Better Toys For Busy Babies

Hello Janet,

I’m so pleased to discover your blog. I’m slowly reading through it bit by bit. I came across it when I was searching for more information about Magda’s teachings. I have her book “Your Self-Confident Baby” and I find that your website adds a wealth of information to the book.

I have many parenting books and I tried the attachment thing, but ended up so tired every day that I was starting to resent being a mother and my baby girl is only 6 months! That was until I found the book and your website. It makes perfect sense!

I have a question I wanted to ask you. As I have only discovered this method a week ago I have already managed to buy whole lot of toys, some of them only a few days old, like a baby walker and a baby bouncer as well as some baby chairs and a baby swing from earlier. I now feel that I have wasted my money, but at the same time I don’t want to wastefully throw these toys away. Will there be much damage done if I let her use them (the brand new toys) for, let’s say, only about ½ hour per day, and not teach her about what the different buttons do, let her figure it out for herself ? Or do you think that this is counterproductive, and I should just be happy that I stopped spending money sooner rather than later? Also, what sort of objects or toys do you recommend for a 6 month old baby girl? Should I still use scarf and a ball? And should she have just one item at a time and a different item to explore each day? 

Many Thanks and Best Wishes,  

Carla                                                                                                                                                            

Hi Carla,

Thanks for your kind words about the blog. When I first learned about Magda Gerber’s child rearing approach I had a similar reaction. I was surprised and relieved to find a philosophy that so thoroughly appealed to my common sense. Respecting a baby’s innate abilities was in complete accordance with my instinct to trust nature. With my first baby turning 18(!) in a couple of weeks, I can say beyond all doubt that Magda’s guidance continues to make “perfect sense” and has had an unbelievably positive effect on all 3 of my children. Go for it!

Magda Gerber believed in “busy babies rather than busy toys”. She suggested we keep toys simple so that our babies could investigate them thoroughly, use them imaginatively in multiple ways, and be encouraged to be active explorers. As she explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “…entertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or, later on, wind-up toys or battery-operated items) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained and sets the scene for later TV watching,”

I would never call the push-button toys you bought “damaging”, but as you say, they are counterproductive. Even with your wonderful idea to allow your daughter to discover the buttons rather than showing her how they work, those kinds of toys can undermine independent play because they are mysterious, complicated, and babies are limited in their ability to investigate them.  Since our babies can’t make sense of those toys, they aren’t inclined to learn much from them either. If we want to encourage curiosity and learning, it’s better to provide simpler toys and objects and give our babies extended opportunities to choose what interests them and be enticed to examine those things further.

If you want to keep the new toys, my advice is to save them as an “ace in the hole” for a long car or airplane ride, a waiting room without an aquarium, or a particularly bleak late afternoon at home. That’s what I did with some of the “entertaining” toys that were given to me. (Admission: when my children were older, even much older, they flocked with glee toward baby toy aisles in Target or the toy store, finally able to experience the joy of all those magic buttons. It was a little odd.)

You also mention equipment like bouncers, swings, and seats, all of which restrict movement, encourage passivity, and undermine natural gross motor development according to the approach advocated by renowned pediatrician Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber.  They also inhibit independent play, because they require adult assistance. Your baby cannot be safely allowed to “explore” a swing without being placed in, strapped in and positioned. (For more, please read Set Me Free.)

Whatever we believe about parenting, we’re going to allow our babies to do things from time to time that we know are less than ideal, knowing that it’s the steady diet we provide for our children that matters most (not the occasional snack!) But we must also recognize that infants and toddlers are in the process of forming lifelong habits. It’s easiest to instill the habits we want for our children by practicing them regularly in the beginning. If we value natural gross motor development and independent, self-directed play and learning, it’s best not to place babies in swings, seats or bouncers, even for half an hour each day. Your baby will ultimately be occupied much longer playing in a safe space, moving freely, and actively engaging with simple objects than she will be with ‘entertaining’ toys and equipment that require assistance or intervention.

For your 6 month old baby, these toys (which Magda Gerber preferred to call “play objects”) can include cotton scarves, balls of all shapes and sizes, plastic chains and empty water bottles, stacking cups, bowls, colanders, wooden toys, inflatable beach balls slightly deflated for grasping, manipulatives, teething rings — almost anything that doesn’t have sharp edges, is safe to mouth, not heavy, not long enough to reach around a baby’s neck, and is too large to choke on. (I share many more ideas and links in 7 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play)

A baby your daughter’s age needs only a few objects placed nearby and maybe a couple more that are beyond her reach. Make some the same each day and maybe change some up, too — babies appreciate familiarity more than we do. Allow her to choose what she wishes to grasp, rather than handing a toy to her. Then let her do what she chooses to do with the toy, and don’t interrupt while she uses it as long as she wishes.

If independent play is new for your daughter, she may take a little time to get used to it, but soon her play time will blossom. You’ll be glad you tried this.

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                      Janet

P.S. I sincerely hope that you can be happy you “stopped spending money sooner rather than later”. And I’m wondering…is there a resale store that might buy some of your brand new items?

26 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Carla,
    Craigslist would also be a good source for reselling some of these items. My chiropractic, for different reasons, also discouraged the use of a baby walker and baby bouncer. I made the “mistake” with my first-born to put her in one of those exesaucers, in which she was forced to stand prematurely, with “support” in between her legs. I feel such guilt for putting her in that….She never did crawl – which can become a major issue. Once she discovered that she could be upright, she refused to be on her belly, no matter what we did. Wish I knew about RIE back then. Luckily, we found a Waldorf school and she was able to regain some of the crosscrawl motor movements they do in their movement circles and doesn’t seem to be affected too much by it.
    Monika

    1. Monika, it’s so generous of you to share your experience. Thank you! And no guilt allowed!

  2. Thank you for this blog entry! I am a grandma of two beautiful boys. One is 7 months old and the other is 14 months.

    What playthings would you recommend for the 14 month old?

    We have been applying what we learned from the Dear Parents book and would love to hear how to extend it into toddler-hood.

    Warm regards and thank you for this great resource!

    1. Hi Sandy! The beauty of these kinds of simple play objects is that children don’t really grow out of them, they just find new ways to use them. But we would also recommend adding some wooden platforms to enable climbing and (later stepping), steps, ramps, climbing structures. All of these are available at: http://www.radomir.org/Childrens_furniture/RIE_Furniture.html

      We also use plastic containers with wide scew-on tops (that aren’t chokable) in all different sizes — from make-up jars to large storage jars. For an older infant or toddler, it is nice to arrange several of one type of toy in a basket or colander, i.e., a basket full of balls, and other of blocks. The children are also ready for shape sorters, simple puzzles to experiment with, baby dolls, wheel toys, play telephones, nesting toys, buckets, bags with handles… the list goes on!

      You’re going to have so much fun with those grandchildren!

  3. avatar Alexandra says:

    Hi Janet-
    (Note just for you – after you and I spoke, my husband and I made a family decision to shift bed-time from 9 pm to 7 pm – this decision was initiated by my wonderful husband. So we are diligently and slowly working on this transition. Tonight with success she was asleep at 8:15. Thanks again for the encouragement.)
    Here is a recent update about play-objects and busy toys from the Blaker house-hold: Earlier this year, when I rediscovered RIE, I shared that I had received a music box and was unsure if I should use it. After a discussion here on your blog, I decided to put it aside only for Friday afternoons, when things are especially hectic due to pre-Sabbath preparations. Interestingly, I find that Eliana plays with it briefly, and then will soon move on to her more open-ended play objects. Smart baby! She knows what is good.

    1. Hi Alexandra,
      (I’m glad the sleeping is working out!)

      Yes, Eliana has excellent instincts, and thank you for reminding me of one of my favorite ‘play’ words: ‘open-ended’!

      Your music box story is great and not surprising. I’ve seen so many instances when babies are far more attracted to the simpler thngs that we take for granted, than they are to things that we might think would be more interesting. Just the other day in class a 9 month old baby was venturing towards the outdoor deck for the first time ever on a beautiful sunny day, but then decided to stop and spend the several minutes at the end of class examining some tape that was protecting a corner of the open door instead. How many times have I seen a baby enjoy the ribbon and wrapping on a present more than the gift itself?

  4. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for the great in depth response! I’m ever so grateful to you for sharing your knowledge with all of us mums (and dads). I will certainly keep you in touch and will keep on learning from your blog. Now I just have to convince my husband to comply. He thinks I’m mad because we have just bought these toys and now I am refusing to use them. But he does like the fact that this means end of spending money on silly contraptions.
    Fortunately because these upright toys are so new and she barely spent a few days in them she isn’t used to them so much so that she would refuse to spend time on her back. I will look into reselling these once my husband realises that she can do perfectly well without them.
    Monika, thanks for the comment, I know how you must feel. I too feel guilty for putting her in these bouncers and swings. And what’s worse is that some of them were given to us as gifts and I’m being asked if I’m using these and if my daughter likes them and I have to lie. (well, not exactly, she does like them, it is just that mummy doesn’t let her use them)

    1. Hi Carla,
      Thanks again for allowing me to share your note.

      Reassure your husband that your baby is more likely to reach her physical/ athletic potential if she can begin life ‘unbound’. You might want to show him this post my hubby wrote about the struggle he had accepting that he didn’t have to do anything to help with his baby’s gross motor development: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/02/messing-with-mother-nature-a-dads-personal-post/

      I’ll look forward to hearing updates from you! (And you should not feel guilty about parenting…ever!)

  5. Hi Janet,

    I loved reading what you had to say about toys for babies. Looking around at some of the toys that are at my centre and the amount of money spent on these toys is mind boggling. However the best part was when I brought to the centre a home made toy which was a one litre empty youghurt container and some milk bottle tops. I converted this into a posting box and i was fascinated as to how the children flocked around this simple posting activity and the joy in their faces as they kept posting the bottle tops and the time they spent engaged in repeating the activity was very special too. Forgotten were all those expensive toys and this motivated me into slowly but steadily getting rid of some of the plastic fantastic toys and introducing simple things like scarves, cartons, pegs, in other words real things that the children can explore. One of the parents at the centre was intrigued to see her toddler so engrossed at posting pegs and how he kept repeating the play and she exclaimed all he did at home was to keep thrashing his toys away ! So there we go, lets spend our money on creating more meaningful toys for our children rather than wasting them on the more sophisticated commercialised toys we find around us.

    1. Hi Sharmila,
      Thanks for sharing this great story! You really have those children pegged!;-)

  6. Hi Janet! Reading this I remembered a booklet for parents (mothers mainly)with kids under malnutrition risk in my country. I was taken aback when I found the “baby gym” as a recommendation to stimulate 6 months old babies. At that time I thought “these mothers don´t have enough money nor chances to get such a thing, why make them feel even worse suggesting an expensive non-indispensable toy?” I realized the person who wrote the article had no idea of the real situation these mothers were in. Since then, I feel the urge to work with impoverished mothers and their babies helping them to discover the only thing they need is within themselves. But even though I tried hard to find where to offer this project, it didn´t take form yet. Now, reading your article, I find new reasons to sustain my idea and I´m sure there´s a lot more for me to learn before my dream comes true. I realize Emmi Pickler and Magda Gerber´s approach is invaluable for countries where poverty abounds and I´m so sad to admit my country is in that list right now. I really believe everything will fall in its place when time is right. Thank you again for your inspiring and loving insights. Love, Fernanda

  7. Sharmila, I love that phrase “plastic fantastic.” I’ll remember that one!

    Lee Fernandez has a very nice post with photos on her website http://www.discoveryourbaby.org/ (on the front page). The toys look so engaging I want to play with them too! The curlers that fit inside each other seem very popular at the RIE classes I’ve visited. My favorite (or the kids’ favorite, of course) from the center where I work is small silicone baking items. We have silicone baking cups (like for cupcakes) and miniature hot-pads. The babies LOVE them; the silicone must be very satisfying to chew on.

    Congratulations on getting your baby out of the contraptions and into a place where she can play!

  8. I am LOVING your blog. It’s like finally someone else shares my thinking and actually appreciates it and is promoting it! WIth my first we got all the “baby gear” at showers. We used the swing about 3 times, the stroller a bit, exersaucers never. I don’t use playpens, I don’t use walkers, my babies are on the floor. And they prefer pots and pans and plastic bowls to anything else.

    Any thoughts on how to get grandparents (excited ones at that) to STOP getting CRAP for birthdays and Christmases? Even with my suggestions, we get light-up, noise-making, very annoying “toys” that serve no purpose, or are all based on tv characters? I try to make lists and yet it’s always ignored and undermined. What are good resources and toys for preschoolers? I’d love to just have a “house” area (kitchen, food, pots, dress-up, etc.) blocks, vehicles, instruments and books…really what else is needed?

    1. Krysten,

      Thanks! I’m so glad you found your way here! I love connnecting with like-minded parents.

      Maybe you could get the grandparents excited about some of the “pretend play” toys, like the kitchen stuff you describe. Tell them how creative the children are when they have scraps of fabric to make into costumes, use logs or water balloons as baby dolls, etc. I’ve found that it always works best to go for the “positive”, encourage others and get them excited, rather than get disappointed or criticize. Check out some of the Waldorf toys and equipment. I adore the Waldorf esthetic… it is naturally beautiful and minimalistic…really encourages a child’s creativity and imagination.

  9. I just wanted to agree with Janet’s advice that simpler toys are the way to go. We received a learning table and a ride on toy as gifts for our little girl at six months and one year respectively. She is now sixteen months.

    While the learning table occupied her for a short time because of the songs and noises it played when she touched the buttons, it was a toy she tired of very quickly. After a few minutes of pressing the buttons and listening to the noises she would move on to something else. Despite it’s name (learning table) I doubt she learned much from it other then when you press a button it makes a noise.

    The ride on toy has two buttons that each play different music and there is a sort of scene in a globe at the front of the toy that moves to the music when the button is pressed (I know that sounds confusing) Instead of wanting to sit on the ride on toy and push it with her legs to move or even push toy around while walking, whenever she plays with it, which isn’t for very long, she just presses the buttons and listens to the song and watches the globe move. It is only recently that she’s been trying to push it around the room, or flip it over and spin it’s wheels.

    These toys have been the most expensive toys Julia has received and they have also been the least enjoyed and honestly the most boring.

    When she was about 9 months old we bought her some nesting cups and a shape sorter, both under ten dollars. At 16 months she is STILL playing with these!

    She stacks the blocks for the shape sorter, she bangs them together she pretends to drink out of them, she puts them in and out of the bucket, she takes the top off the bucket, she tries to fit other things through the shape sorter holes, she pulls fabric throught the holes, she puts her hands through the holes and makes a fist and realizes she can’t get her hand out again. etc….

    With the nesting cups she nests them inside each other, she stacks them, she puts them on her head, she hides time in other containers, she pretends to cook with them, puts them over her mouth and babbles into them. The funniest is when she pretends they are a phone and holds it up to her ear and talks.

    I don’t plan on buying her anything electronic to play with in the near future. Those two toys were the best twenty bucks I’ve ever spent!

    1. Suzan, this is brilliant! Yes, I have also noticed that children appreciate toys that they can use and experiment with in many different ways. Imagine all your daughter is learning as she tests “what fits”, experiments with different textures and consistencies, and creatively transforms those simple toys into SO many things. LOVE IT!

  10. I’m really confused about what to give my son to play with 🙁 I’m so sad too. I cannot figure this out.

    He is not interested in any toys. He’ll just give them a little bit of time to inspect, than he’s off … usually getting bored and fussing and we leave for a walk.

    I dont know what to do! Please help me.

    I don’t interrupt him, I encourage self directed play, I have made treasure baskets full of little fun things like wooden toys with wheels, teethers, wooden mirrors, bangle bracelets … he gets so bored.

    He just learned to crawl and pulls up onto everything and requires me all the time.

    I wish I had some time to myself.

    I’m going crazy.

    1. RE, it sounds like your boy is very focused on working on his motor skills. Awesome! Give him safe platforms (like a coffee table without sharp edges) to pull up on and place a rug on the floor surrounding it, so that he can fall safely. Soon he will master the art of pulling up to stand, and even more importantly, the art of getting down gracefully. In short, our job is to create a safe play environment and then let go and trust children to do their work.

  11. avatar metalmama says:

    hi janet. I have a toddler and six month old and was wondering if I should have some shared baskets or things both would enjoy, for example, balls, cloths, bowls and cups, etc and then simply keep my toddlers toys notsusuitable for babies out of the baby’s way?

  12. My son loves these kinds of pots and pans and has a great time playing with all of them.i’m also finding that my Extra
    fussy oldest daughter is certainly trying out new stuff to eat as he is extremely interested by the act of food prep.

  13. avatar Lisa Cote says:

    Janet,

    Thanks so much for these suggestions. I would, however, argue with the beachball suggestion as anything made of soft plastic is usually highly toxic. Here is a good guide on such matters: http://www.greenamerica.org/livinggreen/toxinsintoys.cfm
    I hate having to scrutinize every toy and object for toxicity, and sometimes I wish I were still unaware of these issues, but ignorance is not bliss when it comes to harmful chemicals and infants/children, who are more affected by them. It seems in general that cheap plastic whiz-bang toys tend to be the most toxic too, although their are exceptions (e.g. lead in supposedly “green” wooden toys), so there’s another reason to avoid them. My research tells me medical or food grade silicone is safe, so whoever suggested the silicone bakeware is on to something there.

    1. avatar Lisa Cote says:

      I meant “there are” exceptions. Mommy brain is affecting my grammar!

  14. How can one reverse this in 5 and 7 year olds?

  15. avatar Karen Kramer says:

    I teach two year olds and would love to know if you have a link or list of things to fill my classroom with that are RIE. We have a couple of electronic toys but that’s it. The rest of the items in the room are to fulfill our NAEYC accreditation. I’d like to rotate out some of the things we have. Thanks in advance!

  16. avatar Hali anaya says:

    Hi Janet, what can you recommend for children with reflux? I originally had not purchased any chairs or swings but now that I can’t lay my child flat I have bodied then from friends just so he had a place he can be independent from me. I have elevated one end of his crib and pack and play. He will play independently for a few minutes when in just the right mood but mostly wants to be held all the time. Any suggestions for giving him play opportunities while I hold him or ways to get him more conforms being away from me? Thanks!

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