The Magic Box had sensory calming items and positive activity cards that he could choose from. He began to get the idea that he may have really strong feelings that overwhelmed him, but he could also find ways to take back control of those feelings. I have used these strategies with many of my families with good effect. The other advantage of this method is that as the adult/parent, you don’t need to verbally engage at the time when emotions are running high which can often escalate the meltdown.
Here is a guide to help you build and use a Magic calm Box and some products and resources you can put in it.
The main thing is to make playing enticing and fun with as few restrictions as possible