Encourage independent play

The importance of independent play
Earlier today, my two-year-old stirred his “meatballs and pasta,” aka the orange pipe cleaners and colorful puffs (that pipe cleaners and colander Pinterest activity isn’t going away anytime soon). He scooped the meatballs into the colander and even “tasted” his meal to make sure all was cooking well. And where was I? I was sitting a few feet away on the couch, alternating between writing notes for this particular blog post and reading a book, purposely avoiding hovering over his task.

I’m a huge fan of independent play. I decided early on that I wanted my kiddo to learn and enjoy how to play on his own in addition to playing with others. Sure, alone time provides me a breath in a normally busy day, but the benefits extend most importantly to my toddler:

  • Privacy: Without a watchful eye peering into everything they’re doing, kids are free to play without fear of embarrassment or judgment. My toddler even pushes me away or asks me to go back to where I was so that he can continue playing in private (although sometimes he’ll do so when he’s doing something naughty).
  • Problem-solving: Playing alone provides kids the chance to concentrate and focus, particularly when trying to learn a new skill or figure out how a toy works. Recently, my toddler kept practicing how to close a particular box by sliding in its plastic cover from the side. I could have easily jumped in each time and solved his problem but preferred that he figure it out on his own and seek help should he decide he needed it.
  • Less intrusions: Adults are less likely to jump in and hijack kids’ play and determine a certain direction. Alone time provides them the opportunity to truly create their own world however way they please.
  • Ability to self-entertain: Rather than seeking outside stimulation from parents and caregivers, kids who play independently can easily entertain themselves in almost any environment. I don’t know if my toddler has ever been bored since he’s likely to find fun anywhere (Except clothing stores. Is this a guy thing or what?).

Although independent play is at its root played… independently, I still do my best to encourage my toddler by:

  • Setting him up with props. For instance, I placed the aforementioned “meatballs and pasta” along with the colander on his little table. There’s no way he could have reached up the kitchen cupboard to grab the colander, nor sift through the hallway cabinets to find the pipe cleaners. But once I set him up with his playthings, he’s usually ready to go.
  • Answering his questions. I’m usually nearby even if he’s playing by himself, so once in a while he’ll holler a question and knows that I’m nearby to answer.
  • Praising him. While I make sure to provide him ample time and space to himself, I also want him to know that his behavior is encouraged. I keep the praise subtle though, and stick to descriptive praise rather than evaluative: “Looks like you’re enjoying your meatballs and pasta.” Often I won’t even say anything but swing by and run my hand through his head or give him a kiss.

I normally know when my toddler is ready for more interactive play: he’ll either come up to me, call me over or start talking more frequently than when he had been quietly playing. Those are my cues that he’s ready for a play mate.

Playing with others of course has its own benefits as well: the “distractions” of parents, caregivers and other kids are also necessary for kids to develop social skills and handle emotions, for instance. Yet as parents, we often feel obligated to play with our kids all the time. I know I’ve felt guilty for washing the dishes while he plays at his little table once in a while.

I have to remember that independent play isn’t merely “lazy parenting.” Playing alone provides kids so many benefits that we shouldn’t feel guilty when we’re not interacting with our kids all the time. And while independent play takes place for brief pockets throughout the day (sorry, no two-hour blocks of me-time here), I still encourage alone time with my toddler for its many benefits.

How do you encourage independent play with your kids? Is your child able to play by himself or herself or does he or she require more adult interaction? Does your child thrive with independent play or need more interaction?

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3 reasons you shouldn’t rush a toddler

Why rushing a toddler is futile
A few weeks ago, my family and I visited a children’s museum that could have kept my toddler’s attention all day long. He opened and closed the doors to a bus, inserted circular discs into slots, floated boats on water and pushed a bazillion buttons. The museum was an amazing place for my toddler, and he made sure to take his time on each and every single exhibit. In the meantime, here I sat thinking, “Wow, when is he going to move on to the next one?”

Let me back track: I absolutely appreciated the museum for what my toddler was able to learn and explore from its many exhibits. I loved watching his inquisitive mind try to figure out how things work and hearing him squeal at every button he pushed. I love all that. But as an adult who has long ago figured out why doors open and close and that boats ride the currents of the water, I don’t exactly hold the same wonderment as my toddler.

Why rushing a toddler is futile
Other times, I’ve found myself rushing him through activities that for me, are simply a means to an end, but to my toddler, remain an untapped resource for enjoyment and learning. For instance, I practically dragged him by the hand back home from the park because he insisted on looking at the stoplights flashing behind us. We also take walks around the block or explore at our nearby park, and in the past I would urge him to continue on, saying, “Come along, we’re almost around the corner.” And each time, my toddler politely refused to budge and instead stayed put touching sprinklers or took his time collecting sticks and leaves.

None of my pressings were ever successful in actually getting my toddler to move on, and I’m all the more thankful for that. I’ve since done my best to stop rushing him through his activities, however much I would rather move on. Instead, I keep the following points in mind:

  • Everything is new in a toddler’s world, so even the simplest activities to us can be potentially mind blowing to them. Every environment provides them an arena to learn something new or practice a skill or drill a concept they had been working on.
  • In being allowed the time to discover, children come to learn that we support and encourage their explorations and critical thinking skills. Their play time isn’t merely some silly activity that we brush aside but instead are honored for the teaching purposes they serve.
  • Given a few years’ time, these “slow” events will no longer intrigue toddlers, and I would rather take advantage of what they can offer my still-young toddler while he still appreciates them and can expend the interest and focus he currently does.

I’ll admit—taking my time isn’t always so easy. As a busy mom with a running list plastered in her head of all the things she still has to do, sometimes the last thing I need is spend 20 minutes standing on a sidewalk watching my toddler pick up acorns. And there have been days when we really do have to get somewhere and I have little choice but to rush him along.

That said, I still try to consciously remind myself to let him explore at his own pace because I sure wouldn’t want someone rushing me should I land on some amazing find. And I’ve realized that rushing him isn’t exactly effective—the little guy is quite adamant about staying put or, even if he obliges to quit picking flowers, will still take his time observing the rocks and holes the next second.

I’ve stopped bothering with hurrying him along. Now, a walk around the block isn’t simply a means to an end, a destination to reach. Instead, we take our time as I do my best to block out all the to-dos running through my head.

When have you found yourself rushing your toddler through an activity? What benefits have you seen by allowing your kids to explore at their leisure?

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How to stay calm with your child

How to stay calm with your child
I’ve been short with my toddler. Rude. Frustrated. And there are days when I seriously can’t wait until he’s down for the night. But in over two years, I have never yelled at him, thanks to one miserable day when I vowed never to do so again.

The little guy was a mere eight weeks old, too young to be anywhere near “easy,” but old enough for me to wonder if this parenting thing will ever cut me some slack. I had been rocking him to sleep, trying unsuccessfully to get him to nap. Not only was he not falling asleep on the ball, but he cried the entire time (and my toddler until now is no quiet crier). We were both miserable, and I could feel my frustration growing.

I continued to rock him on the yoga ball, wishing that he would stop crying and fall asleep already when I yelled at him, “Why won’t you just go to sleep?!” Of course that did little to calm the guy down. Instead, he let out a series of frantic cries I had never before heard.

Those cries have since forever been imprinted in my mind. He cried not of discomfort, hunger, tiredness or even crankiness. He was frightened—of me. Of what I had become, and whether I would hurt or abandon him. He grew terrified of the world he knew so little of, and wondered why this person who had coddled him in the past was now so angry.

Remorse quickly took over and I held my baby close, feeling guilty for having resorted to these antics when the little guy needed so much more than that. I cried right along with him, and continued to cry even as he fell asleep in my arms. It was then that I vowed never to yell at him or get so frustrated that he would feel frightened of his own mom.

And thankfully, I kept my promise. Granted, I still get upset and even raise my voice, but have yet to resort to that kind of anger. The biggest reason I’ve been yell-free was because of that cry I can’t forget. I can still remember his frightened cries and they to this day continue to serve as a reminder—a check on myself—not to resort to anger and yelling.

The second reason I’ve been able to keep my temper cool has been the realization that anger doesn’t do any good. Yelling at him did nothing to get him to sleep. In fact, it did the opposite and escalated his frustration. Even these days I find that being rude or frustrated at him ends up exacerbating the problem rather than mindfully trying to resolve it in other means.

When I do find myself on the brink of losing my mind and taking my frustration out on my toddler, I try the following suggestions:

  • I give myself a break. I remember one time when my toddler was frustrating me beyond imagination, and I plopped him down in the bedroom, walked over to the living room and crawled into the couch with a blanket over me. My husband took the cue and dealt with LO on his own, providing me a chance to cool down and compose myself.
  • I ignore him. Ignoring is so much better than getting into an all-out battle with a two-year-old when tempers flare. I’ve sometimes mentally shut him out for a moment and focus on something else just so that I don’t lose my cool.
  • I pick my battles. There are just some days when letting your kid “win” is needed to save your sanity. I’ve since realized that letting the little things go doesn’t turn kids into monsters who will take advantage of their parents forever on out.
  • I take a step back. When I’m lucky, I still have part of my parenting cap on my head enough for me to pull myself out of the crazy tornado. It’s almost like I’m watching myself in action and see and feel the emotions in me without reacting to them so quickly. During these times, I’m able to realize that this is temporary, that there are better days to come, and that a calm mom is more effective than a hysterical one.

All of these suggestions happen quickly, but sometimes it’s all I need to keep from going bonkers. Almost all of them are less than ideal, but much more preferable than yelling or doing something I’ll regret or worse, frighten my toddler.

Sometimes parenthood brings out terrible traits you never you knew had and never had to deal with in the past. I decided I was ready to share That Terrible Day in the hopes that other parents on the verge of yelling at their kids can find alternatives to doing so.

When have you lost your cool with your kids? How do you stay calm when you’re frustrated?

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2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it’s not because he is)

2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it's not because he is)
The other day, my husband made one of our usual breakfasts—oatmeal and fruit—with a little extra treat for our toddler: a peanut butter sandwich. LO practically shoved aside the oatmeal in lieu of the sandwich and gobbled it up in record speed. Once his hands were empty though, he cried for more. “It’s all gone,” we tried explaining to him. Nothing seemed to register. Rather than being thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack, he instead showed little thanks once the sandwich was over.

This wasn’t the first time our toddler seemed ungrateful for something that should have brought more joy than cries. I had offered to show him slideshows on my computer and to see some waterfalls which I knew he liked. Both instances ended with him asking for more rather than enjoying the moment that transpired. We have also given him a smoothie only to face more crying when the drink ran out, and we took him to a playground he loved—staying for several hours—just to be thanked with a tantrum when we had to leave.

“Do you think he’s being ungrateful?” I asked my husband later that day. “I don’t feel like doing anything fun or giving him special treats if doing so causes him to throw a fit.”

“I don’t think he’s being ungrateful,” he responded. “He’s just dealing with emotions that we assume as ingratitude.” We thought about potential reasons why our little guy cried instead of relished the treat and came up with the following two:

  • He’s unsatisfied. When he’s having fun at the playground or drinking a smoothie, nothing seems worse than when it all comes to an end. I imagine the same is true for adults: eating a bowl of ice cream just isn’t as great when it’s over as when I’m actually eating it. Except with kids, they don’t always know that things come to an end, or why we have to leave the playground, or that there truly aren’t any smoothies hidden somewhere.
  • He’s unhappy about something else. My toddler also wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with when he threw a tantrum at the playground. He was tired, teething, and for the past several days, wasn’t his normal chipper self. When kids face rough days, any little nudge towards unhappiness takes on a wild ride in itself.

It’s so easy to feel down when kids don’t seem to appreciate the effort and intention we had. After all, when we treat others and surprise them with fun activities, we expect joy, not necessarily a fit of tears. Yet often it’s up to us to thicken our skin and realize that kids aren’t being ungrateful so much as they are disappointed, confused, frustrated, and a slew of other emotions they’re just learning to process. Instead of succumbing to their frustration, my husband and I now help him try to understand a bit more about the world:

  • Give him notices. Even though our toddler probably can’t tell time yet, we help transition him from one activity to the next by letting him know we’ll be doing something different soon. Whether it’s five minutes before leaving the playground, 10 minutes until stepping out of the house, of 15 minutes until bath time, my toddler seems to appreciate knowing that a transition is about to occur and can mentally prepare for it rather than simply whisking him away when it’s time.
  • Entice him with the next activity. If you’re lucky to find something fun in the next activity, highlight that fact to help your child move on from her current activity to the next. For instance, bath time in itself may not sound exciting compared to being able to continue playing in the living, but saying, “Let’s play with the water like the way we played with the puddle earlier at the park today!” may just be what he needs to leave what he’s doing in lieu of what’s next.
  • Plan treats accordingly. With the best of intentions, my husband probably could have waited to give our toddler the peanut butter sandwich after he had already eaten the oatmeal. I imagine the same goes for me should I be given dessert before my main meal. With a full tummy, kids are less likely to want more and instead appreciate the treat they have.
  • Describe and relish the moment. Rather than treating an activity or a treat as something to be consumed, we can help kids appreciate the moment by recounting what’s happening as it’s taking place. For instance, as my toddler drank his smoothie, we could have described its yummy taste, cold temperature and thick texture. When kids focus on the moment, they’re less likely to rush and instead take pleasure as it happens. Talking about the moment can also stretch the time rather than rushing through it.
  • Accept the tantrum. Sometimes kids will just escalate their frustration to a full-blown tantrum, and the best course of action is to simply accept its occurrence and handle the tantrum appropriately.
  • Consider his point of view. The overarching tip I’d like to end with is to always consider the scenario from your child’s point of view. Only in expressing empathy can we begin to understand children’s emotions and determine that he’s not trying to spite us and be ungrateful but rather is simply expressing frustration in the ways that he’s developmentally able to.

As tempted as I was never to take him to the playground again, I knew that withholding fun activities isn’t the best remedy (nor a realistic one). With a bit of timing and preparation, we’ve since been able to continue his favorite activities with less cries and seeming “ingratitude.”

How do you handle your kids when they fuss about a treat that has finished?

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50 favorite baby and toddler books

50 favorite baby and toddler books
My toddler loves books. He can easily focus on reading for over an hour, contently sitting by himself flipping through pages, once in a while asking questions about the words and pictures. In honor of this constant, favorite hobby of his, I wanted to list several favorite books perfect for babies and toddlers:

  1. Mooncake by Frank Asch
  2. Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang
  3. Big Book of the Berenstain Bears by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain
  4. Pajama Time! by Sandra Boynton
  5. Daddy’s Lullaby by Tony Bradman
  6. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
  7. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
  8. The Golden Egg Book by Margaret Wise Brown
  9. Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
  10. Woolly’s Walk by Stephen Cartwright
  11. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  12. ABC I Like Me! by Nancy L. Carlson
  13. Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola
  14. The Alphabet Book by P.D. Eastman
  15. Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman
  16. Olivia Counts by Ian Falconer
  17. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
  18. Corduroy by Don Freeman
  19. Are You Ticklish? by Sam McKendry
  20. My Friends by Taro Gomi
  21. A Good Day by Kevin Henkes
  22. Kiss Good Night by Amy Hest
  23. The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort
  24. In the Garden by IKids
  25. Daddy and Me by Karen Katz
  26. Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? by Karen Katz
  27. My First Signs by Annie Kubler
  28. My Truck is Stuck! by Kevin Lewis
  29. Tugga-Tugga Tugboat by Kevin Lewis
  30. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr.
  31. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
  32. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury
  33. Potty by Leslie Patricelli
  34. Little Hands Love by Piggy Toes Press
  35. First 100 Words by Roger Priddy
  36. My Mom Loves Me! by Marianne Richmond
  37. The Night Night Book by Marianne Richmond
  38. I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom
  39. My Friend Rabbit by Eric Rohmann
  40. What time is it? by Gladys Rosa-Mendoza
  41. What Makes a Rainbow? by Betty Ann Schwartz
  42. Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book! by Dr. Seuss
  43. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  44. Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw
  45. There Is a Bird On Your Head! by Mo Willems
  46. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems
  47. Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
  48. The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Audrey Wood
  49. The Wheels on the Bus by Paul O. Zelinsky
  50. Trashy Town by Andrea Zimmerman

How many of the 50 listed here have you read? I know a bunch of you are bookworms, so what are some of your favorite children’s books that I missed? Who are your favorite authors?

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