How I Use Independent Play to Survive Working from Home
For some reason when I was a new mom, I equated not giving my child my full attention with bad parenting. I felt a twinge of guilt whenever I was doing something else and my baby was playing by herself on the floor. While fun most of the time, it also felt like an obligatory duty.
Before I had kids, I worked full time from home. I planned to cut down my hours after kids, but to still work from home in addition to doing all the childcare. I wanted the best of both worlds and was lucky to make that happen. At first, I worked while my baby napped. But eventually, the napping lessened, and work started picking up, so necessity forced me into that uncomfortable, guilt-ridden place of working a little while she was awake.
And do you know what? I saw my baby have a lot of fun without me being actively involved in her play. I saw her get engrossed in learning a new skill or turning a toy over and over to study its every detail. She didn’t need me 24/7. My guilt started to evaporate and instead I got very curious about the power of independent play and the actual benefit of a little “boredom” to boost my child’s creativity and curiosity.
Once I moved past the guilt, independent play became an indispensable tool for me to get work done during the day and to allow my child’s imagination and independence to flourish.
For me, I define independent play as my child playing on their own without my interference. It is unstructured and mostly involves open-ended toys. It does not involve the TV, phones, or ipads.
Here are a few things I find helpful to foster independent play as I work from home:
I meet my children’s need for attention first
I find that independent play only works when I have first given my children my focused and undivided attention. The first 2-3 hours of our day are spent together having breakfast, playing on the floor, or going to the park. When they’ve had quality time with me, they are very open to playing on their own.
I encourage independent play at other times during the day
I quickly learned that independent play is a skill I have to foster in my kids, and I don’t just do it when I have to work. I need to encourage this skill throughout the day. When I am playing with my kids, I try to avoid taking a director role. I instead follow their lead and support the play they seek to do. My goal is to fade into the background and foster their confidence.
I rotate toys
Each day, my children have a few toys they can choose from. The majority of their toys are in storage bins and I rotate these every few days (or more if needed). This makes a toy feel new and exciting again when they haven’t seen it for a few days or weeks. If you do the rotation right before independent playtime, it will buy you some extra time, especially for a toddler. The toys I find work best encourage creativity and imagination like train tracks, blocks, and pretend play sets.
I stay engaged with my kids
For me, independent play is not a time when I focus only on work and ask my kids to not interrupt me at all. That is just not realistic or desired. Instead, I do my work near to where they are playing. I am still watching and listening to what they are doing. Often, they both like to huddle around my feet as they play on their own (which I love).
I set some ground rules, like not touching my computer. But overall, they are welcome to ask for help, show me something they created, or even come curl up in my lap and watch me work if they need a little love. To avoid frustration, I only do work during these hours that lends itself to being interrupted. The stuff where my full focus is needed I do when they sleep or when I have help.
I create a safe play space
When I am working, I put my kids in what I call a “yes” space. This means that there is nothing they can get into that I need to say no to. No dangerous cabinets they can get into, no objects I don’t want them having, and no furniture they shouldn’t climb on.
My toddler will go a full hour or more playing on her own most days (with interruptions of course). After that, I need to fill her need for quality attention again before attempting another session of full independent play. Even as I write this, my baby and toddler are both playing contentedly at my side. They are happy and exploring the world on their terms, while I do something for myself. It’s a win-win.