I’ve observed hundreds of babies over seventeen years and am comfortable that I have some insight into their worlds, but I still feel a little awkward when I describe ‘infant play’ to others. I sense the person thinking, “Oh yeah, right, infants playing.” But, actually, from the time a baby is weeks, even days old, she can begin the joyful habit of inner-directed play. And when we learn to recognize, appreciate and allow this invaluable element of an infant’s life, amazing surprises are in store for us.
Play time for a young infant may look pretty boring to an untrained adult eye. We feel compelled to entertain a baby (as I did), or believe that she needs to be kept stimulated by continually moving with us through our daily affairs in a carrier or infant seat. Truthfully, babies don’t need us to expend our energy occupying their time. And keeping a baby busy undermines her natural desire to be an initiator of her own activities and absorb the world on her terms.
Babies are self-learners and what they truly need (and pays enormous developmental benefits, as you’ll see in the video) is the time, freedom and trust to just “be.”
We forget as adults that every mundane detail of the world is new and stimulating to an infant — every shape, contrast, sound, even the slightest movement is fascinating. Life is a playground. So, infants are ‘playing’ when they look around, listen, feel and smell the air, when they have the freedom to reach, grasp, twist their bodies, and think…think…think. (Wouldn’t you just love to know what babies are thinking?)
I first noticed one of my babies ‘playing’ on the changing table when he was nine days old. As we were finishing his diaper change I saw him gazing at a shadow on the wall, completely absorbed. I took a deep breath, stopped myself from interrupting…and just waited. When he finally looked up at me two or three minutes later, I asked, “Do you want me to pick you up?” And when his eyes seemed to say “Yes,” I did.
Respecting these important personal moments when our infant is engaged in thought – and not interrupting – will encourage longer periods of play that can extend to hours as a baby grows, through toddlerhood and beyond.
Babies tend to be more deeply engaged when they are trusted with their own play agendas rather than responding to ours. When babies are “writer, director and lead actor” of their playtime, as infant expert Magda Gerber recommended, they develop strong cognitive learning skills and nurture their natural abilities to explore, imagine, and create.
Our role is to design a safe space with a few simple toys and objects. The sensory delight of the outdoors is always preferable when possible. We make sure the baby can move freely, first by lying on her back. Then we let go of all expectations (an interesting challenge), and allow our baby to do what she wishes.
Simple objects that a child can use creatively in multiple ways are best, like balls of all sizes, cotton napkins, large plastic chains or rings, stacking cups, simple baby dolls, etc. (Please see Creative Toys Engage Babies for a video example.) As the infant becomes a toddler, puzzles, board books, climbing structures, more complex equipment can be added, always keeping in mind that we want to encourage active learning, child-directed problem solving, and creative experimentation rather than “doing it right.”
Since a picture is worth a thousand words (and I’m already up to six hundred), on with the video!
The first section is a four and a half month old boy playing outside. We then see the same boy at two years old focusing on a puzzle. This boy spent his early years in free exploration between naps, feedings and diaper changes. He was never directed, taught, or otherwise shown ‘how’ he should play. He was only interrupted when absolutely necessary.
At eight years old, he continues to be a joyful, independent learner.
For many, many more posts and videos about independent play, please look here, and for a complete guide to this respectful and trusting approach: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting