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18 Ideas to Encourage Independent Play for Babies (Without a Screen)

Here are 18 multiple ways, divided by age from newborns to one-year-olds, to grow your child's independence as they learn to entertain themselves.

After nine long months of waiting, it's only natural to want to soak up all those baby snuggles and smiles. But entertaining your baby all day isn't just draining for you -- it discourages your baby's independence later in life. Everything is new for babies, which means even things like playing independently is a skill little ones need to learn. And when you work from home, teaching your kids early on to play independently can be a sanity saver.

But how exactly can a baby entertain themselves? We've rounded up several ideas to encourage independent play for babies. Remember, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for kids under two years of age, so these ideas are all screen-free.

But first, a few pointers:

  • Start early. The sooner you start letting your baby play by him or herself, the more apt they are to be content by themselves.

  • Start small. Some babies are content playing by themselves for long periods of time; others may only be able to do 15-minute stretches at a time.

  • Mix it with mommy play, too. Independent play is essential, but so is playing with others so be sure to take the time to play patty cake, peek-a-boo or whatever makes your little one smile.

  • Create age-appropriate play stations. Dedicate a few spots in your house to be a baby play area, each for different activities. Lay out a blanket for little ones, and make sure the room is baby-proofed for mobile babies. That way, it's easy to sit baby down for a few minutes while you do some work or cook dinner.

  • Always supervise play. Independent play doesn't mean baby is alone in the room—it means baby is entertaining him or herself in a spot where mom (or someone) can see him. It's a good idea to put a few baby stations where you can easily keep your eyes, like in the kitchen, while doing everyday tasks.

Newborn and Up

Activity gym. While activity gyms may seem more suited for babies who are able to grasp toys, they do give even newborns bright toys to look at. Most activity gyms also allow you to swap out different toys. This type of play station can last until baby is more interested in crawling.

Soft books. Before babies are really grasping, they are interested in looking. Soft books give little ones something to look at, and they won't be destroyed by drool once baby is old enough to put them in the mouth. Books are also great for tummy time.

Mirrors. Babies love faces—and at first, they don't realize that they're actually looking at themselves in a mirror. You can use any mirror placed out of reach, or pick up one designed for baby play that could also be used for tummy time and grasping.

High contrast toys. Just because baby isn't actually playing yet doesn't mean the toys should stay packed away. Newborns love to look and observe, but they are most interested in high contrast sights, like black and white images. You can pick up some high contrast toys, show baby random (but safe) objects from around the house, or even print out black and white shapes and place them nearby.

Three Months and Up

Grasping toys. Around three months (and sometimes earlier), many babies will start to reach and grab. Start with toys that are easy to grasp like rings and small stuffed animals, and add in other shapes and textures like blocks as your baby grows. Some household items will work well, too—just make sure they're not too heavy or too small. A large plastic serving spoon or a plastic cup can even be entertaining for a baby.

Toys that roll. As baby begins to learn how to move around, toys that roll encourage this behavior—like balls that roll just out of reach when they grab for them.

Cause and effect toys. Around this age, babies are starting to experiment with cause and effect. They enjoy shaking rattles to hear the noise, for example, or simply dropping something to see what happens.

Sensory bags. Babies learn through touch, and this type of learning can start early. A sensory bag allows babies to play with different sensory items safely. You can purchase a water mat or make your own.

Kicking toys. Play doesn't just have to be with hands. Encourage baby to kick by tying a helium balloon around their ankle (while supervising closely), using a foot rattle, or a dedicated kick toy, like a kick piano.

Six Months and Up

Seated play. Once baby starts to sit, support him with a U-shaped pillow, or sit them inside the corner of a laundry basket for a new play position.

Fill and dump play. Around this age, many little ones love the simple act of filling a container and dumping it out. You can encourage this with a ball and cup, or toys that fit inside a muffin tin.

Ball and tube. Don't throw those cardboard tubes away—simply a ball and a tube can keep babies quite entertained.

Musical toys. It's never too early to foster a love for music. Give baby shakers, a tambourine, or even a baby drum (though don't expect to have quiet time for completing work!).

Age 1 and Up

Obstacle course. Once babies figure out how to go, they're pretty much going non-stop. Encourage independent play with movement via a crawl-through tunnel, or by building an obstacle course.

Push and pull toys. Toys that are pulled or pushed also entertain walkers while helping them hone their physical abilities. For tots that aren't quite walking on their own, toys they can grab and push help keep them steady on their feet.

Pretend play. Older babies love to imitate. Pretend toys, such as play food and pots and pans, are often a hit with this age group. Kitchen toys are often fun to play with while mom (or dad) is cooking, too.

Blocks and building toys. Encourage stacking and spatial skills with blocks. From foam to wood, there's a lot of options, and there are many ways they can play with them.

Rotate toys. Notice that new toys get a whole lot more love then the ones that have been around for a while? Put some toys away for a couple weeks or months. When you bring them out, they're like new again. You could leave some toys accessible all the time, but put a few toys in boxes and get out one box when you need some time for work.

Babies need fun interaction, but they also need to learn to play independently too (and without screens). A baby who can play alone is more likely to become a child who plays and grows independently.

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