One of my absolute FAVORITE activities that I incorporated into my kid’s day when they were young was what I called playpen time. I was taught this by a friend that at the time had 8 children of her own. Yes, I said EIGHT. And not just 8 kids, but 8 WELL BEHAVED, SECURE, CONFIDENT, GENUINELY HAPPY, OBEDIENT children! It was amazing to be around her and watch how she interacted with her kids and how they responded to her. From the oldest to the youngest they were all enjoyable kids to be around. Which, if you’ve had a child for any length of time you know this doesn’t just happen by accident! So I knew that basically whatever she was doing could be replicated, (8 kids gives you a ton of credibility!) For me, this meant that anytime she talked, I made sure to listen. After all, who doesn’t want enjoyable, happy, secure children? Like the kind that are enjoyable to OTHERS and not just you. But more on that later…
What playpen time really was, was a way to encourage independent play, increase attention span and provide a safe place to play while I was able to get some things done. I used that time to shower, cook dinner, make phone calls, tidy the house, nurse the baby etc. It ended up being something that served me well for MANY years, because playpen time turned into room time as my kids got older. I wasn’t willing to give it up just because they no longer fit into a playpen! And my kids all loved it as it was a time for them to play quietly by themselves uninterrupted.
First, let’s define playpen time:
Playpen time is a time that you set aside each day, (or twice a day) where you are placing your baby or toddler into a small-ish contained area to play independently. You can use a playpen, play yard, pack n play, gated room that is small and safe or a crib. Here are a couple of my favorite play yards https://amzn.to/3lSdeiw, and this one https://amzn.to/3LN4tRv
How to Start:
You put a few toys (around 2-4) into the playpen or small play space. Too many toys overwhelms kids and they are more content and will play longer with less. Then you turn on some fun music and set the timer (here’s a favorite https://amzn.to/3lKfmsX and walk away. (Using a timer is super helpful, especially if you are starting with an older baby or toddler). You can walk in and out of your child’s sight. Don’t feel like you need to be OUT of the room the entire time. Or IN the room the entire time. Your child will learn to accept you coming and going.
If you are starting with an older child (one who is already mobile) start with 5-7 min about 3-4x per day and then increase by a few min every few days. The goal is to work up to 45 min- 1 hr. of playpen time 1-2x a day. This may take some time based on the age and disposition of your child. Remember you’re starting with a small amount of time.
If your child is older and not used to being contained he may likely protest at first. But any protesting that happens will only last for a few min as long as you’re calm, confident and consistent. Remember to wait to get your child out until AFTER the timer goes off. Your child will learn to understand that it’s the timer that signals when playpen time is over. This is why you start with small increments of time done more frequently. You will see after 2-3 days your child will learn that this is a safe, fun place for him to play and will learn to love this time to sit and play uninterrupted. The protesting will stop and the playing, learning, and growing will begin!
When you initially start, if your child does protest for the entire 5-7 min. (This won’t happen if you start BEFORE your child is mobile). Make sure you use a timer and that your energy is positive and upbeat when you go to take him out. You should have a smile on your face and say something like “play pen time is over, you did such a great job!” Then turn off the music (the timer will have already gone off) and scoop him out and continue on with your day. Don’t give any energy, attention or emotion to the fact that he was protesting for a few minutes. That will go away within a few short days.
You can also have a bucket within the playpen and teach your child to clean up his toys when he is done. This will be super easy as there will only be a few toys to put in the bucket. If your child is too young to help clean up, do it for him but talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Then as he gets older, cleaning up his toys will already have been introduced to him as a normal part of the playtime routine.
The best time to start this is when your child is young and is not yet mobile. It may seem odd to place your baby in a playpen or play yard when they are very young, but by doing this you will be teaching him that this is a normal part of his day. Then once he becomes mobile this will be extremely helpful, as playing in the play pen and being contained, will already be a NORMAL part of his day. Then there will be no need to protest. This can also be helpful when you have a newborn and a toddler in the house. Because sometimes keeping the newborn safe from the toddler is a necessity. Or putting the toddler in the play yard while you are nursing the newborn can make for much more peaceful nursing session.
Now let’s talk about the benefits because there are MANY!
First, it teaches your child to learn to play by himself. It also teaches him to focus on one thing at a time, for an extended period of time. This is SO GOOD for our kiddos brains as they learn and explore with no interruptions. This is why we only give a few toys rather than lots of toys. It increases their attention spans little by little and teaches them that they CAN entertain themselves.
It also teaches kiddos to be CONTENT being contained. This is a VERY valuable skill to learn. If you are a mom of an older baby or toddler you know what I mean! Learning to be contained is a necessary part of life. If your child learns this at a young age there are many areas of life that this will transfer to. Sitting in a grocery cart, car seat, high chair, being held and not allowed to get down, sitting on an airplane, etc. It also provides a safe place to play away from other siblings. Where he doesn’t have to worry about toys being taken and you don’t have to worry about siblings interacting negatively while you are trying to shower or get something done.
The benefits for mom are multifaceted as well. Mom can now plan 1-2 times into her day that her child is occupied and safe. And a time when her child is not going to need her attention. She can use this time to shower, make dinner, make phone calls, rest, or get things done around the house. All without having to have all eyes on her mobile baby or toddler. It’s AMAZING what a mama can accomplish in a short time when she’s uninterrupted! The timer will help you as well! I know I can get a ton done when I’m racing against the clock!
You can also use the play pen at other people’s homes or when you are traveling. Because they are already familiar with this space, using it for sleeping away from home is an easy transition. There are many times when it is very convenient to be able to put your child in a play pen or pack n play and have him contained.
When my kids were little I used it when we went camping, went to the beach, in hotel rooms, outside in our yard, when I was nursing the baby, etc. It was a wonderful tool that came in very handy ALL the time. It made life with young children significantly easier. I knew that I had 2 blocks of time in my day ( not including naptime) to do whatever it was that I needed to do. This allowed me to be more focused and present with my kids for the rest of the day. It also allowed me to get dinner on the table each evening. (playpen time happened every day at 4:00!)
Once your child is old enough (usually around 2 ½ -4 yrs. old) he can graduate to playing in his room with a gate at the door. The room will need to be safe to play unattended. The gate will still give him the physical boundary that he needs at that age. Small spaces with physical boundaries give kids a ton of security and generally make them happier and more content. A young child who has too much physical freedom many times can get out of control. They can also be whiny/fussy all the time. The simple act of bringing in their physical boundary makes them feel safe and secure. That’s why people who own larger homes with young children need to have gates within their home. Young children shouldn’t have the run of the house. It’s just too much physical freedom for them to handle.
I hope that this was helpful and that you are excited to make this a routine part of your day. I think you’re gonna love it as much as I did! (and thank goodness for mamas with 8 kids who know things…)
Let me know how it goes and reach out if you have questions!