Monday, 28 January 2013

Independent Playtime

Just how do you get a toddler to play on their own?

I'm told that some kids will happily sit in their room and play with their toys for ages, often more than an hour at a time. Lydia has never been like that. From a very early age, she seemed to crave our company, although she wasn't a big fan of contact (not a very cuddly baby).

We used to put her on a playmat with a mobile of dangly toys hanging above her, but she would only slap the dangly things for a couple of minutes before starting to cry out of either frustration or boredom. This made it quite frustrating as it meant we couldn't get on with our daily tasks because we had to try and entertain a grumpy baby.

People often say to me, "you should have left her crying for a while, that would teach her to keep herself busy". Believe me - we tried. We left Lydia crying on her playmat for well over 30 minutes, praying that she would realise that her screaming was getting her nowhere, but she always managed to outlast us. There is only so much high-decibel screaming that a person can stand, so Lydia won every time.

She never really had a problem with sleeping on her own - that's always been one of the blessings we've experienced with Lydia, as she started sleeping in her own bed at 4 weeks old and was sleeping through the night (8pm until 7am) by 6 weeks old. Even her naps have generally been OK, with only small patches of disturbance to the rhythm along the way.

But playing by herself has never been part of Lydia's character. As I mentioned above, she seems to need interaction with others to be able to play. We tried giving her a wide variety of different toys, from gadgets that make noise and have flashing lights, to puzzles and building blocks, but she has just never played with them on her own (or certainly not for longer than a couple of minutes). She will happily play with me or Christelle, but whenever we walked away to do something else Lydia would inevitably follow us, whinging all the time.

For Christmas last year we bought her a nice wooden kitchen set from IKEA, with a load of pots and pans, plates, cutlery and various plastic or felt toy food items. She loves playing with this when we are in her room with her, as she constantly offers to make us a "cup-o-tee" or give us a slice of gateau. A couple of weeks ago I laid out the quilt that my sister had made by hand last year, placed a couple of cushions on it to act as tables, then invited some dinner guests - Lydia's teddy bears - to sit down for dinner. I showed Lydia how to ask everyone what they wanted to drink and eat, and then to prepare it in her kitchen and serve dinner to her guests. She seemed to really enjoy this, and it made me smile to see her playing nicely.

Unfortunately, the dinner party ended when I left the room to do the washing up from our actual lunch things, as I was followed by a toddler who was grumpy at my departure. It seemed as though I had found a game that she liked, but for it to be fun I would have to play along. Sigh.

We continually try to encourage Lydia to play in her room for a few minutes, and I have read articles about how to do this. Some suggest placing a timer in the room and telling her that she has to play on her own until the buzzer goes off, and then we will do something together. Other articles suggest putting up a stairgate in the doorway and closing it when leaving her in her room to play, maintaining a visual line of sight to the little one while they play so you can encourage and reassure them from afar. This option won't really work for us as it is not possible to maintain a line of sight to her room, unless we stand in the hallway the whole time (which isn't really the idea here).

We discussed what we could do to try and help Lydia gain confidence to play on her own in her room, before giving the timer idea a go. We thought about what games we could encourage her to play, activities that would be fun and absorbing enough for her to not notice we were not sitting next to her. We mentioned the tea party as she really seemed to enjoy that, but how could we get her to do this on her own?

Then we thought about music. Lydia LOVES music, dancing and singing along to children's nursery rhymes and tunes aimed at the young ones. It is how we manage to keep her calm during most car rides, although it almost costs us our sanity at hearing the same songs repeatedly.

Anyone for tea?
So, last night we set up the tea party table on the floor, then my wife put her iPod on a shelf in Lydia's room and left it playing one of Lydia's favourite CDs. Then, we left Lydia in her room and backed away to the living room with our fingers crossed. To our amazement, for the next 30 minutes or so we only saw Lydia once or twice as she came out to offer us some tea and gateau. It was a miracle!

Could it be that music is the key? Have we stumbled across a solution to our problem? Will it work every time?

I guess only time will tell. But at least we got 30 minutes of peace out of it, and that's already a great start.

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