There’s a reason I never tire of writing about inner-directed play. Infant and toddler playtime is parenting gold. Creating a safe play environment allows us a well-deserved, occasional break, and if we sit nearby, observe and respond, playtime can provide a wealth of inspiration. Parents are typically in short supply of both those things. Can we ever get enough rest or inspiration?
Thrilled and relieved to be given “permission” by infant expert Magda Gerber years ago to be a facilitator when my infants and toddlers played, rather than entertainer or teacher, I’ve repeatedly rediscovered the beauty of “staying out of the way.” Babies are engaged longer and encouraged to be more creative and self-reliant when we observe, respond and appreciate, rather than choosing their activities, showing them how they should play, or doing it for them. What’s good for parents is good for babies, too.
A recent parent/toddler class vividly demonstrated the value of letting babies play their way.
Reading baby minds — windows into our child’s emergent personality.
Wouldn’t you love to know what babies are thinking? I know I would, and when we quietly observe it’s sometimes possible to decipher. Watching our baby play gives us a glimpse of his unique thought processes and distinct personality. It’s often fascinating and amusing.
Two year old Travis gave us all a giggle when he illustrated the power of parental modeling by picking up one of the plastic make-up containers, unscrewing the top and rubbing it under his arms like deodorant.
Toddlers invent silly games.
One of our running jokes and favorite games in this particular class is getting “stuck” (see A Lesson From Babies…It’s Okay To Struggle). The toddlers are now adept at getting stuck and then unstuck from between the bars of the climbing structure. At least once during each class one of the children will get into “position”, look towards me and announce, “Stuck.” “Oh, you’re stuck,” I reply, and with self-satisfaction the child becomes unstuck again.
There are other old standbys, like peeking at me or the parents through the crack of the propped open French doors. Now when they do it they say, “Hi, Janet” and I say hi back. This can go on for a bit…but never gets stale.
In a recent class Flora started a new game. She brought one of the stacking cups towards me and said, “Drink water”. (At snack time the toddlers pour and drink water in glasses.) “You want to drink water from that red cup?” I asked. She smiled, handed me the cup and went to get another and said, “Drink…cup”, then handed it to me again. This time I took a pretend sip. Soon Gracie joined in and they were “drinking” out of each of the cups, and they then started falling to the floor after each sip in exuberant laughter as if it had been spiked with goofy juice. This is the way I’ve learned to love playing “with” babies.
Who knows better than a baby?
Meanwhile, Sam demonstrated learning through repetition as he spent several minutes stepping up and down the three-step climber. When we stay out of the way infants and toddlers show us what they are working on, what they are ready to work on in their chosen way. As Magda Gerber liked to say, “Readiness is when they do it.”
Could we ever design such a perfect curriculum?
Trust, acceptance and appreciation breeds self-confidence.
I often imagine how it feels to be these toddlers, enjoyed by their parents for playing the way they wish with no agendas or expectations. The self-confidence this instills is profound.
Here are a few more things children learn when they are allowed to self-direct play. (Many thanks to my associate Jill Flyer for compiling these with me):
To make choices
How things move
To formulate and execute a plan
The properties of objects and materials
How to work out conflicts with objects and other children
To take initiative
Concentration and follow-through
Meeting challenges with spontaneous and fresh responses
Self-motivation and inner-directedness
Cause and effect
Satisfaction in one’s efforts
To process feelings
To be with oneself
To trust one’s judgment
To be self-rewarded
To follow one’s instincts
To understand the world.
I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting