Developing Concentration and Independent Play

By Carrie

  • A small toy shelf with a few carefully chosen, good quality toys
  • A place to play where child can do so without interruption and without having to block out other noise or activity going on
  • Time to play

Doesn’t seem too difficult does it?  Except that it is.  Our homes are filled with music, TV, and bustling activity.  We need to get started on the next activity, go to our next appointment, or meet up with a friend.  Which toys should we choose?  If we do know, the desire to offer more amazing toys often grips us.  The list goes on of why simplicity is difficult to achieve.

It starts with being intentional about respecting your child’s developing concentration before your baby arrives.

It’s fun planning for the baby to arrive.  A whole new world of enticing and fun baby products!  Most seasoned parents will tell you that you don’t need half of it.  I encourage you to think about what your child doesn’t need, and to take this further, what harms his/her developing concentration.  What will that brightly coloured play mat or flashing toy bring to your baby’s world?  Bright colours are often marketed to stimulate babies but too many bright colours can be too much stimulation.  A plain, solid coloured play mat will serve the function perfectly (a blanket that you already own will work).  Even a pattern, although beautiful, can be distracting and over stimulating.  With a plain mat the baby will be able to focus on the toy you choose rather than the mat.  We chose to get a solid coloured fitted sheet over a mattress topper.  A flashing toy to give your child feedback of their actions?  A pot with a wooden spoon will also give your child feedback of their actions.  A rattle where the child can see the bell that is making the sound is another example.  The child will be able to see the cause and effect, whereas with a toy with batteries, the child is unable to make the connection as they don’t physically make it happen with their muscles and they are unable to see it.  For a toy hanger we purchased an inexpensive wooden one from Ikea and removed the brightly coloured discs on the sides.

The fun of setting up a place for the baby to play is also important.  Background music or TV is pretty much standard these days that we don’t even think about it, but to a baby it is another activity.  We chose to move the TV to another room (much to my husband’s dislike as it is difficult to change our habits, but our daughter’s developing needs come before our habitual desires).  We chose to not listen to music all day long, only at certain times of the day and sometimes I don’t offer her toys, only music to listen to.  Baby nurseries are often brightly coloured rooms and children’s play spaces are often filled with multiple pictures covering the walls or huge toy shelves.  It is important to keep the colour of the walls a calming colour and to limit the pictures on the walls.  These pictures can be rotated.  Set up a quiet, calm place to play.  A small toy shelf with only a few toys will sustain your child’s attention much longer than a huge toy shelf filled with many, many toys.  Again, these toys can be rotated.  Here is a wonderful article on “Toys for Children: Less is More.”

When your baby is starting to have awake and alert times that last longer than a feeding session and time to gaze into your eyes before falling asleep again, then you can begin to offer time to play.  Offer a place that your baby can do so independently while you do something for yourself (like most new moms it revolves around eating and actually showering).  It is important that you establish playtime for your child to do something on his/her own.  Sometimes your child will want you to be near to him/her and other times you can be in the other room.  When your baby is finished, he/she will let you know.  If you need to remove your baby from this before he/she is ready, it is important to wait until your baby has finished focusing on whatever he/she is doing.  If your baby is busy engaged with a toy or looking intently at something: WAIT.  Although A. can stay engaged with one activity for a long time, when I go over to her she will usually look up at me in a few minutes.  I choose to respect her developing concentration and wait until she stops and looks up at me.  Very rarely will I be in a situation where I simply cannot wait a few moments.  It does happen  though and in those rare situations, I acknowledge and apologize to her: “I know you are focused on looking at the picture but we really have to get going now.  I’m sorry to disturb you.”)

When you place your baby in the play area, offer only one activity.  Offer only one picture (on the wall or in a book) to look at.  Or offer one mobile to gaze at.  Or offer one toy to play with.  Or offer music to listen.  All of these are examples of one activity at a time.  Babies are unable to take things in quickly so they need time to process.  If we offer too much stimulation at one time, the baby cannot distinguish what is important to take in, and takes in all of it.  It ends up not being clear for the child and feels like a jumbled mess.  TV has so many quickly changing images and sounds that a baby simply cannot process it.  The child may become overwhelmed and cry.  Or the child quietly shuts down and doesn’t take it in as there is just too much.  With too much stimulation, the baby is unable to take in the good opportunities to learn and develop.  As A. gained the ability to move towards a toy she wanted, I began offering her a choice between two toys.  She would move to one, explore it briefly, then move to the other toy and explore it briefly.  She would then settle on one toy and contentedly play with it, eventually going back to the other toy and then playing with it contentedly.  Thinking that it would sustain her longer if I offered three toys, I did so but consistently she would bounce between the three toys, not staying with any of them for a decent length of time.  I went back to offering only two toys and watched her determination and concentration increase as she engaged her muscles to reach for and play with the toys, one at a time.

While my experience has only been with A. (who is currently 7.5 months), I think all this preparation and simple steps to carry it through has worked quite well.  A friend recently commented on how independent A. is.   She often likes to be able to see me but doesn’t need me to provide her with new activities.  She will look around for me (and I can be engaged in my own activity) and then she goes back to playing independently, discovering something new about the toy or moving her body in a new way.  Some days she is fussy and wants more of my attention.  I do spend those days reading more stories to her, singing to her, and giving her more cuddles or putting her in a baby carrier if I need to get something done.  As she gets older, these days/moments are less and less.  She will often play independently for at least an hour, concentrating on playing with the toy, the movement of her body, listening to the sounds, or looking at something.  I just let her play.  Another friend whose daughter also has great independent play said it feels like lazy parenting.  Personally I don’t feel lazy.  I feel that I am watching her, delighting in her as she is given the space, time and respect to concentrate and develop at her own pace.

Last words: cleaning up.  Once A. has finished playing with a toy or it is time to move onto the next activity (such as nap time), I put the toy away with her present.  Now that she is moving around and getting into many toys, I let her take out whatever toys she wants and then when it is nap time I let her watch me put away the toys (even if she is cranky and crying).  I hope this helps her learn to put away toys when she is finished with them.


Filed under 0-3 Months, 3-6 Months, 6-12 Months, Carrie, Independence, Play Area/Toys, Relationships

19 responses to “Developing Concentration and Independent Play

  1. Maria

    Beautifully written. Thank you so much Carrie.

  2. randi slobin

    So interesting Carrie. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Booth Eva

    thank you….I’m on the same lines,and it’s really nice to see that I’m not the only one. Your article is also very pleasant to read.

  4. Thank you all for your kind words!

  5. Celine

    I don’t have many friends who are parents so I really appreciate the information and different way of looking at a child’s development than what is encouraged in the mainstream media. I’m going to use some of these great ideas in setting up my nursery. I’ve already acquired many brightly coloured and busy plastic toys and now I’m thinking differently about them and the “more is better” philosophy. I’m a big proponent of simplicity and mindfulness in my own life and I love that I can transfer these ideas to how I interact with and raise my child. Thanks Carrie!

  6. linda

    Hi Carrie, thanks for this informative post. It comes timely for me as I was just mulling how I can encourage my child in the area of concentration and independent play. She is 14 months old now.

    I try to stay away and not interrupt during playtime but she has this habit of picking up a toy and expecting me to play with it while she watches. So turns out I will be involved in her playing.

    Or if she is working on something which she finds difficult eg, posting of objects into a container, any difficulty she encounters, she will trust that object to me without so much working on it and expects me to do it for her. Sometimes she may even get frustrated and upset with whatever she is working on. I would encourage her and show her how to do it but she will just move on to the next toy and not have interest anymore.

    We attend a Little Gym class and during free play, my baby would just keep sticking to me and not explore on her own. Other kids would be curious and exploring the various tunnels and steps.. We try to encourage as much as we can but it’s the same every week.

    I am wondering how I can help her to have more perseverance and be confident enough to play independently. Sorry for the long post. Any advice would be much appreciated.

    • I’m sorry to hear you’re being challenged by this Linda but glad that you are aware of it and are trying to take steps to encourage her independence. Your encouragement may be coming in a form that feels encouraging to you but isn’t at all for her. I don’t know you or your daughter so obviously don’t know about your situation to provide real feedback,but here are my thoughts.

      I encourage you not to be so concerned about her lack of engagement at Little Gym. You can choose to sit and be with her, describing all the activities going on, or you can “investigate” the tunnels, etc. yourself describing them to your daughter but refrain from asking her “do you want to join?” after investigating each piece. Instead just invite her once at the beginning of your investigation. Or consider that perhaps Little Gym may not be what she is interested in. Young children are often more interested in what their parents are doing, so perhaps inviting her to join you washing vegetables or using a duster to clean the house might be more what she is into. Or perhaps playing in the woods or at the beach, or other natural setting rather than artificial would encourage her to explore more.

      At home you may want to try explaining to her that you will play with her for a little bit and then fully engage play with her. Then explain to her that you need to do your own thing and she can either watch you quietly or play by herself. Truly don’t push her either way. If she does choose to play independently and then either wants to show you or obtain your help, gently remind her that you are busy and you will be able to be with her shortly. Do not interrupt your own activity (unless of course it is an emergency). She will either persevere or give up. Trust that one day the toy or activity will be so captivating to her that she will persevere. Take note of this (rejoice!) and try to offer her of these types of toys/activities as these might be what she is truly interested in and the other toys were simply a distraction. Most of all, trust in your daughter that she will play independently and will persevere through struggle. It may take longer than what you anticipated, but by keep the faith in “the child that is not yet there” (paraphrase of Maria Montessori). You may find this helpful to you too. It is written by someone of the RIE philosophy, which also encourages independence and development at the child’s own pace. Also, while your daughter is struggling, try to take note of what her particular struggle is. Then later you can try slowing down and showing her how to do it in small steps, but perhaps in the moment her frustrated emotions are too high to really grasp it.

      Good luck to you! I hope my response was not too long winded and that you find it helpful!

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  9. Thank you for your post! I purchased the Ikea toy demonstrated in one of the above photos, and I was wondering how you were able to take out the side pieces?

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  11. Tany

    Hello I love your article just wondering how you made the floor bed. My daughter moves lots in her sleep and don’t want her having a far drop to the floor.

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  14. Reblogged this on Ananda Montessori and commented:
    Such a beautiful sharing of what is essential for newborns, and how parents can prepare an environment to support exploration and play.

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