“Is there a normal amount of time my toddler should be able to play alone?”
There is no normal amount time a todder or preschooler of a certain age plays alone. Depending on maturity and what has been expected of him so far and how available to him you have been- it could be just a random 30 seconds or up to 45 minutes. I suggest asking him for gradually longer periods of time and have firm boundaries about it. Begin with asking for 5 minutes and gradually lead up to 30 minutes and beyond as he grows. Know that a desire to play alone naturally grows in time for almost all children but that how much they will want to play alone can have a lot to do with personality type and how inclined toward imaginary play they are.
The key with all of this is that our kids begin to learn autonomy as we gradually set boundaries, take space and give space.
1) Slowly back off on involvement over time when you are sitting down and playing with him. Start with touching toys less and asking questions more.This will encourage more independent play with you very, very nearby. This one is something to just work on over time. It is a start, and can set things up well.
2) Have firmer boundaries about your time and needs. Don’t get down and play if you had said you wouldn’t, do get down and play exactly when you promised to. Be firm in communicating what you need and what is expected of him.
3) Give just two choices and repeat what is expected. “Mama needs to rock the baby now. You may either play with toys in your room or sit here with me and look at a book quietly.” If anything different is happening that bothers you, repeat what is expected and give an expiation for why you need to be doing what you are doing. “Mama’s job is to take care of baby Calvin right now. Your job is to play quietly. Do you understand that it is important that Calvin gets to have mommy time?”
4) Be very clear. If she comes to you, remind her right away of what your deal is, what you need and remind her when her play time with you will be so that she has something to look forward to. “I can’t wait to play with you now. Our play time will be after dinner.”
5) Have special play baskets or bags of activities (This Pinterest Board could help with this) that you bring out just for the times you ask him to play quietly or by himself. “You may have these water beads (a favorite of mine) to play with, but I need you to play quietly with them here. I won’t be able to play, I’ll be busy on my computer/taking care of our baby.” Put those toys away with him when you are able to give him more attention, make cleaning them up a joint activity, he will learn clean up from this modeling. Sensory activities and fine motor activities (like small tongs to pick up pompoms) often buy you the most time. I love how Montessori calls this sort of thing the child’s “Work.” In this context, “You do your work. I’ll do my work.”
6) THANK him whenever he successfully completes any decent period of time playing by himself, whether you designed the time or whether he does it on his own. “Thank you for playing alone and letting me nurse the baby/work on my computer. You are such a big boy! You can play your own games by yourself. Playing on your own is such big help to mommy. How did it feel to play alone?” In general, own your desires and preferences and acknowledge when they have been heard. This guilds mutual respect and trust.
*Note that amounts of time little ones will play alone can vacillate. At 15 months my daughter was able to focus on “writing/drawing/play doh” for up to 45 minutes and I thought that was amazing. At 4 years it is less, just 30 minutes and there were times before when it was only 5 minutes! Interests change, attention span goes up and down. It isn’t “regression” or sudden onset of ADD 😉
Love, Moorea SavvyParentingSupport.com
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