Ask the Pediatrician

Independent free play promotes brain development in toddlers

It’s time to make dinner and your 18-month-old daughter is clamoring for your attention.

You’re doing laundry and your 14-month-old trots off with the shirt you just folded.

At 3 o’clock you realize you still haven’t had a chance to shower and your 21-month-old is screaming as you enter the bathroom on your own.

You’re dead tired from a late night meeting the evening before and you want a few minutes of alone time to get ready for work but your 2-year-old is fussy and demanding.

What these scenarios all have in common is that they are times many parents turn on the TV or pop in a DVD to distract and entertain their young child. We’ve all been there; we’ve all done it. Toddlers are often engaged by the programming we turn on and if it’s perceived as educational by parents they feel less guilty about using TV as a crutch. And yet, data suggest that leaving your child alone to play independently is better than educational programming when it comes to brain development. Learning is complex and young brains need much more than just visual stimulation to learn. If you think about it, a young child won’t learn to use a spoon by watching a video over and over, she needs to pick up the spoon and make a mess while her parents coach her by adjusting her grip on the spoon, loading it for her, and turning it upwards so the food doesn’t just fall off. Young children may learn to identify a color or a letter with visual repetition like that of a DVD or TV but it takes many more exposures to the letter in that medium compared to the presentation of the same material by a person playing with the child directly. Media can be educational but it’s not an efficient way for children to learn and while they may be engaged by the experience of watching, they are not challenging their brains to grow as much as would occur if engaged with a parent.

What about those times, like the scenarios above, when interacting with a parent isn’t the alternative to TV but playing alone is the option? Does educational TV trump playing alone? Apparently not. Independent play forces problem solving, stretches creativity and encourages sustained attention in ways passive TV watching does not. Brain development in children under 2 is most stimulated by doing, not watching. Playing alone and ripping apart the newspaper (however annoying and frustrating for parents) has more value than watching a video about construction demolition. The tactile, experiential play completely driven by the child’s own actions and thoughts is the sort of play that creates new pathways in the brain and encourages real growth.

TV is passive, engaging and easy though for parents. Toddlers used to watching TV and not having to come up with things to do on their own are likely to be fussy, whiney and demanding when the parent is occupied and unable to afford them the attention they want. That fussy, whiney behavior makes it even harder for parents to do what they need to because they are distracted and frustrated by their toddler. It’s easier to turn on the TV and just get the job done. Changing the dynamic is challenging, but important.

If you want to turn off the TV and encourage independent play, start by building into your routine low stress times when your child will play on his own. For example, every day after dinner have your child play independently for 15-20 minutes whether you need the time alone or not. Sit down and read a book or stay in the kitchen and talk to your spouse. When your child is fussy and demanding either ignore him or tell him you are busy now and he can go play on his own. Don’t get into lengthy explanations or go over to the play area and set something up for him to do. Toddlers as young as 9 months can occupy themselves for short periods of time. If you find that your toddler is misbehaving to get your attention, pick him up and put him in his crib (or a pack and play) for a few minutes and when you get him after the time out, say ‘It’s time to play by yourself’ and return to your adult activity. The first few times you do this, it will be difficult for your toddler but within a week or so if you remain disengaged with him and engaged in something else, he will learn that he can’t have your attention at that time and move on to play independently. Once you have gotten over this initial hump, encouraging independent play at other times will be easier. Keep the routine in place at least once a day at a predictable point in the child’s schedule (after a meal or nap is a good time to start) and let it grow.

The goal isn’t to have your toddler play independently all the time of course but rather to learn how to entertain herself and in doing so she will grow both socially and cognitively and you will have a little breathing room without having to turn the TV on.

Dr. Molly O'Shea
Dr. Molly O'Shea is a board-certified pediatrician who cares for families in her practice Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center. She will answer your questions on babies, children, adolescents and families and address common concerns.