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4 ways to encourage independent play for baby’s benefit—and yours

As toddlers, children still need a secure base from which to explore their environment (usually you, mama). But a constant need for attention and active engagement can be frustrating sometimes, especially when there are so many things to get done every day.


Independent play can promote autonomy, imagination, problem-solving, and creativity in your child. Plus, it can give you a much-needed chance to catch your breath among the daily chaos of motherhood!

Here are 4 methods for promoting independent play in your child.

Next stop, Imagination Station!

Children’s imaginations develop rapidly. Set the tone for independent play by providing the groundwork for intricate forms of imaginary play that your child can engage in alone or with peers.

For instance, offer your child a few ideas, such as building a “fort,” making a simple craft, baking in a play kitchen, or playing house. Note your child’s particular interests so that you might better tempt them into playing independently.

Sheet fort kind of day 🏕 #sheetfort #everydaywithmisscolette #toddlerlife #rainyday #noboysallowed

A photo posted by Sophie & Coco (@sophie_and_coco) on

That’s what friends are for!

Social relationships are also blossoming at this age, as your child is starting to truly interact with other children.

If you are hoping for your child to learn to play independently so you can squeeze in some“grown up time,” consider hosting a simple play date at your house ora nearby park. The little ones can play together and you can catch up with a few of your best mommy friends.

Alternatively, consider a rotating schedule with 1 or 2 trusted mamas in which each of you take turns watching the tots. Even if two moms are “on duty,” that still gives one mama a few hours to catch up on errands, work, cleaning, or, yes, a haircut and Netflix.

Another option for increasing social relationships with peers is to enroll your child in aMother’s Day Out program. Although the name implies that these programs are purely for your sake, they actually offer your child a crucial opportunity to build peer relationships and become more comfortable with increasing distance from you, mama.

Make playtime seem new and exciting!

Because your child’s cognitive development is growing so rapidly, make sure that your tot has a variety of age-appropriate toys and activities available.

My two-year-old loves his toy kitchen and accoutrements, wooden train set, nesting blocks, sidewalk chalk, and Y-Bike.

"Koken koken!" 🍳 Summer vindt haar keukentje gelukkig net zo leuk als papa en mama het vonden om hem te pimpen 😎 #ikea #duktig #ikeaduktig #playkitchen

A photo posted by e l i s e m i l o u (@elisemilou) on

If your child seems uninterested in his toys, it is possible that he is outgrowing some of them. If this is the case, consider donating or selling them and investing in a few new ones. Try your favorite second-hand shop for fun toys at a bargain.

If your child’s toys are age-appropriate but he still seems indifferent to them, it is possible that there are too many toys at his disposal.

Too many toys can be overwhelming. Think about a child’s playtime like your workload. If there are too many things on that pesky to-do list, it’s easier to just forget about it and go out for coffee instead. In your child’s case, it may be easier to just throw his hands up in the air and give up on playing with toys.

Här leks det för fullt! 👍 Credit: @tinylittlepads

A photo posted by Kids and baby Inspiration 💕 (@finabarnsaker) on

Plus, if your child’stoys are always out and available, they may lose their appeal and begin to seemboring after a while. Try putting out just a few toys at a time and rotatingthem after a week or so. Et voila! “Brand new” toys for your littleone every week.

Whistle while you work—together!

If you are desperate for more time to finish daily chores, ask your child for a little help with sorting laundry, sweeping, or throwing away trash.

This baby loves to clean, thank goodness one of my kids cleans👏 #themothereffintruth #toddler #toddlersofinstagram #17months #babycleaning

A photo posted by The Mother Effin Truth Blog (@themothereffintruth) on

If your child is willing to help, great! If not, he may look for more interesting pursuits on his own while you finish up. Win-win.

Similarly, look for ways to incorporate play that is independent but still nearby to quench your little one’s thirst for interaction. For instance, if you need time to cook dinner, try putting a toy kitchen (or a few play cooking gadgets) in the real kitchen for your child to play with while you cook. It’s an impromptu Mommy andMe cooking class!

Just remember to let your child know that you have work to finish before you can play, but that you will finish just as soon as you can. This sets a good example for your child and lets your child know just how much you love playing and spending time with them. This reassurance will reinforce your role as a secure base for your child.

We know it can be guilt-inducing to crave a little time and space of your own when your child is around—even if it is just to get other forms of work done. But, it’s okay to let your child know that there are things that need to be accomplished before you can play.

Your tot may come first 95% of the time, but it is healthy for them to know that sometimes they must wait for your attention. Practicing this skill teaches self-regulation, patience, and autonomy.

Before you know it, you might even feel nostalgic for days when you and your babe were attached at the hip. When that moment comes, drop what you are doing and let your tot show you how fun is done.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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