For parents of little ones, a few uninterrupted minutes to start dinner, catch up with a friend, or simply relax may seem impossible. But, good news! You don’t need to constantly entertain your child. That’s where independent play comes in. And it’s not only for your sanity. From fostering self-reliance to developing problem-solving skills, solo play also gives baby a self-esteem boost. So declare yours and baby’s independence this Fourth of July and read on for  these tips for encouraging independent play.

photo: madgerly via Flickr

1. Start early.
It’s never too late to encourage your child to play on their own. But the younger they are when you introduce it, the more likely it is that they’ll take to it quickly.

2. Set expectations for both of you.
Pick a specific time each day when your little one is well-rested and well-fed to add independent playtime into the schedule. Being consistent at first helps your child learn that this time is for solo play, just like naptime is for napping. Be realistic in your own expectations as well. A 6-month-old can handle far less time on their own than a 2-year-old. Your child’s personality will also affect how long they can play alone.

3. Create the right environment.
Providing a safe place for play is, of course, a primary concern. Start with the usual babyproofing tasks, like covering electrical outlets, securing furniture, and making sure toys aren’t a choking hazard. Babies under a year old shouldn’t be left completely unsupervised, so a play yard or playpen on the other side of the room from you is a good option.

photo: Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr

4. Ease into independence.
Select toys and interact with them together, showing your child ways to play with them. Once your child is engaged in an activity, move to a different part of the room. If they begin fussing or getting frustrated, don’t immediately run back over. Instead, offer a few words of encouragement and wait to see if they’ll reengage in play. If the fussing continues, pop back over and show them how to play with the toy or offer a new one.

5. Cater to baby’s interests.
Not sure which toys to choose? If your child isn’t mobile yet, pick a few favorite stuffed animals, toys, stacking cups or books that will stay within reach.  Once baby is mobile, place toys a little out of reach to keep them moving and engaged. Provide only a few toys at each playtime so your baby doesn’t get overwhelmed with options. And no need to get fancy or spend a lot of money. Toys that encourage open-ended play can keep a child entertained far longer than electronic ones that require little creativity.

Photo: Juhan Sonin via Flickr

6. Add an element of surprise.
Presenting toys in a container allows your baby to discover them — and new ways to interact with them. Put a small selection of blocks, balls, board books or other toys of different textures and shapes into a purse, box, bin, or small laundry basket and let your child explore. Simply taking items out of the container and putting them back in can be great fun for a little one.

7. Rotate items in and out.
When your child loses interest in a certain toy, hide it away for a few weeks. When you pull it out again, your baby will likely have renewed interest. Continue to rotate toys in and out of circulation so your little one always feels like they have something new to play with.

Photo: moppet65535 via Flickr

8. Incorporate everyday objects.
Baby-safe household items like wooden spoons, measuring cups and small pots or pans make easy, inexpensive toys. And since babies love to imitate their parents, toy versions of items you typically use — a tea set, phone, wallet, tool chest or vacuum — are also popular playthings. Before you know it, you’ll have a little independent player and some much-appreciated time to yourself.

What have you done to encourage your baby’s independent play? Tell us in the comments.

— Katie L. Carroll