"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> urbanMamas

Self-directed play and siblings

I was alone for several hours yesterday at home with Monroe, who's two-and-a-half, and contemplating my plans for next year in the backdrop of a book I have been reading, the fascinating and inspiriting Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes. Truman was out on an errand with daddy and I was finding it impossible (as usual) to do any writing. Monroe, needing attention in the absence of his brotherly playmate, wanted to sit on my lap and punch keys on my keyboard. My choices: give him the iPod touch with its monkey games, put on a TV show, or do something with him.

I've made it my personal mission not to use screen time unless I'm truly desperate, and I wasn't, so we went outside and planted more peas and some lettuce and kohlrabi. He dug in the dirt and helped me sprinkle kelp meal until he got bored of it and decided it was time to go for a walk. As close to traffic as possible. Inside again then! I spent the rest of my "free" time making us a snack, wondering, how will I ever manage to entertain this child and get just a little bit of writing in each day, next year with Truman in kindergarten? And the next? Truman has always been the sort of child who can play by himself for hours, without heading for the street, and this littlest man in our family is demanding enormous levels of interaction.

Enter the radical homemakers, those who, according to Hayes, "are pursuing homemaking as a vocation for saving family, community, and the planet." I'd just been in the part in Chapter Five where Hayes describes the way these radical homemakers "redefine wealth and poverty," in her section beginning, "Child care is not a fixed cost." In other words, how can you redefine the way your home economy works so that you do not need to pay another person to care for your child? I was tracking -- this is exactly what I've tried to do with my own family, freelance writing from home when it became clear that, more than anything else, my kids needed me, a lot. One of her interviewees had her daughter in day care for a while and she says, "I noticed that in day care, what she learned was to be entertained. Out of day care, she had boredom. And when she had boredom, she got creative and she thought of things to do, and went outside and climbed the tree..." In contrast, all the activities and scheduling at day care had her wired on the expectation that someone else was supposed to give her that play structure she needed. "I don't think that's necessarily a good thing," the mother concludes.

This gives me hope: it occurred to me that the expectation of a sibling to play with could be a balm that, once it was less of a sure thing, Monroe could learn to work around. I'd love to hear stories from those of you who aspire to a simple and less structured life: once all the older siblings were in school, did your youngest adapt to life just with you -- and let you get a little bit of time to focus on whatever else you and your household needed?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

good lord, i'd love to hear what others have to say. i'm going through that now with an almost 3yo, and now there's a newborn. the 2 older bros are in school and the 2yo demands my attention non-stop. when he is off alone and quiet, i *have* to check on him, of course, and then he's right there under my feet again, once he sees me. exhausting! if i can get him up early early in the morning, i can get him to nap around noon and have a couple hours to get things done. otherwise, it's a pretty nonproductive day around here unless i have things like laundry i can do with him around...things that don't require brain cells.

I find this interesting as well. I have a 5 year old in school all day and a barely 4 year old at home. My little one is good at entertaining himself, but I do see that he is a little lonely without his brother to play with so he comes to me a little more frequently than he will when they are both at home. I wonder though, for me, if it isn't that he is coming to me excessively, but rather that I'm just not used to it anymore. When his brother was this age, I was just used to planning activities for him that we worked those into the day. More playdates, trips to the park, etc. Nothing huge. And if I wasn't doing something to/for/with him, I had the baby to deal with. There was never a dull moment. But, now, when he's at school I'm just so relieved to have a little downtime that I feel more annoyed with the desire of the little one to seek me out. Or maybe I'm just that much older and have that much less energy? I don't know. I think I had a pretty good grasp the first time around on not worrying about chores and such so much because they would only be little for so long. I keep trying to remind myself of that this time around as well.

Hmmm, I am really interested to hear what others have to say, as well. My almost 3 year old is not good at entertaining himself at all. That doesn't preclude creative play; he just wants someone to be involved in the games he makes up for himself. He is extremely social, and playing alone just doesn't do it for him.

My best days at home with him (and his 8 mo sister) are the days when I don't try to get anything "done" except for playing with them. (I work part time, three days/week.) Sure, I can throw in the odd pile of laundry and sometimes fold a few things here and there. But when I need to get something done, I usually do it when my husband is home to play with the kids.

We've got a little bit of the opposite problem around here--it's my older son who struggles to play independently. When he is at school, the younger boy often will play independently for quite a while. He misses his brother and asks frequently when we'll go pick him up, but he's much more able to get engaged in something on his own. My older son is so intense--always needs to be around us, constantly talking and asking questions, and unless we get out a game or a book and participate with him, often just stirs up trouble with the younger one. The afternoons when they are both home with me are rough! My oldest went away for the weekend with my parents and we were so amazed at the difference! Our younger one is 2.5 and he's still quite a handful in so many ways, but wow, our weekend was so quiet without our older one around! That sounds terrible, I realize, but at the moment I'm a bit frustrated with my bored 5 year old!

I would say that we live a fairly unstructured and rather simple life. The boys go to swim lessons with Papa on Saturday mornings, but other than that and my older one in preschool in the mornings, we don't have any structured activities during the week. Plenty of trips to the park and walks around the neighborhood, but lots of time at home--riding bikes, playing in the sandbox, reading books, art projects--that kind of thing.

We keep it unstructured as well. And, simple, and by simple I mean bare-bones simple. I feel as though I 'taught' my children to play independently, knowing that I need lots of time to do my own thing since they were infants. I feel as though it is a skill you can start and reward in whatever way your family rewards; start with one minute, set a timer and build up. Encourage your child to figure it out, try for himself, or do something that doesn't require constant help or interaction. Sometimes, we break the rules or get out something a bit extra messy, knowing it will grant us some alone time. For example coffee bean grinding/scooping, flour play, painting card board box houses, the hose or water play. Again, I think it is a cultivated, learn-able skill. It is exhausting to start and you will sound like a robot but worth it in a few weeks when your child/ren can fully entertain themselves for an hour. It is a skill we all need, and I agree the screen and sometimes well-meaning school fills their minds with constant! crazy! colorful! loud! interactive! fun! If you want your child to sit and read books by themselves, build it into the day and cultivate the time.

I think some of this is personality driven. Not all, certainly, but some. I don't think I ever made it a point to teach my kids how to play alone, but they've always been very good at it. When they were young, their room was always childproofed and they could go in there to play any time. It was the place the bulk of the toys were kept, and books were kept accessible to them. I would often put music on in there also. My oldest would entertain himself in there for long periods of time when he was an only child, and now my younger one does as well. I think some keys are to make the space attractive to them, developmentally matched to where they are (which is probably different than how they play with the olders), keep it somewhat orderly so they aren't overwhelmed, rotate toys so there is something new to play with frequently, and let the space be theirs.

Sorry, a couple more thoughts about this! Something else I've always done is set the child up with an activity near me, whatever it is I'm doing, so they still get that connection but are independent in their play. So, while I would work in the kitchen, for example, we had magnet things on the fridge, the tupperware drawer open, drawing/playdoh/playing at the table, that kind of thing. I still get the "mom, will you play with me" while I'm cooking dinner and my standard response is "no, but you can come in here and work at the table with me."

I think it's a good skill for kids to have, to play independently, but I think it's very developmentally appropriate for a child in the preschool years to want to be alongside the parent very often. My belief is to nurture that because it gives them roots to grow.

I agree with Kim ie preschool age kids wanting to be close to the parent. I am a little surprised by the comments from the stay-at-homes however. Most of my friends that stay at home want to give their children "their time" and feel like daycare and preschool just don't cut it. I would think that you would want to spend time with crafts, reading, learning, playing, etc. Chores are certainly important, but can wait for naps or get the kiddo involved as Kim mentioned. Your kids are only young once. . .independence it important, but needing you will not last forever.

I think it depends on the child. My 3 year old is all about the unstructured play time. More often then not, if I try to plan her day, or join in her activity, she resists. She says I'm "distracting" her (something I say to her Papa) or that she needs "privacy". She is always coming up with new uses for common household items. A white plastic cutting board kept her entertained for a couple hours yesterday. It went from being her suitcase to her surfboard to her canvas to a ski slope for her little people.
I am grateful for my little character. but this has a flipside. If I enroll her in a class to foster her talents,she loses interest, and says she is bored.
And then today, she went down into the basement and emptied a storage container. Which she refilled with every liquid she could find: murphys oil soap, hydrogen peroxide, a gallon of vinegar, Bac-out, 64 ounces of liquid detergent, a gallon of distilled water. Then she raided Papas fridge in the 'man room' and added a litre of cola, a carton of OJ, a couple bud lights and a little pinot grigio. I discovered her just as she was settling in to her "bath".
So, I do often get work done with my daughter and baby at home. But, Mamas, If they are following you around, you know what they are up to!

Anon, thanks for your thoughts on this...As a stay at home mama, I can tell you that although I absolutely do not regret my decisions to stay home with my kids, they are LONG days! I have a 2.5 year old who has refused to nap since before he turned 2, so I don't have that "guaranteed" 1-3 hours that many of my friends have to dedicate to chores while the kiddo sleeps. During the span of a typical 10 hour day alone with my kids, my oldest attends school for 2.5 hours, we often take a trip to the park in the afternoon for an hour or 2 (or three these days while the weather is so nice here), we read lots of books, work on art projects and run an errand or two. My kids get A LOT of undivided attention from me, and I'm by no means obsessive about cleaning the house (ask my husband!) :) but there are still chunks of time throughout the day where I need to get something done around the house, make/take a phone call, or I'm just plain tired and want to sit and drink a cup of tea and I often find it awfully hard to get my older one engaged in something long enough that he is quiet and not talking my ear off, or stirring up trouble with the younger one.

This is coming from a mama who has felt fairly out of balance for the last year or so, since relocating and Papa accepting a job that requires many more hours at the office than we were previously used to. I will absolutely admit that there are many days that I wish I could drop the kids off at a center and head to the office! Our ideal situation would have something to do with Papa working a 40 hour week again, but that's not going to happen any time soon. If a part time job came along for me, I think I'd jump on it, but those seem hard to secure these days. So I do my best to keep my cool, stay patient, and look forward to that 7PM bedtime we've established!

I will also just quickly mention that our strategy to not worry about chores during the week usually leads to a weekend full of cleaning, grocery shopping and errands....Lately I feel so tired at the end of the week from being home with the kids for such long days then I head into the weekend and we scramble to get things done around the house (my husband is awesome about helping with cleaning, no complaints there!) and grocery shopping that by Sunday afternoon I feel like I've had no break and head into Monday morning just as tired... Sorry to whine, it's just how I'm feeling these days, and I know so many mothers who work outside the home who feel the same way, there is no easy solution, I think.

We recently signed my youngest up for a "Parents Day Out" program so on Fridays I drop him off for a few hours--he has a fabulous time and I am able to get SO much done in just a few short hours. That has helped me feel so much more in control and productive, but one or both boys were sick during the last several weeks so I have not had that break, and I'm definitely feeling a bit burnt out at the moment...

Leah, I hear you! My husband also works long hours (he's in a fellowship training program), and to make it even more fun, never knows when his day is going to end until he gets in his car to drive home. So my preschooler and new walker anticipate daddy's arrival starting at 5 pm, but sometimes don't see him before bedtime (8:30 pm and 7 pm, respectively.) I haven't been able to find any "parents day out" programs around me. Can you post the info about yours? Or if anyone else has heard of one or been happy with one, can you tell me about it?

Michele, we're not local anymore...PDX definitely does need some Parents Day Out types of options! I would have been all over it if I'd been able to locate something similar while we lived there. This program is great--they take 1-5 year olds from 9A-2P and it cost anywhere between $25-35/day depending on the age of the kid. They play inside, outside, go for walks, do art projects and sing songs, have a snack and lunch and a rest time. It's been awesome, and my 2 year old LOVES it--asks me everyday if its a school day for him....

A tip from our preschool teacher -- watch for the things that captivate your child and put them in "the zone" -- that place where the rest of the world drops away and they are totally engaged in their activity. This will likely be something sensory -- does your love texture, color, sound? When you see them in that moment, do NOT interrupt. Even to complement them.

We discovered that my 3-yr-old daughter can paint for 45 minutes, in total silence. My 2-yr-old nephew can listen to music for an hour. It can be hit or miss, but I liked the idea of providing them with the thing that so obviously grabs their minds and bodies.

Otherwise, I agree -- if you're home with your kids, you just have to BE with them, and accept that this is what that choice entails. The chunks of time that are "yours" will get longer and longer -- and then you'll blink, and they won't even want you in their bedroom.

I went through this not with my youngest, who has always enjoyed playing independently, but with my oldest. From infancy, he was very connected to me and his father and wanted our interaction ALL THE TIME. It didn't have to be us playing with him; he was also very, very happy to pitch in with our tasks. Of course, sometimes that makes those tasks twice as hard since a two-year-old is not actually very good at folding laundry. But I learned to incorporate him into all my household tasks, from cleaning the bathroom to turning the compost. Everything shifted dramatically when he learned to read and to read well enough that it was enjoyable. Suddenly he had an activity that he enjoyed that didn't require interaction with another person. Of course that didn't happen until he was 6, but hang in there.

A couple tips I have for people dealing with a kid who wants more interaction:
1. books on tape work as a distraction, don't count as screen time, and help bridge the gap between getting interested in stories, having a longer attention span, and being able to read for themselves.
2. set up a routine every day that includes a "quiet time" for kids who have outgrown naps. A quiet time is just time spent in a room by themselves and with my son, we started with 5 minutes when he was 3 (believe it or not 5 minutes by himself was a struggle at that age) and increased it gradually. It will never be enough time to really do work, but it does help your child learn to entertain themselves.
3. Roll with it. Use the time that your child is depending on you for interaction to do stuff they can participate in. Do laundry and dishes and cooking and gardening and sweeping and dusting. It's always there to work on, right? Then when their sibling comes home or they go down for a nap or to sleep at night, you're caught up on household tasks and can use that time for work or personal time.
4. Remind yourself that this desire for interaction is a sign of their personality, not a fault to be corrected. My son continues to be very social, very clued in to other people, very sensitive--all good things.

What is the best time, developmentally, for kids to be "taught" to play alone? I work part-time, so I feel like my days at home with my children are so precious . . . . I want to play with them all the time. That's why we are making financial sacrifices for me to work part time. But I do wonder if I should, now that my son is almost 3, get him to spend more time on independent play.

At this point, he gets "in the zone," as one post mentioned, only when outside gardening with me. Inside, it's "play with me, Mommy!" all day long. Do others find that this is true?

Janice, thank you so much for your post--it was very helpful to me as it feels like I might be where you were a few years ago with your kids. I do really try to embrace my older boy's need for attention and see it as a sign of his maturity and intuition, but I will admit, many days it is just plain exhausting! I'll second the recommendation for the books on CD--both of my boys love those actually. I actually sell a line of children's books that includes a number of titles with CDs and my boys love to sit with my iPod and listen to their favorite stories and songs. Thanks for the suggestions/reminders/insights.

It was really a struggle for me to see his social nature as a positive thing because I'm fairly introverted and really, really need time to myself. So some days when he was little we would be butting heads over his need for interaction and my need to withdraw, but over time I learned to respect his needs and to make sure I met mine in ways that didn't cause upset. And over and over and over again I recited my great-grandmother's motto: Whatever kids do, good or bad, it won't last. And sure enough, he's 10 now and spends lots of time reading and drawing all by himself, which is nothing short of a miracle considering those early years. Good luck!

The comments to this entry are closed.