By now you must already know the benefits of independent play but how do you set up a safe environment for them to explore freely?
We all want our kids to thrive, we want to give them as many opportunites as possible to explore their environment, creativity and playfulness.
There’s just one BIG problem. Kids are reckless.
Particularly strong-headed, fierce two year olds like mine who are determined to complete a task no matter how long it takes or what measures they have to take to get there.
Seriously, I stood in awe the other day as I watched her take her little step to go get the goodies that are out of reach.
She bangs her head against the table almost daily (it’s right at the same height now! And yes I’ve tried those corner protection things and no they are not anti-toddler) yet she’s still going.
There are no stopping toddlers when they have something in mind.
So, we need to place some restrictions – but how to go about it? Read on and find out, my love.
Compare to a container
If we think of setting up a play station for a child, we need to think in terms of their energy (and this will be different for everyone) and how we can best contain it.
What I’m saying is you need to know how your toddler moves, how fast they can get from A to B, what typical habits they have.
Some toddlers like to climb everywhere. How would you go about handling this?
Mine puts everything in her mouth. Seriously, even now.
Some things to consider:
- How good is her balance?
- How strong is her curiosity?
- What time of the day does she ‘act up’ the most?
- How independent do I need him to be?
- How big does he need the space for him to play?
It needs to support their needs
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but the independent play environment that you set up needs to reflect their needs.
Read through the previous bullet points and ask yourself what does my child need to feel supported?
If your babe is under the age of one, this might look like a physicaly barrier like a baby fence:
The great advantage of a play pen is that they can also learn to pull themselves up AND you get to breathe easy while you go to the toilet or cook in the kitchen.
Assuming your toddler is a little older, you want to apply the same principle really.
What I did was let her loose so to speak for a few minutes and see what she was naturally drawn to.
Once I could identify the potential hazards, I could adapt the environment accordingly.
Obviously the key in doing this mini test run is to be close to them at all times in case they touch something they shouldn’t.
So let’s talk…
What each parent determines is safe will look different according to how your children react to new and exciting (and often dangerous) things.
Here are some things that are an absolute must however:
If and where possible, hide cables from reach.
I’m talking behind sofas, cupboards, and tables. This will eliminate a lot of potential hazards in itself.
In the case that you can’t hide a cable, you may want to try a cable cover like this:
I have the same one and for some reason it didn’t work for us probably because I introduced it too late – when my toddler’s curiosity had peaked.
If you’re going to use one, you need to think of getting it early on so it doesn’t come as a surprise (think shiny & new = yes please!)
What you could use instead is something like this:
The only disadvantage here being the fact that you have to set it up with a wall.
If that isn’t a problem for you, then go ahead. Otherwise the final solution is this one that you can mount on the floor, and the color blends in nicely:
Okay, moving on!
Assuming you have a little rogue on your hands like mine, you want to make sure that all little pieces are out of their reach.
Pay attention though you may be surprised to see what they can get their hands on!
Some to watch out for include:
- Bottle tops (easily dismountable)
- Seeds (for a plant household like ours)
- Marbles (older kids leaving them around)
- Pen tops
- Broken crayons
- Chewing gum (they’re very fast at getting a packet!)
- Paperclips, office material
- Small bolts and screws (all you DIY peeps I’m lookin’ at you!)
Have a look around your home and identify where you could be missing something.
If you have a wood burner like us (what a wonderful way to heat the house, by the way!) then you might be worried about your little one getting close to the fire.
Let me tell you how I personally approached the matter:
I taught her from day one that the fire was hot and to be careful. Now that might sound simple but after repeating this hundreds of times, she just KNOWS now.
For crawlers however, who don’t have the capacity to understand reasoning, this is where your barrier comes in handy.
Use common sense while cooking too and try and keep your toddler in the other room where possible (an open kitchen is perfect for this) OR make the investment in a toddler learing tower:
They can either ‘cook’ along with you, or you can set them up with some play dough or something similar.
Bonus: this also helps them in their growth as toddler LOVE to imitate us and play like big people.
2. Choose toys wisely
If you want a child to entertain themselves for more than just a few seconds at a time, then you really need to think about WHAT you’re going to give them.
Now, toddlers love a good challenge. They love to be able to work things out and don’t give up easily until they’ve done it!
Bearing this in mind, here are some toy suggestions:
- Easy puzzles
- Different shape toys you have to organize accordingly
- Building blocks
- Drawing & colouring
- Busy board
I have some more examples in my post on How to Start Independent Play.
Think: the more basic the better.
Ever give your kid a toy only for them to play more with the box it came in than the toy itself?
Boxes are great fun for making boats, planes and pirate ships!
Sensory activities are also not limited for babies! Of course, you may have to screw the top on to a bottle of coloured sand, but you can have lots of fun learning what your kid likes.
Play kitchens are also brilliant in stimulating imaginary play.
Don’t give your kid something too difficult though – if they struggle to complete it (or even get close) then they will likely give up and get frustrated.
If something is too hard for them, set it aside and try again in a few months.
3) Less is more
When it comes to setting up the right independent play environment, you don’t want to go overboard with tons of toys in front of them.
Children become easily perplexed when they see too many things (their brains react similarly to adults when we see clutter) and they can shut down = no play at all.
Follow these little tips that will help you a bit further:
Activity vs toy
When you’re thinking about how to set up something that will last them longer than just the time to sip your tea in peace, you need to think smart.
If you change your thinking to setting up an activity rather than giving them a toy and leaving them to their own device, you’re going to have a lot more luck.
Toddlers love to get busy:
- Ask them to put all their crayons in the pencil case
- Give them a colouring book (and let them color how they want!)
- Get them to wipe the table ready for lunch, sweep the floor
- Make castles with building blocks
- Read a book (even if they’re not literate yet, they can get an understanding of what’s happening and you can chat about it later together)
- Make a necklace with old shoestring and pasta
- Set up a ‘drum kit’ with tupperware and chopsticks
- Transfer water from one cup to another
I hope that helps you get the ideas flowing!
For some more toddler activities, check out this post of 50 Toddler Actvities by Hands on As we Grow.
The best way to keep your house relatively tidy and your toddler entertained is to use toy boxes that you rotate.
These are the ones I have, and they work like a treat. Just be careful not to overstuff them or they will begin to collapse.
Of course, you could always buy the plastic ones, but I just wanted a fabric alternative.
There is also the option of having something like this:
The problem being that they can SEE and REACH everything, which goes against the point I was making. In the end you make the best decision for your living space and family needs!
I would have different kinds of toys in each box too – perhaps musical instruments in one, clothes to play dress up in another, cars in another, etc. Work by themes and that will gain their interest!
4) Let them be
My final point to close this post is that for independent play to work, you have to be able to step back and allow them to play however they want to.
(Providing that they are not in danger, obviously)
It requires a great deal of letting go to just let them be – even when you can see how they can do it better, easier or differently.
Differentiate the play you do together where maybe you focus on developing a skill, to the play your child does on their own.
They don’t need to necessarily learn and improve – playing on their own is aleady a huge skill!
You got this, mama.