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, etc.
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. I doubt the attendees remembered much about the rest of our presentation, but they were buzzing all afternoon about baby Tess.
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. How do we cultivate this inborn drive? At what age 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.
As a new parent, my 3 month old firstborn must have known what I needed — not merely a lesson in recognizing infant play, but a revelation.
Following the direction of a RIE parenting instructor, I placed 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, 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.
Although a baby a few weeks old may experience some moments of play on a bed or changing table while an adult is guarding her safety, play is encouraged for more extended periods by providing a safe place or places in which our baby is not confined, propped or positioned – 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 of readiness to play independently and move freely is like waiting for a baby to point to a book before ever reading to her. Our babies get used to whatever rituals we create. It is up to us to encourage the habits we believe healthiest.
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. Recent neurological research 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. She then 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 open the door for our young 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, by lifting their arms to us, or not.
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…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 babies know how to alert us when they’ve had all the independence they want or can handle.
Alternatively, an insecure baby is incapable of the kind of self-assured, inner directed play demonstrated by Tess, my infant daughter 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.
I share more about the power of self-directed play (and how to encourage it) in my book:
(In above photo — a baby playing on her one month birthday.)
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