Why can’t my toddler play by himself?


I’m at home with my two year old Jack five days a week.  I really love to be with him, but sometimes I wonder--will the time ever come when I can finish a phone call or read the paper or even take a shower without him wanting me to play with him instead?  

Like many devoted parents of young children, you have taken pleasure in playing with your little guy—and now you aren’t sure whether it’s realistic to expect your child entertain himself.  At the same time, you wonder if other children are more independent, and if they are, should you be doing something differently? You see the advertisements for toys that promise that your child will have "hours of fun" with a colorful, expensive, educational something-or-other, but they don't mention that the hours will probably be spread out in three minute bits over the next year or so!  

Most two year olds can't play alone very long, although some manage better than others.  Some children have a lot of focus: they are able to get involved with one activity are less likely to be distracted. Other children are more interactive in their play and want to be talking or sharing activities with other children or adults.  The good news is that no matter what the starting point, most children will gradually be able to increase the length of time they play alone if parents help them learn to enjoy their own company.

Since you’ve noticed that Jack has difficulty playing alone, take some time to observe his current pattern and style of play at home and in other settings.  If you notice that he doesn’t stay involved in an activity for more than a minute or two without wanting to do something else, you can help him learn to play longer by gently refocusing his attention.  For example, Jack  might  pick up a toy, play with it for thirty seconds, and throw it aside. You can try playing with the toy yourself and let him see different things he can do with it.  If he still moves on to another activity, you don't have to follow his lead. In fact, if “play” means that you are following him around the room, switching your activity whenever he switches his, he might enjoy himself but you will be quickly worn out. Instead of helping Jack to learn to play on his own, you would be teaching him to to expect you to follow him until you drop!  If you continue to stay where you are and wait for Jack to return to you, you’ll be showing him that it is possible to stay interested in one activity for a few minutes.  Perhaps even more important, you will be showing Jack that you can be with him without having to play with him.

Another good strategy for dealing with a two year old who demands that you play with him is to offer to play before he asks.  Sometimes a child feels that if he doesn't demand his parent's attention he won't get it.  If Jack is sometimes demanding and other times not, it's easy to get into a pattern of giving him more attention when he asks for it and ignoring him when he's quiet.  However, even though this response makes sense from a tired parent's point of view, your child winds up being rewarded for just the kind of behavior you want to discourage!

To turn this pattern around, begin by frequently initiating play with Jack, before he has a chance to demand it.  Set aside at least five minutes to play together, doing anything that you both enjoy.  Tell Jack that you have some time to play now, until it's time for you to make breakfast, change your clothes, or to do some other task that he knows is part of your daily routine. Give Jack your full attention while you are playing. Then, after you’ve played for five to ten minutes, tell Jack, "I have to go do some work now.  We'll play again later."  Even if he protests,  take care of the task you said you were going to perform, and then tell Jack, "Now I can play with you again."  Keep offering Jack your full attention when you are playing together, but end the playtime yourself.  If you keep the playtimes and your own activity times short, he won't have to wait too long for you.  Although this kind of structured play will at first feel more time consuming than what you are used to doing, over time Jack will learn to accept your coming and going.

If Jack is very sociable and interactive by nature he’ll enjoy playing with anyone, whether his playmate is a parent, a sibling, another child, or a babysitter.  A child with this kind of personality needs companionship, and it may be hard to keep up with his demands all day.  Jack's not old enough for you to let him play with a friend without close supervision, but you can try to arrange play dates where you and another parent watch each other's children for a few hours.  You may find that it is less work to watch two two year olds than one, and you'll also get some time off.

Keep in mind that a two year old is at the age where his curiosity and need for stimulation can exhaust the patience of most parents. Try to get some relief for yourself and diversion for Jack by going with him to the park, to an organized playgroup, or by having a sitter come into your home.  Some parents invite a young school-age child to come over and play with their two year old several afternoons a week.  The older child may be too young to take care of your child independently, but he can amuse your toddler while you get some time to yourself.  If you are refreshed, Jack’s continued demands for your attention will be easier for you to handle.