Letting Your Toddlers Play Alone Is Actually OK, According to Experts
Random crashes, various squeals (of delight? Of anger? Both?), and the adorable sounds of cars vrooming, dinosaurs roaring, and superheroes saving the day can be heard at my house all morning long. Sure, entire toy bins get dumped out in the blink of an eye, and we can never find all the pieces to any given puzzle, but my 3-year-old and 1-year-old are playing together and having fun. That’s all that matters, right?
Practically since the day I became a mom, I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance parenting duties and getting a moment to myself. When I went back to work – including a part-time job from home – it became a daily struggle to keep my little ones happy while trying to get assignments turned in on time. Many parents felt this collective struggle last March when the coronavirus pandemic started, and they are still trying to juggle toddlers’ short attention spans with their own work (and often while helping their older kids with virtual learning at the same time). POPSUGAR talked to child psychiatrists, pediatricians, and other experts to see if we can ease one of our daily parenting guilts and find out if it’s OK to let your toddlers play alone while you are in the next room. What they said might pleasantly surprise you!
Is It OK For My Toddlers to Play Alone?
I often work in the kitchen or living room to feel closer to my kids playing, but I still feel bad when I can’t build block towers with them. But it turns out, letting toddlers play independently in a safe environment for a while is actually a good thing, said Rachel Busman, Psy.D., ABPP at the Child Mind Institute,. “Think of alone time as time for practicing being independent,” she said. “You are never really leaving a toddler alone, as they always need supervision, but having time to play and explore independently is important for children of all ages. Especially when a caregiver is working from home or engaged in another household activity or chore, the toddler starts to learn patience, self-regulation, and just being comfortable with the self.”
Think of playtime alone as a swap for screen time for a toddler, said Ana Pal, D.O., and Samira Hodges, M.D., pediatricians behind The PediPals. “Playing alone allows children to gain creativity and independence,” Drs. Pal and Hodges told POPSUGAR. “Playing alone has many benefits for children, including bringing out their imagination and encouraging creativity, calmness, and independence from their parents. It allows parents a much-needed break time and also encourages brain development.”
Will Toddlers Know They Are Loved If I Can’t Always Play With Them?
Even on the days I feel like the worst mom in the world, I know my kids still love me. Warm smiles, big hugs, random “I love you, Mama”s, and other sweet gestures make me feel so much better. My toddlers won’t remember the times I’m working, as long as our time together is so special and meaningful. In fact, if your children are happy to play by themselves every once in a while, that shows they are secure in knowing you are there for them when they need you, said Stephen Glicksman, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and adjunct professor at Yeshiva University in New York City.
“Securely attached toddlers are the ones who are willing to venture into the world a bit because they know their parents will be there for them when they come back,” Dr. Glicksman said. “Securely attached toddlers don’t need to constantly be holding onto their parents to feel safe and loved; rather, because they feel safe and loved, they can use their parents as a secure base from which to explore the world.” He was quick to note, though, that if you do have a child who is clingy, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is insecurely attached. Every kid is different and has a different level of independence, and that is OK!
Is It OK For My Toddlers to Play Alone, Together?
My older son does better with playing alone than his 1-year-old brother, but they still have a hard time playing together without my supervision. Often, the older brother is trying to take the younger brother’s toys, leading the younger brother to retaliate with biting and hitting. It doesn’t exactly make for a peaceful situation.
Dr. Busman said safety and supervision are the most important things when putting young children together. “Toddlers often engage in parallel rather than cooperative play, so don’t be surprised if the kids play side by side rather than together. Also, toddlers haven’t mastered patience, so consider having two of the same toy. If you have siblings of different ages, make sure the toys are safe for the younger child.”
How Do I Encourage My Toddlers to Play Alone?
“Mama, can you help me?,” “Mama, can you get this?,” “Mama, can you watch a movie with me?” are things I hear all day long. I often set a timer and tell my kids I can play with them after I get a certain amount of work done, which has varying degrees of success. Sometimes, they play happily; other times, I cannot get a break for even a few minutes. Harvey Karp, M.D., pediatrician and bestselling author of Happiest Toddler on the Block, encourages independent play in toddlers and suggests using patience stretching to help teach toddlers to wait independently and control their impulses. “When your child asks you to play with them, start playing as usual. Then, mid-play, say, ‘Oh! Mommy forgot something; I’ll be right back.’ Then, turn away while you pretend to do something for five seconds. Next, turn back and immediately give your child praise, saying, ‘Wow, wonderful waiting!'” Over time, increase the waiting time to 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, and so on, so your child gets used to playing without you.
Another approach is to use a timer (which is something I love doing!). Set the timer and explain that you will play with them when it beeps. When it rings, come back right away and praise your child for waiting, then gradually increase the waiting period.
As hard as it might be, try not to insert yourself into your toddler’s independent playtime, even if they are making a mess or ignoring a toy you think they’ll like. “The more you jump in, the harder it will be for them to get used to playing independently,” Dr. Karp said. “They might come to expect – or rely on – Mom or Dad to swoop in. While learning to play independently is a gradual process, it’s a valuable skill for toddlers to master . . . and it can be helpful for parents, too.”
How Much Alone Time Is OK?
For my family, the amount of alone time my toddlers are OK with varies day to day. One day, I’ll hardly see them before lunch, as they are keeping themselves busy with toys and superhero capes all morning. Other times, I am practically holding them all morning because they just crave closeness with me. Both are OK!
“There is no rule here; every child is different,” Dr. Busman said. “One toddler can be happy and content looking at books or stacking cups and blocks for a while, when others may need more supervision or guidance. Set up a contained area within earshot, and check in frequently. Saying things like, ‘Great job playing on your own,’ is wonderful for reinforcing independent play.”
Dr. Busman added that all humans (including toddlers) need connection and interaction, so make sure you are setting aside time throughout the day to play, sing, cuddle, and talk to your kids, as this is important for attachment, language, and social development. “Children and adults need one-on-one time to bond and also nurture the special relationship,” she said. “Even when there are other demands like work and chores, parents should find five to 10 minutes throughout the day to play and interact with a toddler in an uninterrupted fashion. This special time is really helpful for the relationship.”
Just like my mom always says, everything is OK with a balance! And full disclosure: while writing this article, my toddlers scattered toys all over the living room, had to go to timeout once, had to take one potty break, asked for 500 different snacks, climbed on my lap, and convinced me to take a break and play outside with them. Being a working mom is hard, but it is possible – and so rewarding!