Baby Play: 3 Steps to Foster Play

To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it. Before interrupting a baby – no matter how kindly and lovingly we plan to engage her – it’s best to first stop, observe, and at least wait for our baby to look towards us.


Baby, You Were Born to Play

At a RIE Conference several years ago a friend and I were presenting a workshop on infant and toddler play and attempted an audacious experiment.

We asked another friend to bring her 15-month-old daughter to the event, daring to hope that the baby might give a live demonstration of independent, self-directed play.

At least fifty pairs of eyes were on baby Tess as she sat in her mom’s lap on a large platform raised about a foot off the ground. A few feet away we had created a play area using the kinds of objects recommended by infant specialist Magda Gerber: balls of different sizes and types, empty plastic bottles and jars, a colander, an inflatable beach ring, plastic chains, a baby doll, wooden rings and such.

Tess seemed to take in the audience that surrounded her — professional caregivers, educators, and parents — all of whom waited patiently and showed extreme respect. Could she find the comfort — the trust — to play in such an intensely non-therapeutic environment?

Would her natural impulse to play trump any unease or tension?

To all of our amazement it did, and she did.

After a couple of minutes, Tess left the safety of her mother’s lap, ventured slowly toward the toys, and proceeded to examine a wiffle ball, which she eventually placed in a large plastic jar. A few minutes later she moved on to investigating a pool noodle.

It was obvious to everyone watching that Tess was not performing or doing anything for the benefit of the audience. She was simply following her curiosity — exploring, inner-directed — as she was used to doing at home.

This was living proof of the powerful, innate desire babies have to play.

Play, especially when self-directed, is not only natural, it is vital for our children’s emotional health. Through play babies naturally develop physical and cognitive skills, stretch their imaginations, flex creative muscles, build resiliency and a strong sense of self. Play is the way babies learn best.

Cultivating an Inborn Drive to Play: When Does Play Begin?

Independent play begins the first time an infant spends a comfortable moment awake in a position in which he or she is free to move. Babies are born ready to begin playing.

All we have to do is recognize it, encourage it and trust.

Play Revelations

“Following the direction of a RIE parenting instructor, I placed my three-month-old her on her back on a blanket near me and watched.  My needy, vocal baby, the one I’d been entertaining and engaging almost every moment she was awake, spent nearly two hours in this position, peaceful and content.

She knew I was there and shot an occasional glance my direction, but didn’t seem to need a thing from me except, perhaps, my appreciative presence. And, oh, I was beyond appreciative.”

When babies aren’t eating, sleeping, bathing, changing diapers, crying, burping, colicky or being cuddled, they are playing.

In the first months, play might not look like much. But this is when it starts, and it needs cultivating. 

pin-baby-playEncouraging Play

Babies a few weeks old may experience some moments of play on a bed or changing table while an adult is guarding her safety,  but extended periods of play are encouraged by providing a safe place or places in which our baby is not confined, propped or positioned and is free to move to the extent she is capable.

If a baby’s movement is restricted, or she is dependent on us or on a contraption to retain a position, ‘helped’ to roll or sit up. She becomes used to our intervention and continues to expect it.

Other parenting approaches encourage waiting until an infant can physically indicate a desire to move out of the parent’s arms or a carrier before providing opportunities for play. For me, waiting for an indication is like waiting for a baby to point to a book before reading to her.

Our babies get used to whatever rituals we create. It's up to us to encourage the habits we believe healthiest.

Freedom to Play

In her NAEYC essay Babies On The Move, Rae Pica warns that confining babies for extended periods in car seats, carriers, highchairs, etc., may have serious consequences for both motor and cognitive development and other neurological research also confirms that infants need to move.

Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head tells us that beginning in infancy physical movement plays a vital role in the creation of nerve cell networks that are actually the core of learning.

baby-play-twinsShe goes on to relate how movement, because it activates the neural wiring throughout the body, makes the entire body—not just the brain—an instrument of learning.

To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it. Before interrupting a baby – no matter how kindly and lovingly we plan to engage her – it’s best to first stop, observe, and at least wait for our baby to look towards us.

We should always ask before picking her up, even if she is fussy.  If we give opportunities for infants to communicate by acknowledging them and asking, “You sound tired. Do you want me to pick you up?” they are encouraged to answer back by telling us, in lifting their arms to us, or not.

Believe in Baby Play

It’s hard to trust infants to play independently, to be the “initiators, explorers and self-learners” that Magda Gerber taught us they are capable of being. We worry that we might not be doing enough. How can our tiny infants be ready to make choices, experience self-reliance and even mastery?

But if we are sensitive observers, tuned in and responsive to our babies’ physical and emotional needs, they will initiate play for short periods that grow in time. Our baby soon learns to alert us when she’s had all the independence she wants or can handle.

Alternatively, an insecure baby is incapable of the kind of self-assured, inner directed play demonstrated by Tess and the many other babies I’ve observed over the years.

If we want to encourage play, we have to take a leap of faith and begin by trusting our babies.

Janet Lansbury, of Elevating Childcare

From the Hand in Hand Toolbox:

Read How I Got My Baby to Give Up the Pacifier and Sleep Better for more tips on listening to your baby

Baby sleep issues? Try Could Connection Improve Your Baby or Young Child’s Sleep?

As your baby grows, you might like to have these 6 Tips to Ease the Transition to Toddlerhood.

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