We’ve all been there – sitting next to our child with 100 other things we would love to be doing (okay… 5 things we’d love to be doing and 95 things we should be doing). Trapped in toddler-jail, not able to leave without being followed and ending the activity. Have you ever sat next to your child and felt useless while not being able to leave without disrupting her? It’s something I struggled with often, and I went in search of the why behind play-time. I want to be there for Alexander and Madeleine whenever they need me – and that’s often. Especially during toddler years, our attention is in high demand, and our toddlers are experts at capturing it. Intuitively, we are also aware that too much attention during playtime isn’t helpful to their development, so how do we navigate the balance between playing with our children, playing alongside them and letting them play independently? This is a topic that we will revisit on many occasions, and we’ll jump into it for the first time today. Let’s get a clear idea of these three styles and delve into how we can buy 15-minute increments of free time for ourselves by paying into the toddler bank with something I like to call ‘Momcoins’ – aka the only pretend currency you’ll ever need.
The three ways little ones play
When first motivated to look into the ‘modes’ that young children play in, I was driven by feelings of guilt that I wasn’t always enjoying playing with my daughter. I don’t need to remind you that toddlers can be a handful, and while I do really love to observe Madeleine or Alexander during play, I found it exhausting to feel my bottom go numb while sipping down my hundredth empty cup of tea. If I tried to join in the pretend play in a way that I enjoyed, I would just frustrate the chef by moving things around or interrupt the delightful babble and chatter. I identified three ways that our children play: playing with, playing alongside and playing independently.
Playing with is interaction
Playing with a toddler basically involves filling their emotional cup without draining yours – these are the simple activities that you can truly enjoy with your toddler, and that directly contribute to family bonds (these are interactive activities, such as hide and seek, tickling, racing, board games, cooking, reading etc.). These activities involve loads of eye contact, may also incorporate physical interaction and are a great way to earn Momcoins that you can later exchange for independent play (aka 15 guilt-free minutes for you). I can’t wait to hear about which activities fill you with joy and light up your toddler’s eyes. We will delve into how kinesthetic learning gives you a simple tool for playing with your toddler later, but for now, scroll through our master list below, highlight a few activities that are perfect for you and your little one and jot them down in the gorgeous planner. Be honest with yourself when looking through this list – you won’t find me kicking around a football with Alexander or rolling on the trampoline with Madeleine. Still, these are the things my husband looks forward to doing with the kids. It’s okay if you’re a sucker for dance parties – own it ladies.
Playing alongside is discovery
Playing alongside a toddler includes (simple!) assisted activities, such as educational activities requiring help and crafts requiring supervision. Your attention is occasionally needed for instruction, a nice chat, or to keep the blue paint out of his hair, but you are also somewhat free to conduct your own activity during this time (dinner prep, folding laundry or your own finger painting masterpiece) as long as you are sitting near enough to your child to catch the tub of lentils before it cascades over the floor. If the activity isn’t a good match for you or your child, this play can become draining, so it’s important to choose a shortlist of things you both approach with joy and ease. If you’re like me and you dread the thought of thinking up and planning crafts, and you know that your toddler is resistant to puzzles (like Alexander is), scrap both of those ideas – we want everyone’s cup to overflow during this time together, and it’s important to accept what simply doesn’t work without feeling guilty about it. Take a look below for the master list and planner you can use to sift through the things that don’t light up your heart and never look back. Use your cheatsheet a few times a day to buy Momcoins by filling up your toddler’s heart and cup so that she feels confident enough to play on her own for 15 minutes.
Playing independently is growth
Your child’s independent play includes the activities that can leave you feeling exhausted and unproductive if you remain overly involved, such as fantasy play, colouring, play-dough, or simply exploring her open-play materials. This independent time is invaluable for a child’s development, and it’s best that parents work toward a place where their child’s emotional cup is full enough to enjoy playing without mom joining in. We can use the Momcoins we earn by playing with and playing alongside to buy 15-minute increments of independent play. Once you and your child have found a comfortable flow in the separate ways to play, you can generally expect to do about one full playing with or two full playing alongside activities for 15 minutes or more of playing independently. Keep in mind that it’s important to allow the activities to reach a natural end, whether this is shorter or longer than you hoped. Your toddler has a varying attention span between 2 and 8 minutes, so don’t be surprised if she moves between areas of play, and when immersed in the joy of contact with you, she may continue with the game well beyond 15 minutes. When her little cup is full, she will gain enough from acknowledgement, eye contact or a cuddle if she happens to drift past you in her search for the next best thing to play with.
Wise investment of your Momcoins (yes, I made that up…)
While no time is truly wasted with our little ones, we do want to feel useful. We don’t always want to feel like an observer to our children’s playtime without being able to score a few mom-wins along the way. Meddling is rarely appreciated, and while it may seem like your child isn’t doing much in the way of learning, these moments of independent play are the breeding ground for bright sparks of knowledge, emotional processing and cognitive growth. You don’t need to be present for your child to gain the ultimate benefits from this time – and we even hinder their internal dialogue with interference, filling in ideas and letting them rely on us to guide the game. Momcoins are the solution to filling your child’s emotional cup so that he feels good enough to delve into free play on his own.
Buying 15-minute increments of free time by paying into the toddler bank
We’ve got stuff to do as moms – and lots of it. It can sometimes feel like we’re in constant battle trying to escape the demands of our toddlers, and this is exhausting. Let’s get in front of the demands without sacrificing our sanity along the way. Each of us has an emotional cup, adults and children alike. We rely on ourselves and our loved ones to fill up our emotional cup throughout the day. We do things we love, we chat with good friends, we gift ourselves time with a good book, and we go to our partners for comfort, companionship and support. We are the key contributor to our child’s emotional cup, and when it’s drained after daycare, a long walk or the busy grocery store, your child will seek you out to fill his cup. In filling the emotional cups of our little ones, we often resort to activities that drain our own cups – like when Madeleine lures me into sitting next to her while she builds with Duplo blocks. On a good day, she is more than capable of having a lovely time searching for the little animals and flowers and building lopsided towers. When her cup is running low, she wants me next to her, commenting on each animal (heaven forbid I actually dare to build something) – needless to say, this is not something I enjoy. It’s okay to let go of the mom-guilt and accept that you don’t need to enjoy every game or activity that your toddler wants to play. My heart truly lights up from fun, educational activities (check out Madeleine’s top 5), and I have a friend who gains so much joy from making smoothies together with her 2-year-old son every afternoon. If you’re wondering how you want to earn your Momcoins, ask yourself if the activity gives you joy. If it doesn’t, move on and seek out something else so that you’re filling your toddler’s emotional cup without draining your own. If you’re like me, you may enjoy making a list of activities you can choose from, and you can request the free printable or scribble-able* (yes, I also made that up) master list and planner to weed out which activities are best for you and for your little one.
I’m curious how you play with your little ones! Let me know your favourite activity with your toddler below (and, more interestingly, which you absolutely don’t like) in the comments below and sign up for the Mom Wins Club to receive a free printable/scribble-able easy activities master list and planner and great new with, alongside, and independent play ideas every Friday. Yay for easy mom-wins!
*not everyone has a printer at home (and some of us have a printer that is always out of paper and ink… don’t judge me), so we make sure that our printables are also scribble-able. Simply grab a sheet of paper (or use the back of the phone bill) and scribble away using our printable as a guide – extra points if there’s a coffee stain on your paper by the end of the day.