A recent post, Is Your Baby A Bully? Genius? Shy? Why We Should Lose Labels, stirred up unexpected controversy. Several parents were apparently shocked by my suggestion that babies could play together with minimal intervention, without adults reminding the babies to share, or asking them to give something back because “so-and-so had it first”.
The comments that surprised me most (in an off-site follow-up discussion) expressed the opinion that infants and toddlers were simply too young to socialize. These parents believe that their children are not ready for contact with other babies, period.
I certainly understand how intimidating social interactions between toddlers, even between infants can appear. I’ve seen the expressions of fear, panic, and utter embarrassment on a parent’s face when his or her adorable baby seems a bit aggressive, or asserts power over another, i.e., crawls over another infant, extends a finger towards an eye (thankfully eliciting the blink reflex), pokes it into a mouth, or removes a toy from another baby’s possession. I felt a little wound up myself when one of my children used to snatch anything and everything out of another toddler’s hands when she came over to play.
But in my experience, these situations are not nearly as upsetting to babies as they are to adults. And when we react to infant and toddler play from our adult perspective, make judgments, and give negative attention to innocent social exploration and experimentation, we risk fanning a tiny spark into flames.
Yes, babies have clumsy, awkward interactions, test boundaries and make plenty of social missteps. That is how they learn. But by providing safe settings for our babies to experience age-appropriate conflicts, we give them opportunities to fully encounter the other end of the spectrum – moments of authentic, joyful connection with a peer.
Here are 5 hints for creating healthy, educational and enjoyable infant and toddler playgroups
A familiar, safe place. Consistency. Familiarity may breed contempt in adults, but for infants and toddlers it is the key to comfort. Knowing what to expect — the usual time, place, and people give a baby the freedom he needs to explore, engage and participate with confidence. The space should be enclosed and fully childproofed so that the children do not have to be observed every second.
Safe, lightweight, washable, simple toys (with some multiples if possible) that can be used imaginatively in variety of ways work best. (See Infant Play – Great Minds At Work for specific examples.)
Babies of a similar age or stage of development. Infants and toddler groups are most productive when the children are within a few months of age, or at a similar stage of development. The babies can then interact most freely and safely with a minimum of interruptions.
Calm, observant, like-minded parents. Parents are advised to sit, relax, and exude confidence and trust. Babies are tuned in to our emotional energy and will feel tense or unsure if we do. We should allow the babies plenty of free space, with one parent staying a bit closer to the action to intervene if necessary.
Play time provides a wonderful opportunity for infants and toddlers to initiate separation (for a change). They appreciate the independence they feel when they get to choose when to leave the parent’s side. They then signal a need to return to the secure base the parent provides by crying (if they are not mobile yet) creeping, crawling or walking towards them.
Be sure to have at least one 10-15 minute period in which parents quietly observe the children. A peaceful atmosphere is less distracting for the babies, especially the more sensitive ones who may stay next to their parents, overwhelmed when everyone is talking. This quiet observation period is when parents learn where their children’s interests lie and what they are working on. And it’s usually when magical moments between children occur.
Selective intervention, modeling gentleness. The babies should be observed by a calm parent “facilitator” sitting nearby and allowed to touch each other, but stopped before they hit, pull hair, push, or otherwise hurt one another. Our instinct may be to rush in and move the “instigator’s” hand away abruptly, but if we want gentle children, we are wise to model gentle behavior. Infant expert Magda Gerber taught parents to lightly stroke the side of an infant’s head and softly say, “Gentle” to both babies when we intervene.
Older toddlers usually know we want them to be gentle but may choose to test out something less so. In that case, the observant facilitator tries to anticipate, blocking the hit with her hand and saying calmly, but firmly, “I won’t let you hit (push, etc.)” Occasionally, a toddler is having a difficult day, needs shadowing and lots of firm, but matter-of-fact, non-judgmental intervention until he either relinquishes the need to test, or needs his parent to take him home.
Sportscasting. When a baby is struggling, whether it is with the workings of his body, a toy or another baby, he is comforted in his situation being acknowledged and understood. “Sportscasting” is the term Magda Gerber used to describe the helpful, non-judgmental account adults are advised to give of their children’s play-by-play. “Ruby, you wanted that. Now George has it. Ruby took it back.” It is especially reassuring for a child to be acknowledged when he is upset — it seems to help him process the feelings and move on. “Sally brushed by you and it bothered you. I saw that. You’re upset.”
But there are many more positive, precious moments in safe baby play dates than difficult ones. Infants and toddlers are energized, entertained and educated by their peers. They imitate each other’s activities and vocalizations and take great interest in every interaction.
Is peer socialization necessary for infant /toddler development? Probably not. But I know I wouldn’t trade the insights I’ve gained, the surprises and the laughter I’ve experienced watching babies play together for anything. I have a feeling our babies wouldn’t trade those moments either.
(I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)
And here’s one of my podcasts on this topic: