Infant Play – Great Minds At Work (Captured On Video!)

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


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

  1. the outdoors is highly stimulating…so i expect to see an infant entertaining himself outside for a long period of time….my little one only has to have a partial view of a tree and will be absorbed in that world….since i dont have a tv in my house….i often tell people that my window is my tv….while a lot of parents will sit their children in front of a tv to watch baby einstein or something in order to prepare a meal or have a moment…..i let my 5 month old son look out of the window….he kicks and waves..cooing and sqealing or just has periods of stillness as he stares a the waving trees and bamboo stalks and watches the sun cast shadows inside……he can usually take about 45 mins of this before he starts to get antsy..but its enough time for me to make and eat a good breakfast…..when i actually take him outside…he is absolutely in heaven with all there is to see hear and feel……..

    now…its when we are indoors and hes not looking out the window that he does not entertain himself for long periods of time……we play together often….but i work from home and although i do most of work at night….there are times when i need to do an hour of work or two during day hours….my little one does not nap consistantly…..and he will play by himself for no more than 10 minutes at a time……so i would like to see a video of a 4.5 month old playing by himself inside on a blanket with a couple of toys…….

    1. Hi Mary Ellen,

      You’re right about the outdoors being magically stimulating and exciting for babies, but I have lots of videos of young infants playing indoors that I will eventually adapt so they can be posted on my site. (Here’s one: )

      I love the idea of a window as TV! I’m wondering, is your boy strapped in a seat when he is by the window? I only ask because infants quickly become accustomed to the things we do with them. If he spends lots of time upright in a seat, he made need a bit of weaning to get comfortable playing in a horizontal position on the floor. Ultimately, the horizontal position is the one he will play the longest in, because he has the most freedom to move, and can play independently without being propped or positioned. One miraculous day, he will sit himself up from an all-fours position on the floor. At RIE, that is when we believe an infant is ready to be in a sitting position.

      Of course we want to play ‘with’ a baby sometimes, but even then, keep in mind that the infant begins to expect what he is used to. A wonderful way to ‘play with’ a baby is to quietly observe, and respond when the baby looks to us by acknowledging what he does. When we are the ones acting, our baby becomes our audience, and can begin to see ‘play’ as being passive while we entertain.

      Please keep working at your baby’s independent indoor play. Remember that in these early months you are creating life habits for your baby. We all need free time at home, and raising a child who can occupy himself is the healthiest answer for that — for both of you.

  2. Hi Janet…im back….

    i have been meaning to respond but have not had the time…

    i should mention first..that i was prompted to return to the site after an exasperating first class today at “The Little Gym”…..

    i recently moved from california to texas….and am having a hard time finding like minds in many areas of my life right now…..i would love to be able to attend your infant classes…but The Little Gym it is…..

    i thought this would be a good fun experience for my little very social..very smart..and very athletic little boy…..but turns out that he and i were both left overwhelmed and drained….

    the class was sort of schitzo..and to me promotes ADD….i really question the impact of this type of class with 7 activities packed into 45 minutes….between all of the loud singing and loud music and switching it up there was little time to take in and appreciate the new environment with many colors and lots of other babies….

    just thought id share that.

    back to my original post….

    so i have really observed my now 6 month old since i posted the original response….and i guess that i have been somewhat practicing the RIE philosophy as far as “play”…in the original post when i stated that we play together often….this usually consists of my son playing and me watching and interacting minimally….or us “talking” having a conversation of goos gahs dahs and rahs back and forth…… not really an entertainer and in the beginning i used to feel bad about this…in fact this was one of fears of motherhood….the pressure of having to be responsible for a childs entertainment….(i am still anxious about this because i dont want my child to be understimulated however i dont have the energy to be his entertainment every waking minute)…

    other mothers of my sons play group used to kind of scold me insinuating that anytime he cried i should distract him by making googly faces or singing louder than he cried…..i never got into it…i thought and still think that its ok for him to have a “moment”…he is allowed to voice his opinion that he doesnt appreciate his diaper getting changed…and i explain this to him and tell him why i am doing it..why i think we need to get it done..and how i hope he will understand……..and considering my son is a beautiful social well adjusted little person so far….im ok with this approach….

    the cynical undertones in my original post are still sort of with me… son will play on the floor on a blanket with a couple of objects rolling back and forth on his tummy everywhere EXCEPT at my home… home he will play on the floor for an extended period of time if he has a new object (new as in hasnt played with it in a couple of days/weeks)…otherwise the play is cut short the minute i look away from him…like if i am on the floor with him and get on my laptop to attempt to do a little work….he wont have it……he will not do tummy time at my house for some reason…..i put him down on his stomach and he immediately rolls over…..he plays from the back position and if something is out of reach hell try to squirm towards it on his side and after a few seconds will just forget about and start trying to “sit up”….(he has really developed abs and can lift his torso off of the ground)… little one is very active and atheletic and would be bouncing off of the walls if he were able to…he prefers being upright….using me as his avatar…so he can jump up and down…kick in the air…move about the world and see things and try to touch and grab things from my arms……on the floor at my house it just seems like he gets bored very easily….so u end up picking him up and letting him play from my lap…and then we move around……and i often feel guilty on the days we stay indoors because he seems fussier on these days and i assume he isnt getting enough stimulation…at the same time i feel a little batty because i cant keep up the energy all of the time….

    as for the bouncy seat…unfortunately he has to be “strapped” (that seems like such an extreme word) in it when i am in the kitchen…i live in a loft with concrete floors on the ground level and creepy crawly things all over…i dont have a playpen so being on the floor is out of the question….fortunately the 2 bouncy chairs that he has promotes great muscle development and play rather than complete passivity (bjorn babysitter and first years kicking coaster).

    so i guess if there is a question in all of this… would be what do i need to “wean” my child from in order for him to play indoors on the floor by himself for longer (he may be already doing what is normal and i just have unrealistic expectations)….do i wean him from my lap and arms…and how do i do this when i am not a person that leaves my child to cry for more than a few minutes…?….

    thanks for the insight….i will read the above suggested links as well….

    1. I loved your comments. I feel the same here…the thing is that at the same time RIE approach is so good and I try to follow it with my baby, it does (as all training things for babies) makes us feel guilty sometimes. When people will understand that babies are different from each other and need different things and develop differently 🙁

      1. My son is now 21 months and I have only discovered RIE in the last 3 months. I’ve been trying since he was 17 months to I still Montessori principles and a more paired back involvement at play. My son though as a young infant I felt demanded a lot of my time and attention, he wasn’t happy just on his own and I felt and saw a much positive response when he was entertained. For a child like this who demonstrates unhappiness, frustration and irritability is it suggested that they should just be left to appreciate what is around them more? Sleep and feeding was a challenge from birth and maybe this didn’t help. But I also know of so many babies with these struggles, they don’t all just come out happy, chilled and laid back willing to take in the world. So what is the approach then? I’m due my second and would like to start off on the right foot this time round

  3. Hello Janet,
    I enjoyed this lovely video again very much. The safe places you create are very beautiful and you see this back in the behaviour of the little blond boy. Thank you for being a inspiration !

  4. Where can I find a non-FlashPlayer version of this video? I haven’t been able to watch on my Mac or iPad. Thank you!

  5. Cynthia Lonsbary says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying this blog! I found it after someone on my birth forum suggested I read about Magda Gerber’s approach. I had been voicing my frustration that my 3.5 month old seems not to want to be set down for more than 5 or 10 minutes but also seems to hate the sling I made for her. She suggested that I get into the habit of telling Lorelei that I’m going to put her down and that I would be back. However this is easier said than done when she’s screaming hysterically even as I lower her to the blanket, or as soon as I take a step away.

    I am a college psychology professor and Dad stays home with our little one. I teach nights two nights a week which makes a very long night for him sometimes. I breast feed and pump, but she gets a couple of formula bottles during the day as well. We’re wondering if some of the problem is her reaction to being apart form me during the day and not being able to get the reassurance of breast feeding. Sometimes the only way Dad can calm her is to feed her… which can sometimes lead to her spitting up from being overfed? Are there any additional ways to help our little girl become more comfortable on her own long enough for us to use the bathroom or cook dinner etc? Additionally, how does the RIE approach calming a flailing, arching screaming 3.5 month old?

    1. Hi Cynthia! Nurturing the habit of independent play is NOT about placing a baby down and leaving her… I’m sorry if you got that impression from the post. There is not a child in the world who reacts agreeably to being placed down and left, which is sort of like being dumped…

      When your baby is rested, fed and burped, I would try sitting on the floor with her in your arms…she’ll see a couple of objects around that might interest her. Perhaps she indicates readiness to play on the floor. Then, slowly ask her, “Would you like to go on the floor and play?” If she still seems okay with that, say, “I’m going to place you gently down on your back.” Be sure to support her neck as you lay her down. Then hang out with her for a while, quietly, but responding if she makes sounds and/or looks at you. After a few minutes of this you might say, “I’m going to the kitchen for a few minutes and then I’ll be back”, at which time you could try slowly, but confidently getting up and leaving her in her safe place.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        This is great, Janet, thank you. I wasn’t sure how to initiate play with my infant and she fusses when I put her down and leave her. She’s also very social and really like to have an audience for her play time (and mama’s nose and lips are some of her favorite toys at the moment).

        I’m doing my best to introduce these principles into her routine. My favorite experience so far is when I ask her, “Are you ready to be picked up?” ::waiting for indication she’s ready:: Okay, 1-2-3 UP!” And when I say “UP” she lifts her head and shoulders to help me.

        I’ve noticed some other cool things like when she’s reaching for a toy and fussing because she can’t quite get there yet (she’s rolling and inching, but not very far), rather than just handing it to her or telling her “You can do it” I tell her “Don’t give up! Keep trying!” and if she still can’t get to it I inch it a little bit closer with my toe. It’s amazing to see the triumph on her face.

  6. I just came across your website today. I often put my son in his crib with a few toys (mostly chew toys and a burp cloth, to be honest), and I had been afraid I was neglecting him by not playing with him…this video reinforces what I thought to do naturally! Allow him to play, explore, roll, etc…my question is this: he rolls on to his tummy and gets stuck, then gets mad and starts hollering…so we have been flipping him back to his belly at that point. Are we doing him a disservice? He cannot seem to roll back yet (he is 6 months old). He can get from back to tummy rolling left and right, but cannot get from tummy to back. Thoughts?

    Thank you! I am just now reading into more on your website and I love it.

    1. Thanks, Jenn! I would respond right away to the hollering and calmly acknowledge, “I hear you. You sound uncomfortable. Are you stuck?” If he continues to complain, I would ask, “Would you like a break?” Then I would let him know I will pick him up. I’d stay still with him and not walk around trying to entertain him. See if that comforts him…and then maybe ask to place him down again on his back after a little while. I think this is a little more respectful and encouraging than just turning him over and “fixing” him. This phase will pass quickly, so hang in there! Sounds like you’re doing great.

  7. This is a great article, but I have a question. My baby didn’t like to be by himself on the floor. Not til he was old enough to sit up on his own. His “friends” would happily play on a blanket on the floor, and he would cry to be picked up after only a few minutes. He preferred to lie on the “bunk”–a built-in cot in our kitchen–to play (til he could roll, of course, then it wasn’t safe anymore). He is much more independent now, at 16 months. But til he was around 6 months, he didn’t like being on the floor for long. I wonder why? Could it have been experiences in the hospital in his first few days, that made him subconsciously scared of being away from me?

    1. Hmmm… I think this might be about what you did when you picked him up. I don’t think this is about the hospital… Sometimes we scoop the baby up in a manner that projects a little anxiety. Sensitive children pick up on that immediately and that can make them feel less comfortable on the floor… That’s one of the reasons I recommend less of an intervention first, like talking to the child, lying down on the floor next to him and stoking him… Then I might pick him up, but stay seated on the floor rather than swooping him into the air. I’d have to know a few more details to be able to figure out why he resisted floor play. 🙂

  8. Hi Janet,

    I read this post a couple weeks ago and it (along with subsequent reading of your blog) has completely changed the way I view parenting and my baby, and in the best way! I am so excited about what I’ve been learning here that I’ve even lost sleep just thinking about how brilliant it is! Before I had more of an AP approach. My now four month old daughter had very little independent play. I was always trying to keep her entertained. I constantly sang to her, or played little games with her, and I was in her face all the time. Now that I see her as a whole person who just happens to be an infant, I am more respectful of her. Anyway, once I read this article I started doing independent play with her. She seemed to love it from the get go. She didn’t seem to need me to ease her into it either, it was like she’d been waiting and was ready to go! Just a few days ago she rolled all the way over for the first time, and now she has it down. But the day before last she started getting very upset once she got to her tummy position and she continues to become aggravated each time. She’ll be ok at first, but it seems like she is trying to crawl and gets irritated by her inability to crawl. I try laying by her telling her “i hear you” and “i’m here” and stroking her back, but eventually the crying escalates to the point I either roll her to her back again or pick her up and sit with her until she calmer down again. I feel this is ruining her independent play time as she always rolls over immediately and so the crying begins. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks again for all you do!

    1. Hi Sara! Thanks for your kind words! Your daughter’s behavior is very, very common. This is a brief phase (a few weeks, max) and it sounds like you are handling the situation well. I prefer picking her up to rolling her onto her back, because then you are giving her a “break” rather than “fixing” her. Just be patient, keep acknowledging her feelings as you are doing so beautifully and this will pass. It will definitely NOT ruin independent play time.

      1. Thanks for your response! I’m glad to hear this is normal. I’ll be glad when she outgrows this phase, but I am happy to wait patiently until then.

  9. Hi Janet,

    I follow many of your posts on FB and admire the concepts of the RIE approach. How would you suggest transitioning my ways from a mainly AP approach to RIE? Our daughter is 25 mos old and she has co-slept in our bed since birth, she still nurses and had both mom and dad at home w her (dad works from home).

    I can tell she is not comfortable/familiar with independent play since there has always been one of us there engaging with her :/. I wish I would have known sooner about letting her be with her own ways of exploration. Since day 1 we were always googly in her face, wearing her in a sling close to our chest and involving her in all that we do.

    Please let me know how we can go about changing things without confusing her too much. Thanks so much!

  10. Hi Janet

    Had a few questions. My daughter is 6 months old. She likes to play by herself but likes to see me around in the same room. She has started rolling over but tends to move backward and thus gets to the point of falling from the bed or getting stuck in the crib bars. I then move her back to her on back position .. Or sometimes pick her up or talk to her before letting her resume her play. how do I build the safe area that you have mentioned in your post? What all do I need for the same? Any examples or pictures? Also how do I encourage more independent play since I will be starting to work next month from home. My work is quite busy and stressful with tight deadlines, quick turnarounds and many calls during the day and evenings. I have been somebody used to continuous hours of work and concentration and I am
    Concerned if I will be able to do justice to my baby and work when I start working . Looking forward to your guidance and tips

  11. Hi Janet

    I hope you can help me! I love everything your write and try to be an RIE parent with my first and only little one, but Im struggling. My daughter, who is 1 month old but was a month early so is more like a newborn, doesn’t get much chance for play time with the few objects in reach as you describe, or time to be alone and unrestricted as I’d like. She has gastro intestinal reflux and her symptoms, mostly stomach pain and huge amounts of vomiting, are much worse when lead flat. We’ve been told by doctors, midwives etc to keep her more upright in a bouncer seat or held upright on our bodies as much as possible. Even her basket crib is tilted almost 45*.

    I desperately want to give her these important play opportunities to help her develop, but I don’t have any ideas of how to do this while also dealing with her illness and not making it worse. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you so much,

    1. I am guessing this is an old post and I wonder how things are going for you. I wonder about this also as more and more babies seem to have issues with reflux.

    2. Same here – reflux really impairs the scope for natural independent play when the baby has to be kept upright a lot!

  12. I just want to say, thank you so much for this article and others. From the moment my son was born, I felt the pressure to “prepare” him for life by reading, singing, playing, etc with him every minute of the day.

    One day when he was about 6 weeks old he was in my arms as usual, and he wouldn’t stop crying. Not hungry, not wet, not tired. Just crying! I swayed, I sang, I took him over to the mirror, but nothing worked. Finally, I decided to put him down and get the baby sling ready to see if that would help. As soon as I put him on the changing table, he stopped crying! He stared at the movie poster above him. And stared…and stared! For FIFTEEN MINUTES he looked at the poster, sometimes also watching the ceiling fan. At the time, I was so relieved to get a break! (The table has a high rail surrounding the pad, and he couldn’t roll over yet, and I was watching him–he was safe!)

    But then the guilt set in. Was something wrong? Were we going to have an unhealthy attachment now that I let him lay there alone?? Don’t babies want to be held?! I started letting him have some alone time despite my doubts, because he all but insisted. All along, though, I’ve had this nagging feeling that I’m not doing enough…that every moment spent not directly cuddling or reading or playing a game or whatever was a “wasted” moment.

    Reading all of your articles has been so freeing. I realize now that the world itself is more than enough stimulation for my boy, and while we will of course continue to read and play together, that it’s TOTALLY, 100% fine to let him lay on his back and play with a paper cup while I read a book on the couch nearby sometimes. I can’t tell you what that means to me! I am so excited to redo his play area to encourage more independent play. Thank you!

  13. Hi Janet, I really want to enable my 4 week old to guide her own play. However, she vomits whenever she is flat on her back. What would you suggest I can do to enable her to play in a natural position?

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