The Importance of Separation Play

Here’s another installment of therapeutic activities you can do with your infant! The activities I want to highlight today are probably ones that you already do with infants. If you don’t, I’d like this post to be able to encourage and remind you why these simple activities are so helpful.

First though, let’s talk about separation play in general. For developing young children, it’s important for them to develop an appropriate understanding of separation, as in, the mother leaves, and then the mother comes back. To illustrate, think about a time you babysat an 18-month-old and the child had a very difficult time separating from his parents and cried for a very long time. He is still trying to understand the concept that sometimes his parents leave and that they will come back. Now we can’t explain to this child verbally that he shouldn’t worry and his parents will be back soon, and think he’ll understand perfectly. Children use play to understand their world and this is true even for infants.

So, what type of play will help an infant understand separation? Most likely you already know one game: Peek-a-boo. Yep, peek-a-boo doesn’t just make a baby laugh, it’s also teaching infants about separation. When you hid your face behind your hands, infants don’t necessarily fully understand that your face is still there. The technical term we’re talking about is object permanence, which is the idea that an object still exists, even though you can’t see it. Playing peek-a-boo with your infant is a great way to start introducing the concept of separation play. By covering and uncovering your face you are showing your infant that you can “go away”, but will “come back again”.

For your older infants and toddlers, you can start delving deeper into separation play by using toys or other small items as props. Taking a few toys, such as animals, you can engage the infant in a game I call “Hello Goodbye”. Take the toy and show it to your baby, saying “Hello!”. Then have the toy say “Goodbye” and hide it. Wait a few seconds, then bring the toy back out and have it say “Hello!”. Continue to repeat this, adding in other bits of dialogue for either you to say to your baby or for the toy to say. Here’s an example:

You bring the toy out and show it to your baby
Toy: “Hello! How are you? Are you having a good day? Well, I have to go, Goodbye!”
You hide the toy behind your back and look at your baby
You: Well, where did Mr. Elephant go? He went bye bye!”
You bring the toy back out and show it to your baby
Toy: “Hello again! Did you miss me?”

You can modify this and get creative depending on how your baby responds. You don’t even have to use toys but other props, such as bubbles or a flashlight and say things like “Where did the bubbles go? Where did the light go?” as the bubbles disappear or the flashlight is turned off. As you experiment with different ways to play, your baby will begin to understand that things come and go, and that this is natural. It will also help her develop attachments (especially if you are her parent), which is also very important to her psychological development.

An added bonus with this game is if you add in another variable and play out the separation between parent and child. You can do this by taking two toys of different sizes. For example, maybe you have a little horse and a big horse. The big horse is the parent and the little one is the child. Use the two horses to act out the story of the mommy horse leaving the baby horse for a few seconds. If you want, you can have the baby horse say things like, “I miss my mommy” or “When will my mommy come home?”. Then have the mommy horse come back, saying something like “Hello! I’m back!” and the baby horse saying “Mommy, I missed you!”

I hope these suggestions for play time help remind you that even a simple little game like Peek-a-Boo can be therapeutic and encourage normal development for infants and toddlers. And remember the next time you play the game with a child, remember it’s not just for fun, it’s also educational too!

Peek-a-Boo Activity Notes

Ages: 0-2

Materials: None!

Therapeutic Value:
Separation play


Hello Goodbye Play Activity Notes

Ages: 0-3

Materials: A small toy or two

Therapeutic Value:
Separation play

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