With four young children and a part time job at a toddler center I get this question a lot. Now don't get me wrong, if you dropped by my house on any given day it might very well look like a small tornado recently passed through. But I do generally get things crossed off my to do list sooner or later (except dusting, somehow that never gets done.) The thing that has saved my sanity all these years is that from the time the children were little babies we have allowed them time to just play by themselves. If the baby is not hungry, tired, in need of a fresh diaper or fussy we just let her lie on a soft blanket on the floor with a few toys and let her play. Even at the youngest age, babies love this. They may not even be able to play with any toys yet, but they will happily look at the sunlight coming through the window or study their own little hand with wonder.
As the babies get older and more mobile the key to making this work is having a safe environment for them to play in. When asked about a safe environment for a toddler, Magda Gerber gave this example: She said your baby should have a safe enough environment to play in that if you were locked out of the house and had to wait for the locksmith, when you got back inside the baby might be upset, hungry and in need of a fresh diaper, but she would be fine. This is sometimes referred to as a yes space, or a "no" free zone. This means that the baby is aloud to play freely with everything she can reach.
The other thing that makes a huge difference is what toys you put in that safe play space. They need to be toys that engage the child and stimulate their creativity. For example if you give your two year-old a red fire truck that drives itself around the room with sirens wailing and lights flashing, he will probably be delighted by it for a little while but shortly thereafter it will sit on the shelf, and you might wonder why he never plays with it, when he once seemed to love it so much. Now imagine you give that same two year-old a block of wood with four wheels on it. Why, it could be a fire truck, or a bus, a space racer -- anything. Soon he is crawling around on the floor pushing it. He is imagining all the details for himself as well as developing his gross and fine motor skills. He is learning physics as he pushes it down the ramp he built out of blocks. He even developed language skills by making his own sirens and sounds. Really the options are limitless, and that is why he plays with this little "car" for months, maybe even years. “Passive toys make active children,” was another of Magda's brilliant sayings.
The toys also need to be appropriate for the child's age. A car is not a great toy for a baby, but a small bandana is a great toy. A whiffle ball is the perfect toy for a crawler who can chase it as it rolls away from her. Simple house hold items can provide hours of exploration. Small metal mixing bowl and a wooden spoon can make beautiful toddler "music" ring through the house.
As the children get older I strongly recommend continuing to find time for them to have some independent play time. This happened by accident in our house. I just kept having babies and babies need to nap. While I don't insist the house be silent while they sleep I did feel that it should be quieter than our usual circus. So even though the older children were well past napping, everyone still has quiet rest time. They each go to their own space and play. This gives everyone a little break from each other which is important when six people live together in a little house. It also gives me some time on my own which is also very important. After quiet rest time everyone seems to be recharged. Sometimes one of the children will really be interested in what they are working on and they will just stick with it for the rest of the day. Or I might allow people to have quiet rest time together if they are already happily engaged in an activity together. As with all things it is important to be flexible, but I think it helps everyone to know that they will get some time for themselves every day.
Now, independent play is easy for me now because my children are used to this. They have been playing on their own from the very beginning. I don't have to find something for them to do and I rarely hear "I'm bored." So if you didn't start this when they were babies are you out of luck? No. You can developed this skill but it will take some time. Start slowly. If they are used to having you play with them they may resist playing on their own. Start out like you normally would but tell them you have to go make a phone call (or whatever) and you will be back in 10 minutes. Wait until they are engaged in the play then tell them it is time to make your call. Then come back just like you said you would. This builds trust. Then lengthen the time a little every day.
Another option is to tell your child you will stay and watch them but that you have to work on something while you watch, and you can't play. Choose your activity carefully. Make sure it is not something that is going to be too appealing to the child or they will just want to do it with you. It’s best if it is something they can see you working on. I like knitting for this. Soon they will lose interest in your work and be lost in their own beautiful world.
Children love to play with their parents and parents love to play with their children. I am in no way saying you shouldn’t play with your children, but your children should most certainly be able to play without you. Independent play is an enriching experience for children and a sanity saver for parents.