An Expert Guide to Getting Your Child to Play by His Damn Self


No more nagging Mom for entertainment.

We all know that when we push children away from us, they inevitably clamor to be closer. When we’re on the phone or checking email we can be quite sure that our children will soon be whining and pulling at us. This happens when we’re physically present, but energetically unavailable, and it bugs us when they interrupt. If we want children to be able to ignore us, the “trick” is to do the opposite: be physically busy, but emotionally available. Here are some of the best strategies you can use to make your child happy playing without you.

1. Become Invisible to Your Kids

One of the best ways to be “busy-but-available” is by doing necessary household tasks: folding laundry, washing dishes, chopping veggies, etc. But wait! I hear you saying, "I HATE doing housework with a toddler around!" That’s because when we do housework, we’re often rushing to get as much done as we can before our children notice and become whiny—we’re physically busy and emotionally UN-available. Instead, try doing these tasks with what I like to call a "sense of spaciousness:" You have enough attention for your task AND for any children who are around. When children call us to come play with them, we say, “Oh, I’m folding laundry right now. You’re welcome to come over for a snuggle, or you can help!” If they come over to help, slow that task down to kid speed, and use imagination, humor, storytelling or funny sound effects to make what you’re doing fun and engaging. Children will stay for awhile, then wander off again.

At this point, you want to “disappear” energetically: Hum a soft tune, work slowly and spaciously, make your work a type of walking meditation. Humming is a powerful tool for becoming invisible, because children don’t need to pull themselves out of their play to check if you’re still there and available. Instead, they can hear your soft sounds and they know that all is well. Children will likely come and check in with you two or three times, and then their play will start to fall apart. They become whiny, argue with a sibling, or spill the dog’s water twice in a row. At this point, put your task aside and move on to an adult-led activity: Eat a snack, read a book together or do one of those Pinterest projects you’ve had your eye on. After a dose of direct attention, you’ll be able to become invisible again. When we allow children to come in and out of our tasks, and we are willing to put them aside when children need us, they're able to go for longer and longer periods before checking in, and they can play nicely on their own.

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Working Mother

Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers: Create a Life that You and Your Child Both Love, by Faith Collins. Photo: Faith Collins

2. Create Welcoming Play Spaces

When your child wanders away from you and you become invisible, they will stay away longer if they wander into a space that activates the imagination. Rather than getting MORE toys for this, try getting rid of 70 percent of the toys, then arranging the ones that are left into welcoming “vignettes” that draw the child in. Yes, you heard that right—70 percent. The fewer things there are for children to dump out, the richer the play becomes. I’ve seen it happen many times and parents are always amazed. What might remain? A play kitchen with a small table and chairs, set with bowls and cups. Toy trucks set out in a row rather than jumbled in a toy chest. A “cozy corner” with big cushions, a basket with a few books, and a baby doll sleeping in a cradle. When the play space is all cleaned up and the toys are put away, it should still look like the only thing missing is the child.

3. Turn Off the Screens

This one can feel counterintuitive to many parents. "But watching Daniel Tiger is the only time that I get any space from my child at all!" I hear you cry. Yes, but when we replace adult attention with entertainment dished out like baby food, our children don’t develop that muscle of creating their own fun. Rather, they develop the expectation of being consumers of entertainment. Instead, set your child up on a stool at the sink with a couple inches of warm water, and a sponge. Or if you’re cooking dinner, give them some veggies and a table knife (if you slice the veggies into thin strips, even very young toddlers can chop them). When they get bored, let them wander away.

4. Spend More Time Playing Outdoors

Being outdoors is stimulating for children in all the right ways. But children need to be supervised, and sitting outside for long periods of time can be a challenge when we have so much to do. Figure out how YOU can enjoy spending big chunks of time outside, too. If you’re in the backyard, bring out some laundry to fold, some meal to prep or do a gardening project. If you’re in a park, bring a book to read, the mail to sort through or teach yourself to knit and make something fun. Your children will develop that capacity for independent play, and you’ll benefit from more time in your day for months and years to come.

Written by Faith Collins for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.


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