Baby, You Are Born To Play

I really didn’t think it would work.

At a RIE Conference several years ago a friend and I were presenting a workshop on infant and toddler play and attempted an audacious experiment. We asked another friend to bring her 15 month old daughter to the event, daring to hope that the baby might give a live demonstration of independent, self-directed play.

At least fifty pairs of eyes were on baby Tess as she sat in her mom’s lap on a large platform raised about a foot off the ground. A few feet away we had created a play area using the kinds of objects recommended by infant specialist Magda Gerber: balls of different sizes and types, empty plastic bottles and jars, a colander, an inflatable beach ring, plastic chains, a baby doll, wooden rings, etc.

Tess seemed to take in the audience that surrounded her — professional caregivers, educators, and parents — all of whom waited patiently and showed extreme respect. Could she find the comfort — the trust — to play in such an intensely non-therapeutic environment? Would her natural impulse to play trump any unease or tension?

To all of our amazement it did, and she did. After a couple of minutes, Tess left the safety of her mother’s lap, ventured slowly toward the toys, and proceeded to examine a wiffle ball, which she eventually placed in a large plastic jar. A few minutes later she moved on to investigating a pool ‘noodle’.

It was obvious to everyone watching that Tess was not performing or doing anything for the benefit of the audience. She was simply following her curiosity — exploring, inner-directed — as she was used to doing at home. This was living proof of the powerful, innate desire babies have to play. I doubt the attendees remembered much about the rest of our presentation, but they were buzzing all afternoon about baby Tess.

Play, especially when self-directed, is not only natural — it is vital for our children’s emotional health. Through play babies naturally develop physical and cognitive skills, stretch their imaginations, flex creative muscles, build resiliency and a strong sense of self. Play is the way babies learn best. How do we cultivate this inborn drive? At what age does play begin?

Independent play begins the first time an infant spends a comfortable moment awake in a position in which he or she is free to move. Babies are born ready to begin playing. All we have to do is recognize it, encourage it and trust.


As a new parent, my 3 month old firstborn must have known what I needed — not merely a lesson in recognizing infant play, but a revelation.

Following the direction of a RIE parenting instructor, I placed her on her back on a blanket near me and watched.  My needy, vocal baby, the one I’d been entertaining and engaging almost every moment she was awake, spent nearly two hours in this position, peaceful and content. She knew I was there, shot an occasional glance my direction, but didn’t seem to need a thing from me except, perhaps, my appreciative presence. And, oh, I was beyond appreciative.

When babies aren’t eating, sleeping, bathing, changing diapers, crying, burping, colicky or being cuddled, they are playing. In the first months, play might not look like much. But this is when it starts, and it needs cultivating. 


Although a baby a few weeks old may experience some moments of play on a bed or changing table while an adult is guarding her safety,  play is encouraged for more extended periods by providing a safe place or places in which our baby is not confined, propped or positioned – free to move to the extent she is capable. If a baby’s movement is restricted, or she is dependent on us or on a contraption to retain a position, ‘helped’ to roll or sit up, she becomes used to our intervention and continues to expect it.

Other parenting approaches encourage waiting until an infant can physically indicate a desire to move out of the parent’s arms or a carrier before providing opportunities for play. For me, waiting for an indication of readiness to play independently and move freely is like waiting for a baby to point to a book before ever reading to her. Our babies get used to whatever rituals we create. It is up to us to encourage the habits we believe healthiest.

In her NAEYC essay “Babies On The Move“, Rae Pica warns that confining babies for extended periods in car seats, carriers, highchairs, etc., may have serious consequences for both motor and cognitive development.  Recent neurological research confirms that infants need to move.

“Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, tells us that, beginning in infancy, physical movement plays a vital role in the creation of nerve cell networks that are actually the core of learning. She then goes on to relate how movement, because it activates the neural wiring throughout the body, makes the entire body—not just the brain—an instrument of learning.”

To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it. Before interrupting a baby — no matter how kindly and lovingly we plan to engage her – it’s best to first stop, observe, and at least wait for our baby to look towards us.  We should always ask before picking her up, even if she is fussy.  If we open the door for our young infants to communicate by acknowledging them and asking, “You sound tired. Do you want me to pick you up?” they are encouraged to answer back by telling us, by lifting their arms to us, or not.


It’s hard to trust infants to play independently, to be the “initiators, explorers and self-learners” that Magda Gerber taught us they are capable of being. We worry that we might not be doing enough. How can our tiny infants be ready to make choices, experience self-reliance…mastery? But if we are sensitive observers, tuned in and responsive to our babies’ physical and emotional needs, they will initiate play for short periods that grow in time. Our babies know how to alert us when they’ve had all the independence they want or can handle.

Alternatively, an insecure baby is incapable of the kind of self-assured, inner directed play demonstrated by Tess, my infant daughter and the many other babies I’ve observed over the years. If we want to encourage play, we have to take a leap of faith and begin by trusting our babies.

I share more about the power of self-directed play (and how to encourage it) in my  book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.


(In above photo — a baby playing on her one month birthday.)


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

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    Thank you so much, Janet. The RIE philosophy could not have a better explanation.
    Your article brought the philosophy to life in so many ways. You were able to help us visualize the needs of an infant. The references to other child development specialists continue to validate all that Magda has taught all these years.
    Thank you for encouraging trust and faith in our infant’s ability to play. This is a wonderful article… As always!

  2. Thank you Janet. This article reinforces my beliefs about infants and play. I have stepped back heaps at my centre, letting babies have as much uninterrupted play possible and the miracle I see happening right in front of me is something I wouldnt have believed if someone told me. I am amazed at how much competent and capable little children are, and all it takes is to step back and make time to observe and look for the cues and there you are exposed to a whole new world.

    1. Sharmila, I share your amazement all the time. It’s so great to hear your observations, and especially heartening to hear about the the joy you experience working with infants. They are blessed to be in your care!

  3. Trusting is the hardest thing to do. Specially when there is more than one baby in the scene.

    My daughter is 3 years old and often when she has a friend over I have to hold myself not to interfere in their games and struggles.

    I realize you are talking about young babies here, but as they grow older and interact with others it´s really tempting to be “helping” for a “better” interaction.

    As long as they are not hurting each other, it´s nice to let them try to solve their issues alone, like the philosophy you are using. But boy, isn´t that hard to do?

    1. Yes…wise mom you are! It is very hard to trust that what our children can do on their own is ‘enough’, whether they are playing ‘solo’ or with other children. It’s natural for us to want to intervene to make things a little better, or fix any problem immediately. It’s especially difficult to stay out the way when children of any age are challenging themselves, struggling, experiencing conflict. But by interrupting we can curb creativity, discourage tenacity, and prevent children from gaining mastery or learning valuable lessons. Magda Gerber always said, “The magic word is ‘wait’.”

  4. This is truly fascinating stuff. Stuff that could certainly liberate and enlighten many guilt-ridden moms, myself included who tend to overestimate our children’s need for constant stimulation and underestimate their magnificently- resourceful minds.

    1. Betsy, those were my thoughts exactly when I first discovered Magda Gerber’s ideas. I had been entertaining my baby in her every waking moment, believing that was my job. It was a huge AHA to see how able she was to invent play on her own. She was not a passive baby waiting for me to stimulate her; she was a 3 month old person with unique thoughts, ideas, interests, a point of view worth considering.

  5. I love watching and observing my 3 month old daughter playing independently. Azharia discovered her hands not long ago and now she can lie there moving her fingers in front of her. Opening and shutting them. When she needs a rest, she looks away and would spend ages looking out the window.
    I am really enjoying Azharia’s company at the moment, which was a far cry from when her sister was a baby. You live and learn, I suppose.

  6. I don’t understand … what else would you do with an infant besides let them play? Of course you surround a baby with playthings and explorable environment, didn’t even know there was another idea possible. Do most parents restrain their children?

    1. I think many of us believe it’s our job to occupy, entertain and otherwise stimulate babies. I know I did at first. Then, what constitutes independent “free” play is spending time in restrictive devices like seats, swings, exersaucers, walkers, etc. But what I’ve learned is that our entertainment and these adult-imposed devices that prop and position babies unnaturally actually hinder their natural ability to self-entertain. You have great instincts!

  7. Elanne Kresser says:

    I am so grateful to know about RIE. I’ve known about it for years and used the principles in my childcare groups. Now I have a 2 month old baby and I feel as though I have so many, well, resources. Yesterday she lied by herself on the floor watching shadows on the ceiling, which she loves to do, while I went and did laundry, made my lunch and ate my lunch. I continuously check in on her because I’m still astonished that she can spend that time by herself and be content! But she does – it is her playtime. She loves to watch things, chew her fist, and make squeaks and squeals. And when she’s ready for me she lets me know loud and clear. This approach makes parenting SO much easier and less stressful!!!!

  8. Ann Crisp says:

    I am so grateful to come across your website which led me to explore RIE and Magda Gerber’s books. I have not been implementing these practices until recently…am wondering how to reconcile spending the first months with my little guy propping him up and generally doing the opposite of what RIE suggests as I thought I must be actively engaged with him at all times or have him with me at all times or risk not being attached?

  9. Lois Hastings says:

    Alex (perfecting dad) put it very well! Of course we (60 yrs ago) laid our babies down to play & entertain themselves in-on PLAYPENS ( safe and clean) We did feel guilty when we left them there too long (She would let us know)Why did playpens disappear? Love,82 yr.old great gramma

  10. Amanda Cassell says:

    How do you backtrack and get an insecure baby to learn how to play independently? My son is 5 months old and because I was uninformed I put him in a swing, bouncer, etc. it is really the norm of what most people do with babies so I didn’t know any better. I really don’t appreciate some of the other comments alluding to the fact that anyone who doesn’t naturally know about this way of parenting should feel stupid.

  11. I have the same question as the previous person. I used all the ‘normal’ things with my 7 month old…how do I get her used to I independent play at this point and at this age? She is sometimes happy to play on the floor alone, but most of the time she cries and wants to be held

  12. I love this approach, and had everything ready – boxes of treasures to explore, safe spaces, and so on. Sadly, my daughter had silent reflux and could not be left comfortably in any position other than propped up. Even sleeping was generally on an adult’s chest, semi-vertical…. Now, at 6, I have a daughter who is able to play alone, but still seems to need so much reassurance that what she is doing is ‘right’ and has no resilience when things go wrong. Do you have any suggestions?

  13. Infant/ toddler teacher who has a hard time convincing some people babies are always learning.

  14. Not surprisingly, I love this article, Janet! I’ve tweeted it out so more people can share in its wisdom.

    1. Thank you so much, Rae! As I hope you know, I’m a huge fan of your work.

  15. Victoria R says:

    My baby boy is almost 8mo. He is still struggling with some reflux so I have to keep him upright after feeding. This has become harder as he gets older because he doesn’t want to sit in my lap and chill. I try reading and that helps for a few minutes. As soon as he’s digested a bit, I lay him on the floor and he’ll immediately roll to his tummy. He’s usually ok but then either becomes uncomfortable or maybe frustrated he can’t fully sit up on his own yet. He pivots and rolls but after a while he will just flail his arms and legs and whine nonstop on his tummy. I know he knows how to roll so I’m not sure why he doesn’t choose to get off his tummy if it bothers him. He often spits up this way but will still whine and whine until I either help him roll onto his back or pick him up and hold on. He’s getting heavy so my arms are very tired! It makes me feel like I can never leave him. Even if I’m there with him he’ll whine if he wants to either move or change the scenery. Any tips for something like this?

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