Encouraging Toddler Independence

Parent Q&A

  • Two year old Independence

    (9 replies)

    Our daughter is 25 months old. We have her enrolled in a phenomenal preschool that creates numerous opportunities for her to play, be social, go on hikes, be outside, and so on. We also make sure to mix in plenty of play time on busy weekends. In other words it feels to us like she gets plenty of interactive play time. Nevertheless, from the moment she gets home it's "go play? Go play?" And she finds our hand and drags us to her play room. Same thing in the mornings -- even though she likes school and we talk to her about it, she would still rather play at home, interactively with us. We both work and we need just a few minutes to ourselves when we get home sometimes. But any effort to encourage her to play by herself for even a moment results in a meltdown.

    What tools have other busy parents found to encourage their kids to play independently on occasion? Or is it too soon developmentally? Should we just give up and always have one person on kid duty?

    RE: Two year old Independence ()

    I could have written this post - same preschool experience, same home experience as you describe, and my daughter wanted our attention to play with her what felt like 100% of the time. I definitely became a bit burnt out and felt guilty about it but it is important to find a little time to yourself to maintain your sanity or just get stuff done! It was the worst between ages 2 and 3 but really since she was a baby she was like that. Now that I have a second child who is so different I realize just how much this is an ingrained part of her personality. I do also think it's developmental. Right around the age of 3 my daughter got much more into imaginative play so she began to become much more independent as a result. 

    One thing that worked sometimes was creating specific times for different types of play and communicating it clearly and often. I even used timers. For example, I'd say "Ok now it's mommy-kid play time for 20 minutes and after that it's free play time where you get to do whatever you want by yourself while mommy does her own thing". Then I'd remind her a few minutes before time was up. I started small. "Free play time" was sometimes only a few minutes and then it ended before she melted down. I also used TV as a break and don't feel guilty about that one bit. "TV time" was a specific type of play time and she knew for that 20-30 minute show that I was going to be busy getting stuff done. I set the schedule and lengths of times and she got used to the routine and what each type of play time meant. I also allowed the occasional melt down - stayed by her side, repeated often that I know she was sad because she wanted to play with mommy, but that mommy was busy, and would bang out a quick email or do some dishes or something while she laid nearby. 

    If you use Instagram, I love the "BusyToddler" page for lots of good and easy ideas for independent play. My kid never liked traditional toys but some of the easy activities she suggested were great. I think she was getting overwhelmed by all the toys so I created a separate "free play" area with one or two toys or an activity that was set up. I tried to have it ready for her when we got home from preschool too and we'd play together first and then do "free play time".

    Hang in there, don't feel guilty for getting in some time alone in whatever way works for you, and it will likely get better as she gets a bit older. 

    RE: Two year old Independence ()

    Hi there, my son is the same age as your daughter and I can confirm that it's all play, all the time. If two of us are home, we typically do have one parent on kid duty, though he often wants to interact with both of us. If just one parent is home, we try and include him in what we're doing -- for example, if I need to prep dinner, I'll set him up on a stepstool at the sink with unbreakable bowls etc. and he'll "do dishes" or "cook soup" while I work. I try and talk to him constantly and respond to what he's saying and asking, just as I would if an adult were in the room hanging out. It's hard sometimes and can be very stop-and-go -- these are not the nights to attempt 7-course meals -- and this approach is not without tears (sometimes he just barnacles himself around my legs). But honestly I really love his energy and I know it's not going to be like this forever.

    Two more things that work: 1) Daniel Tiger and 2) bedtime. No matter how challenging it is for those hours after we get home, kiddo goes to bed at 7:30 and the rest of the night is ours.

    RE: Two year old Independence ()

    One of my kids craves constant interaction too. It doesn't work for me to encourage her to do things alone, but it sometimes works to say, "I'm doing XYZ, and I would love it if you joined me. I can play with you in 10/15 minutes." It lets her know that I hear her, but also (hopefully) teaches her that I have my own priorities. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Does 18 mo. old need more play time?

June 2005

We are lucky enough to have full-time daycare at home for our daughter. Although her babysitter is very responsible and helpful, she doesn't seem to know how to play with her. She takes her to the park and on long walks but seldom plays with her toys or reads with her unless we specifically ask. Our daughter is very unhappy when we leave for work and clings to us when we come home. She loved her previous babysitter who was fantastic at playing with her. At 18 months, could this be more about it being a clingy stage and less about her being unhappy? Should we be less concerned about how much play she's getting at this age? Would a group daycare situation be more stimulating for her? Our daughter is very smart for her age and seems to thrive on stimulation and learning. anonymous

At 18 months a kid needs interactive play. So yes, put her in a daycare, or at least in a nanny share situation with a nanny who likes to play and read and sing and basically interact with your child. Later on, your daughter will be able to play alone and initiate play with the sitter, but until then she does need someone to help her play. anon
I've been a Nanny for a long time, and have relevant education - and reading and playing is just so crucial for the child's development and wellbeing. I think your concern is absolutely justified. It's great that your Nanny takes your girl out of the house, but the lack of playing and reading is serious, IMO. Not only does a normal, curious child enjoy playing, but playing is the most important way of learning and developing, both in my personal experience and according to child development/psychology theory. Being read to is also very important to develop language, and it's a wonderful, calm, bonding experience, and should be done every day. I don't suppose you'll want to change your Nanny, as you sound otherwise happy with her, but I'm sure your child would benefit greatly if you address the situation. Your Nanny might even find that playing with your girl makes her own day more fun, too! Best of luck :) Kat W.
This isn't an answer to your question, but language development is super important. Reading books together should be a daily thing. Also, does your caregiver talk and converse with your child all day long? That's what kids need.So often I see caregivers pusing kids around in strollers or watching them at the park without talking to them. Everything in a child's day is an opportunity to learn language. ''Momma's shirt. Sam's shirt'', ''Do you see the swings?'', ''Hey, there's a doggie!'', ''Would you like the cracker or the bottle?'' etc. JM
i have a son who is almost 2. all they do at that age (or 18 months) is play, read, run around. they thrive and learn from playing and reading. it's imperative for their emotional and cognitive development. out sitter plays with my son all day and when he sees her he says ''bye, bye'' to me. your child needs play. i'd change sitters or put him in daycare. follow your instincts

Do I play with my toddlers enough?

March 2002

I've been wondering for the past few months if I play with my children enough. I'm a playful person, I enjoy tickling, chasing, and reading to my 12mo and 28mo children. I take them to the garden, park, and long stroller rides. My husband, who is more serious than I, but he has a goofy/corny side to him that I do not have, and also has a knack for coming up with creative physical games that bring shrills of laughter from our children.

With two babies so close together and caring for them all day I think I'm too tired to be really creative. How have other parents been playful? Can anyone share some games and interractions that were fun? I need some ideas. Thank you Anonymous

All your children need is to know you love them. The amount of time you spend ''playing'' isn't what counts. You have to be yourself and do what comes natural to you. Its great that your husband gets them to laugh but your children need you for other reasons also. Liza
Your question really hit home today. I just received a gift for my 10-month-old, and the box had big sheets of brown paper crumpled up in it. The baby and I had enormous fun playing with these sheets of paper -- we went on for almost half an hour, crumpling them up, tossing them around, making tents out of them and crawling underneath -- both he and I were laughing so much.

I find that my son is often like that; he likes simple things more than fancy toys: we throw balls into a big box and watch them bounce back, or roll balls back and forth across the coffee table; make big stacks out of different sized boxes and knock them over -- and I've played with a couple of two-year-olds who seemed to like this sort of thing as well.

Just find some (safe) junk, let the kids at it, watch them for a minute, and join in when they seem to be having fun. Of course, you have to be willing to clean up a bit after... Karen

It depends. I don't necessarily play with my kids - but their play is my life. I treat play in a Continum Concept sort of way - when I feel like it, I'll play with them (I have a 7, 5 and 2yo and a 5mo) but mostly they integrate their play into my day (parallel to me - helping me with chores, in the garden, etc.). Kathy
Being a mom there is much pressure to be and do so many things...In my case, especially when I'm feeling too tired or overwhelmed to lighten things up, I enjoy the help of my son's teenage cousins who have boundless stamina for fun and silly games. If you don't have teen relatives, you might consider hiring a teen helper to visit once in a while for this sort of activity, which could also give you a well deserved break. Rue

18-month-old demands constant attention

July 2002

My eighteen month old boy seems to have less ability to play by himself than other tots I see. He insists on direct interaction with either mommy, daddy, or his morning nanny 100% of the time. I see other children amusing themselves, or at least tolerating it when their parents are talking to other adults or on the phone. Our boy wants to play with us and I mean with our complete focus. I feel touched by his love, but I am also wondering if we are neglecting to help him develop his independence. On the other hand, the books I have read say that when a need is satisfied it disappears. At this point, after a year and a half of putting many of my own needs aside to satisfy his, I'm worn out and beginning to get a little resentful, despite the wonder and joy he has brought to our lives. (My husband and I were once away from him for 2.5 hours, that's it) However, moms of older children have told me to savor every moment of this, before you know it they don't even want to play with you. I would hate to push him away, training him to not come to me. Maybe there is a middle ground here, maybe I just need to hang in and push my adult needs aside even longer. Can folks who've had a very demanding child comment? Giving, giving, gone

Boy, do I hear you. We have a just-turned-5 year old who sounds VERY similar. Screamed whenever we left the room (when he was too young to follow us, that is), didn't want to play by himself or with other children, etc. We had one night out in his first year too, heh.

I can tell you from our experience that this has nothing to do with a ''needs met will disappear'' kind of issue; this is his *personality*. Our son is EXTREMELY social and outgoing, once he could talk he literally talked to everyone he saw. I don't think your experience reflects any deficiency in meeting his needs or in your parenting, it's just that he gets his energy and pleasure through interacting with people instead of things (toys).

It certainly has its negative side, but the joys became more obvious as he got older. I don't want to just come off like your friends who have told you ''be happy while you've got it'', people told us that as well and it just made us grit our teeth. :) What I mean is that you start to realize, when he can interact with you on more levels, that an outgoing and social personality is a real blessing. He makes friends extremely easily, he absolutely LOVES having babysitters (heh), he's not materialistic (I see so many kids who just want ''more more more stuff'', but our son just wants to play with PEOPLE, whatever they're doing!), he develops social skills much earlier than other children, and the games he plays are social games (acting, role-playing, jokes, that sort of thing) much more often than individual activities (like building, or pushing cars or trains around). He loves drawing, but literally every thing he draws is FOR someone; he's extremely giving and loving. He snuggles and cuddles and is very affectionate.

I'm going on a bit here, but you get the idea. Sometimes it's hard to interpret a baby's personality in the same terms we do an older child or adult, just because their means of expression are so limited (e.g. in this case ''he's clingy and demanding'' unfolds into ''he's really social, extroverted, and outgoing'' as he grows).

So take heart, not only does it get easier but you will be the envy of your friends as you drop your child off for school and he runs as fast as he can to see all his friends (and tells you all about his day afterwards), while their children are having separation ''issues'' :) Eliot, Matthias' dad

I too have an intensely attached child. She's now two and I've just kind of pushed the issue to maintain my sanity. Although I agree that it's important to meet your child's needs so that they don't get displaced, I think the resentment bred by the constant giving you described is not healthy for anybody either.

I've learned that there are certain situations that make it worse for her: new people, new places, and the end of the day are touchy for her. I recently declined an invitation to a beloved cousin's wedding -- much to the astonishment of my family -- because it was a no-kid event in the evening far from home. The evening (new) babysitter in a strange place would have been way too much for my daughter to handle.

I have generally intensely screened anybody caring for my daughter, spent a lot of time with the two of them initially, and given painstakingly thorough directions. I've turned some very nice people away after an initial try out. I often think how nutty I must seem to parents with mellow babies. I won't leave her with anybody who gets anxious with crying or who doesn't have good intuition for how to really *engage* her in things. (Few people do unfortunately. She's very sensitive to being patronized with meaningless distractions.) I have managed time to do things without her this way. She cries sometimes, even now. I have a cell phone and tell whoever is taking care of her to call me if she doesn't stop crying after 10 minutes. This way, if I don't get a call, I can let it go and enjoy my time.

I hope this helps. It's hard to understand your situation unless you've been there. -- Ilana

Eighteen months is a notoriously clingy stage. At this point, kids are in the comfort vs. independence struggle. However, you said that your son's demand for attention has been going on since he was an infant. Perhaps rather than the all or nothing approach, you could ease him toward more indeendant play. Do you belong to a play group or a moms' group? Perhaps interaction with peers could help. Another thought is to give him play tasks that foster a bit more independence. For instance, we have a kitchen cabinet that holds my son's ''cooking'' tools. When it's time to make a meal, I ask him to get his bowls and spoons and help me stir. When we first started this game, I had to do a lot more hands-on play with him. But as he's grown a bit, he likes to cook more on his own. That has helped him to play more on his own at other times, too. I'm there, but focused on my own tasks while he is with his own. Carolyn
OK, I can completely relate because I too have a demanding 18 mo. My daughter is demanding in a way that manifests itself more as separation anxiety. While your son seems happy to play with (nay demand time from) your husband OR you, my daughter pretty much fixates on me all the time. What my husband and I are learning since this is our first is that you do have to pick your battles and you will feel like a broken record trying to help them to understand you. I recommend that you encourage your son to find a toy or game that he likes and play with him on the floor for a few minutes and then try to walk into the other room while you're still talking to him. Try to break away for a few minutes at a time and then return, so that he understands you will come back when you say you will. Eventually try to grow the time to ten minutes, 15 and so on. I find that with our daughter I have to constantly reassure her that I will be right there or that I am close by for her to feel comfortable enough to go on playing with her toys solo. Also, a new trick I use is encouraging her to play with a doll or bear and offer the doll or bear cheerios, milk (pretend) from her sippy cup etc. You need to engage in the scenario at first, saying, ''does bear want some milk? How about you put bear on your car and drive him around?'' It has helped to empower our daughter and distract her by making her feel in control and also I believe that it helps to teach them empathy. I know this is long winded, but the last nugget is just to not give in to every demand to be picked up or to always be the center of attention. Choose which times are going to be time focused on your son, and play with him then -- and at the other times, say when you and your husband want to hang out together and catch up, let your child know that you're talking to daddy and that you'll talk to him again in a few minutes. This is a good time to suggest he play parent to his bear, doll, toy, etc. This has caused a few meltdowns in our house, but I think that its an important lesson that needs to be learned and as long as you do engage with him regularly and give quality time, then when you need time to yourself if should be respected. Hope this helps. relating to your challenge!
There's a book I'm reading in spare moments called ''making the terrible twos terrific''. since my daughter is just one, all the advice is untried by me, but the age span it applies to is 18-30 mos. It has a section on how to encourage independent play. Perhaps surprisingly, it involves fewer, not more toys. Also he stresses a type of toy...those that are simple and require imagination. There's a 'case study' of a three year old whose parents packed up complex educational toys and left out simple things like an appliance box play house and blocks and soon the child was doing lots of independent play. This is an odd book. The philosophy rings a little harsh, but the tips are fairly gentle, if firm in style.

Our daughter also gets lots of one on one attention and still cries when I leave the room if she's not with her father or her main sitter. But I was astonished at how long and quietly she played with our friend's six/seven year old daughter w/o me present. Perhaps you could introduce an older child as a mother's helper to give yourself a few brief breathers and then increase the time? Jessica