Toddlers Invent The Silliest Games (And 33 More Reasons To Let Babies Play Their Way)

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

To strategize

How things move

To formulate and execute a plan

Creative problem-solving

The properties of objects and materials

To tolerate frustration

How to work out conflicts with objects and other children

To take initiative

Concentration and follow-through

Meeting challenges with spontaneous and fresh responses

Abstract thinking and hypothetical reasoning

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



A love of learning

To follow one’s instincts

To be curious, to dream, to imagine

To understand the world.

I share more in my book, 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. Roseann Murphy says:

    Brilliantly said. Bravo! I can’t say enough about allowing children time for inner-directed play. Children can mesmerize adults with their ability to create magical moments with very few props. In our small RIE based center infants and toddlers often spent hours utilizing the equipment and toys in ways they never would have if the adults had “shown” them the way.
    My best memories are those of our infants focused on the small squares of soft cloth placed near where they played on the ground. It took just one piece of cloth grasped in a fist – to keep their attention for long periods. Imagine..a piece of cloth – no bigger than a man’s hankerchief – manipulated by a young infant…watching the sheer joy they experienced as the cloth passed over their face or above their head…all done on their own…The surprise they felt when the cloth moved from hand to hand. Brilliant…
    That cloth play alone encompassed all the entire list Janet posted of things children learn from self-directed play.
    Thank you for another wonderful article.

  2. just thought I’d share a moment that happened at our nursery yesterday that had us all in laughter. We had white paint and sponges out for the babies and for a while they used the sponges to paint the paper, then Max decided to try it out on Rhys’s face, pausing to see his reaction. Rhys smiled and Max tried it again, this time the boys burst into laughter. Max continued the game until Rhys’s face was covered in paint. It was such a pleasure to watch their little game unfold totally at their own will. It is sad that this wouldn’t be allowed to happen in many centres because it is seen as not the ‘right’ way to explore paint.
    Thank you for your post and the inspiration you give us to be spontaneous and really give children freedom to explore in their own way.

  3. Love the list. As I read through it I was thinking “this applies to the students in my college classes”.

    Thanks for another look at the delights and rewards of play—at every stage of life!

    1. Yes, it absolutely does, Vicki. Thank you for mentioning that!

  4. Okay, without time to read all your links I’m thinking we are in agreement on everything here, Janet. *wink*

  5. I love this post, and I have found this to be very true with my two children. They come up with the best games on their own. And it fascinates me to see how very different their styles of play often are. Even though I think I am mostly the same, they have individual preferences and personalities. And I wouldn’t know this if I stepped in and directed them. What a loss that would be!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I think it’s easy for us — especially with a firstborn — to fear that this is neglect. But it is actually a great gift (as you say) to stay out of the way. We have so much to learn from our children!

  6. Hi Janet
    I am a preschool teacher in a small country town in Victoria Australia – one of the ways I try to support parents and carers of young children is through an occasional newspaper column, unpaid in the local weekly paper, the North West Express. I wonder if I could use your article on toddlers inventing their own games as the basis for one of my articles? I would acknowledge your blog of course, but it is hard to get material for the articles sometimes – other early childhood professionals like speech or occupational therapy do contribute but it’s like pulling hen’s teeth – if you know that expression – v hard!Thanks for your thought provokinhg and research-based posts (I linked to you from Amanda Morgan Not Just Cute)
    Best wishes
    Louise Fitzpatrick Leach

    1. Hi Louise,

      Yes, you may use the article! Thank you for asking. And yes, I’ve pulled some hen’s teeth myself.

      Please credit me and send me a copy c/o RIE, 6720 Melrose Ave, Suite 1, Los Angeles, CA 90038.

      All the best,

  7. I love it when I play toddler games with my kids – they make most of them up as we go along, though of course with mums help! =)

  8. Wow Janet, what a fabulous and extensive list of what children learn when they are directing their own play. I’d love to put this list up in my 0-2’s room in the day care centre I work in. Is this ok with you?
    Thanks, Nicole

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic Janet! I think it’s again a beautiful article with precious information.

  10. I love this way of parenting. It is what I always believed would happen. Sadly ASD and SPD disorder happened here and it just didn’t work out like that. A wonderful article though and a good read for all parents.

  11. I LOVE this photo. I wrote a picture book called ‘Climb’ that celebrates adventurous play and there is a line that reads ‘I climbed the wall with best friend Paul. It took some time because we’re small.’ The photo instantly reminded of that page.

  12. Pam Tennant says:

    Hi Janet. Just like Nicole, I would like to post this for the parents (and other practitioners) in my 14mth-2yr old room in private nursery in Scotland.
    Would that be ok?
    I was watching them, just this last week, invent their own game with their own rules (taught by imitation rather than discussion!) of climbing onto and then over a VERY low (1 1/2″high) metal rack/tray (from under a Community Play sensory table!). It was wobbly and took balance and coordination. They were not sure it was safe and proceeded SO cautiously, but they all moved in the same direction, taking turns (sort of) as though queing for a slide (there were a few exceptions, but these were tollerated by the others). Eventually this was a bouncy, dance floor – explored one by one, then two children holding hands face to face, bouncing!! Just brilliant (although one of them, still unsure, had to get down onto all fours to ‘dismount’!!
    It will be great to add some of your words to the learning that is clearly taking place! Thank you.

  13. Love this (and all your articles!). As an early childhood teacher and mother of a 2 year old, this is something I feel quite strongly about.
    We have a lot of time for play in the school I work (I teach 4-5 years) and we observe the children a lot as a way of assessing what they know and can do.
    When we stand back and let the children take ownership of their play, they are able to truly show us what they are capable of…they are also more engaged in what they are doing and will maintain concentration and persist with an activity if it is one of their own choosing and when there is very little adult interruption.
    As part of a language development course I have been doing, some of the reccomendations for supporting young children in their language is to (a) not ask too many questions, and (b) not direct children too much in their play…rather we should give them time to think, to say things to us and initiate the conversation and when we are involved in their play, comment on what they are doing as it happens.
    I wish more parents and even professionals who work with children (!) read your articles…it makes me sad when I see young children playing at the playground and their parents are directing them every 2 minutes, interrupting, suggesting what they should play on and whisking them from one thing to the next regardless of what their child has shown they want to do themselves. When children play, let them be…they know how to play and they will do what they are capable of doing and more if we give them the space and time to do it.

  14. Hi Janet. I’m a mexican singer and mom absolutly fascinated with the devolepment and joyfull play of my 1.8 year old sun. your posts and All the natural Wisdom you share with us is so interesting and usefull. I wonder If you would be interested in giving some workshops in México city….

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