I understand play is important for a child to learn and be creative. But, what do you do if your young toddler doesn't appear able or interested in playing independently? How can I support them? How do I know when it is appropriate for me to play with them and when I should step back? How can I get my relatives on board when they are visiting? How do I know if I am "doing it right?”
Your child will be playing and learning about the world all the way through kindergarten (and hopefully beyond) so this is a great question. What’s more, your young toddler is undoubtedly already “playing.” It is what toddlers live for. From the moment they first put their hands together, a baby is playing.
Play is how children learn about the world — the natural laws of how the earth works, the unspoken rules of human interaction and much more. As your infant grows into toddlerhood and beyond, it’s natural for a parent to want them to be able to play independently. All children have the capacity to direct their own play and ultimately be content playing alone. If you feel your child needs support, we can use the RIE® Principles to help us determine where to begin.
Observing is an activity that reaps benefits in so many ways. You already know that we observe in order to understand and appreciate our child — who they are at this moment, what is interesting them, etc. And you also know that sometimes in observation we look inside ourselves to see what is coming up for us in a given situation.
How do I play with my child? Do I respond to their cues and initiating behavior? Do I teach or show them how they are supposed to play with something? Do I have expectations about what play looks like? Do I “take over” their play when I play with them? Do I pause and give them space to respond? Try to observe your own play style and see if there are any adjustments you can make to support your child’s ability to direct their own play and discover the world on their own. If you find that you are the initiator or director of the play or there are right and wrong ways to play, see if you can step back and adopt a new way of playing. This is another place where we can “observe more and do less.” Be gentle on yourself. If this is something new for you and your child, you can say “I wonder what you want to play with today?” Deciding what to play with and how to play with it are the beginnings of independence. Showing them that they can direct the play and you will follow is a great way to encourage their independence in play, even when you are playing together.
Observing our child
Next we observe our child’s play. This may occur while we are playing with them ourself, when they are playing with someone else, or maybe we can sit nearby while they play.
If you can, sit down near your child and be fully present with them while they play. Depending on your child, this may be typical or not. If it’s not typical, maybe fold some laundry while you watch them or just say “I’m going to be right here while you play.” If they protest, you can try saying “I know you want me to play with you, but right now I’m folding towels. But I’ll be here watching.” Sometimes domestic activities, like folding laundry, are understood by children in a way other activities (phones, reading) are not. Your attentive presence will reassure them that when it comes to play, they can do this.
If it’s impossible for your child to tolerate you not being involved in their play, then when you sit down to play with your child, put on your invisible “observer” hat and try to observe what is interesting them right now. In your mind, try to sit back a little more than usual, but still be fully present. Let them take the lead. Are they interested in stacking things? Rolling a ball? Playing peek-a-boo? Is it an activity that clearly has to involve you (e.g. peek-a-boo) or is it something that really isn’t dependent on having another person there to play? Sometimes our children are working on learning the laws of nature — “when I let go, it drops to the ground” — and sometimes they are learning the laws of human interaction — “when I smile, she smiles back!” Usually, they are doing a bit of both. But depending on what your child is working on, it may be realistic or not to expect them to play on their own. Take your lead from them.
Observing play schemas
Play schemas are the urges that appear in children's behavior from approximately age 1 and help them learn how the world works. They drop the spoon from the high chair a million times — not to make you pick it up, but rather, to determine if it always works this way. Like any good scientist, they need a large sample size to draw their conclusions. Children will typically explore all the schemas over the course of the toddler and early childhood years, but they will favor different schemas at different times and some children favor a particular schema all through their childhood. Knowing these schemas is incredibly helpful in allowing you to set up their environment to support their play and to not go crazy with certain repetitive behaviors. They aren’t testing you. They are testing the world! See the side bar for some simple descriptions of the most common schemas. Is your child working with any of these?
Setting up the environment
If your child is working on the trajectory schema, and therefore wanting to throw anything in sight, make sure you have items that you think are OK to throw. In my classroom, I have a large basket of soft knitted or felt balls to meet this need. Remove the items that are unsafe or you would be upset if they threw them. As another example, if they are into the orientation schema right now and climbing on everything, make sure your environment is safe by having all bookshelves, etc. bolted to the walls, and then set firm limits on what can be climbed. But also provide something that they can climb. “It looks like you need to climb. You can climb on the triangle or we can go outside so you can climb at the park.”
Time for Uninterrupted Play
Related to the environment is making sure that you have timed it right for a child to play independently. Are they well-rested? Have you carved out enough time for them to play? With enough time, even toddlers can have great periods of focus. Make sure you are allocating enough time for them to play and to really get into whatever they are doing. Then make sure that you are letting them direct their play, and not inadvertently interrupting their play, which is easy to do if we don’t really see what they are working on or think that what they are doing isn’t really “play.”
Fueling Up During Caregiving Times
When you sit down to play with your child, your child has you all to himself. There is nothing a toddler likes more. Play is a wonderful way to be with your child and is something to be encouraged. As we set our child up to learn how to play independently, it doesn’t mean we don’t keep playing with them on occasion or help them get started by being nearby. But there is an emotional underpinning to play. A child has to feel secure in order to do so. That security rests on a few factors, the main factor being whether or not your child has enjoyed your undivided attention for enough time today.
You’ll recall how Magda Gerber talked about “quality time.” There are two kinds — “Wants something” time and “wants nothing” time. Playtime with your child should be “wants nothing” time — you can allow them to set the agenda and simply follow their lead. Don’t try to teach them anything. Just be with them, observe their cues so you can respond in kind. Sometimes they’ll be stacking something and they’ll want you to take a turn. Great! Sometimes they’ll just be happy with you sitting there observing. As Magda said, “Let the child be the scriptwriter, director and actor in his own play.”
Then there is the “wants something” time when we have an agenda, like changing a diaper or conducting some other caregiving task. While most people don’t see it this way, this is really the best “quality time.” If you can be 100% present with your child during these times, involving them in their own care, following their lead and making it enjoyable, you will go a long way toward establishing the security they need to play on their own.
Magda had a wonderful quote (I think it’s my favorite): “Whenever you care, do it absolutely with full attention. If you pay half attention all the time, that’s never full attention. Babies are then always half hungry for attention. But if you pay full attention part of the time, then you go a long way.” This is the key to understanding independence — be it play or any kind of independence. There is a strong interplay between our security with our parent or main caregiver and our ability to go away from them. If you “fuel up” your child with your attention during those key moments, they should be able to play by themselves for a while.
“Parents create opportunities for interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being wholeheartedly with the infant during the time they spend together anyway. “Refueled” by such unhurried, pleasurable caring experiences, infants are ready to explore their environment with only minimal intervention by adults.” (Magda Gerber)
Trust and Respect
If your child isn’t playing independently yet, trust that it will happen when you’ve done the work described above. Trusting in the infant’s competence is a core tenet of RIE®. When we have observed ourselves and the environment and made adjustments as needed, we can have that basic trust in ourselves and then in our baby to be “an initiator, an explorer eager to learn what he is ready for.”
Supporting your child on their path to independent play is a process that may take some time. In their own time and in their own way, it will happen.
The other place where trust is also required is to trust the infant to be able to adjust to different important people in his or her life. This means we also trust that even if grandpa or auntie plays with our baby in a different way — teaching or telling or directing the play — we trust that it will be ok. Babies learn to adapt to different carers and that also means to different family members and ways of care and play. It’s tempting to curate a perfect environment for our baby, but that can mean isolating ourselves from family or friends, and neither of those reflect the basic trust and respect so critical to RIE®. RIE® principles are here to serve us — our baby and ourselves — not the other way around. When it comes to family interactions — especially relevant this time of year — I advise giving them the gift of respect and trust. Try observing your family and your baby and look for ways they might already be doing things the way you’d hope. Better yet, keep being with your child, demonstrating respect and trust the RIE® way, and you may find that your family has noticed.
About Our Associate:
Jennifer Doebler (Berkeley, California) had her life change more than a decade ago with the birth of her first child and a friend’s gift of "Your Self-Confident Baby." Inspired by Magda Gerber’s wisdom and compassion, she attended Johanna Herwitz’s Parent-Infant Guidance™ classes in NYC with her two daughters. Seeing the Educaring® Approach in action spurred her to want to learn everything she could about how to meet infants during this foundational time of life. After a career in corporate marketing in the US and internationally, and as an entrepreneur, she is now thrilled to follow her passion for supporting infants, parents and caregivers in their journeys. In addition to being a RIE® Associate, she has completed Introductory and Advanced-Level Pikler Training with Anna Tardos & Agnes Szanto. Jennifer facilitates parent and child classes in San Francisco’s East Bay and consults with parents and professionals. Inspired by the Educaring® Approach, she seeks to ennoble the work of caring for babies and elevate the quality of care they receive. www.forbabyandme.com / firstname.lastname@example.org