Parenting Win: Independent play is underway at our house!

We’ve been big fans of independent play ever since Carys was born.  Our good friend Anne introduced me to the idea of Montessori Treasure Baskets and Carys has had one ever since she could sit up.  I once clocked her at 35 minutes of uninterrupted play with the random household findings in her basket when she was about six months old, although the amount of time she spent with it (and later in it…) started to tail off as she got more mobile and less interested in being in one spot.

The best way to ensure you can reach everything in the basket is to sit in it...

The best way to ensure you can reach everything in the basket is to sit in it…

She has a small selection of toys out on our fireplace in the living room and when we’re all home she spends a lot of time playing with them.  Every once in a while she comes over to check in with us or wants to show us something while we’re reading or paying bills or whatever.  Most of the time it feels pretty organic and we’ve been very happy with it.  I knew the ‘official’ RIE recommendation was for most play to occur in a gated yes-space, which is a space so safe that if you were locked out of the house for an hour you would come back to find a hungry, upset child with a wet bum who was physically completely safe.  In other words, you don’t ever have to say ‘no, please don’t ____” in that space.  RIE recommends putting up a gate at the boundary of that space and having the child spend most of their time in that area, coming out mostly for caregiving activities during which the parent focuses their full attention on him/her.

We made Carys’ bedroom into a yes-space so she can be in there unsupervised but I’d always resisted putting the gate up because, really, who gates their kid in the bedroom?

I guess I was at least partly backing away from the idea because I didn’t want non-RIE folks coming to our house and wondering why on earth we have a gate on that room.  Much of respectful parenting is fairly easy to explain, but I felt like I didn’t have a good response to a question about the gate.  Plus most of the work was going to fall on our nanny, Meg, and I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position – I am, after all, paying her to look after my child, not gate my child in a room while she reads a book.

Most evenings Carys and I go for a short hike after I finish work and even though we’re not looking at each other we’re constantly pointing out planes and birds to each other and Carys lets me know when she wants to stop and touch some leaves or bark or berries, so it’s become important quality time for us.  About a month ago we couldn’t hike for two evenings in a row (once due to a guest coming for dinner and the other because I wasn’t feeling well) and both evenings were an absolute disaster.  She was perfectly happy to play by herself – not even facing me! – if I sat and watched her.  But as soon as I tried to do anything else she would pitch a fit, throw herself on the floor, and start whine-crying.  I was about at the end of my rope when Alvin got home the second night and I had put her in her room with the door closed while I finished my dinner after she threw hers on the floor.

Playing in the living room

Playing in the living room

The next day, I ordered a gate.  We’re not going to be able to hike in the evenings forever and Carys needs to be able to play by herself when that happens.  RIE says you know you need to set a boundary when something is annoying you, and boy did we need a boundary.

Meg has been an enormous help in instituting independent play time.  After breakfast and lunch Meg spends some Wants Nothing Quality Time with Carys, leaves the room, closes the gate, and tells Carys she’ll be back after she’s cleaned the dishes from breakfast/lunch.

I’d read that if you put the gates up too late – i.e. when the child is aware that there wasn’t always a gate there and they feel they’re being contained – then they will protest the change.  I’m really OK with the protesting, but how long would it continue?  We’ve had the gate for about three weeks now and she has wailed twice a day each day for all of the 5-8 minutes she’s alone.  Yesterday she hung off the gate for about a minute, and then I heard her playing with her blocks and chattering to herself for 20 minutes in the morning and another 15 minutes after lunch.  Today there was NO PROTESTING at all – she just sat down to play right after Meg left the room.  MAJOR WIN.  We’ll need to keep building on it, and may soon institute a similar session after dinner while I’m cleaning up from that, but I feel like we’re heading in the right direction.

As Meg said, “Who knew it would be easier to train her to sleep in a tent than to play by herself?”

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