Encouraging Baby’s Self-Directed Play

Hello Janet,

I have found the basic tenets of RIE philosophy to be very intuitive. I naturally see my 5.5 month son as an independent and individual human being who is, for the time being, dependent on me for his basic needs etc. He and I are each other’s daily companions, and we have fallen into some lovely routines that have mostly emanated from a mindful approach to his moment-to-moment experience. I try to do things at his speed so that the day makes sense to him, too.

We spend lots of time exploring on the floor with simple age-appropriate elements for him to seek out on his own accord. But this is where I begin to have questions about RIE implementation: I am not sure how to encourage the more self-directed play. When I place him down on the floor first thing in the morning or after a good nap, he may start exploring independently- but once he & I make eye contact it’s basically over and he wants to engage me completely. I have trouble disengaging and helping him fall back into a self-directed mode.

I’ve tried sitting next to him, kind of fake reading one of his books so that he knows I’m there but can’t make eye contact, I’ve tried sitting by him & quietly smiling with light verbal encouragement when he looks to me. I’ve tried quietly straightening up the room or putting away laundry, and I’ve tried leaving the room (although spying on him from around the corner isn’t what I hoped for with respect to RIE baby observation). If I don’t make eye contact I sense that he feels stressed, & if I do I feel too drawn in – like I’m interrupting his blue sky time. Needless to say, I’m feeling like I’ve hit a rough patch and would appreciate any insights you could offer about this part of RIE implementation.

With gratitude,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Eden

Hi Eden,

What do you do when he makes eye contact and wants to engage? I would advise acknowledging him right away, not trying to avoid his gaze or making too little of it. He can’t get comfortable if he senses (and he does) that you’re avoiding eye contact.

Stay seated on the floor (if you’re there already) and wherever you are, respond without hesitation and be really honest. “I see you there (doing such-and-such).” If he cries, come close, but don’t feel like it’s a call to action. You don’t need to instantly pick him up. Begin by talking to him. “Oh, I hear you crying. What’s the matter? Are you tired? Uncomfortable?” You might even lie down next to him and caress him. Calm yourself so that you don’t overreact, but don’t resist responding either.

If he continues to cry with you right next to him, ask, “Do you need a little break from playing? Do you want me to pick you up? Okay, I’m going to pick you up.” Then hold him on your lap, preferably in a horizontal position rather than upright. If he’s not used to being held in a horizontal position, he might resist until you hold him upright. That’s okay, but stay seated while you hold him, so that it doesn’t become a big rescuing kind of thing.

If he seems to calm down you can ask “Do you want to play again? Okay, I’m going to lie you down.” And then do it very slowly and gently. I think you might be worrying too much or trying too hard to make it work, and perhaps he’s picking up a little anxiety from you. This will pass. You are doing everything right. When his need to make eye contact sometimes (and complain a little) is not a big deal to you at all, he’ll get over the hump. At least that’s what I think from what you’ve told me!

Please let me know if there’s more…or if I’m missing something…

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Janet

For more posts on this topic, please check out my sections on “Babies and Newborns” and “Play”.

(Photo taken at the RIE center by Jude Keith Rose)


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

  1. You know – another thing you might try rather than reading a book to avoid eye contact… Try doing something like building with blocks or pulling fabric in and out of a box or some other activity that gets your child watching what you are doing and invites your child to try it too. In other words, try a little parallel play. As you play, talk out loud in a fun voice about what you are doing and see if your child will want to participate or do something different while you are playing. Set out choices and you demonstrate play as your child plays – if your child takes what you are playing with then wait a few and then move on to something else or show enthusiasm about what the child is doing. By modeling play, you just might keep the child more engaged in exploration while being near you and less focused on just being with you.

  2. Over the years, this has come up a lot. Our son is strongly attached to us, and meeting his needs for attention often conflicts with our desire to encourage his independence. I find it hard to resolve these dilemmas without becoming ever more mindful of my own motives.

  3. Alexandra says:

    It is sweet that you are encouraging parallel play, and in many places there is a strong value of entertaining children and unawareness about infants having the capacity to have their own ideas and self-direct. What is unusual here and throughout the RIE approach is that we see children as competent and try not to get in their way by modeling how to play. Instead we trust that infants can learn and discover best if we don’t model.
    I suggest that you take a look at some of Janet’s eloquent descriptions and discussions about the RIE philosophy and Magda Gerber’s very exciting and gentle ways of being with infants to consider a beautiful and deeply respectful approach.

  4. Adelyn Koh says:

    I’ve tried hard practising the ‘leave your child alone and observe’ but it’s hard.My 7mo boy is just at complete loss when placed on his playmat. He would not reach out for any toys and he needs me to play actively. I know it’s not good to sit bub up or put him on the tummy but he just lays on his mat sucking his fingers with head plopped down on the playmat. He isn’t curious or does not seem interested in mobility movements like rolling or crawling.

    1. Adelyn – it sounds like you have preconceived ideas of what your son “should” be doing…and this is getting in your way, preventing you from seeing him clearly and giving him the space and time he needs to be able to intitiate activities of his own. Babies are extremely absorbent and learning all the time from their environment. Often this does not look like much from our adult perspective. Let him be. He does not need all the stimulation…and if he seems passive when you stop stimulating him, it might be because he is recovering from it.

  5. Could someone please explain to me why the mother is trying to avoid eye contact?
    I can understand why she doesn’t want to end up just entertaining her baby, but could she just acknowledge his eye contact and just enjoy the bonding that comes with eye contact? And maybe that combined with the parallel play technique might work well?

    Sorry I’m new to this and trying to understand.
    I remember reading one of Janet’s posts about making eye contact with a stranger’s baby in a cafe and how it was a beautiful moment.

  6. Hi Vicky! I think this mother thought that acknowledging her son was somehow interrupting him, or making it less possible for him to let her go…and play. But her avoidance is more likely making her son feel uneasy, which is a much bigger distraction! “Why is mommy acting so sketchy?”

    So, yes, it’s always best to connect honestly and clearly with our children!

  7. Allis Deppeler says:

    This just sounds mean, your baby wants you – don’t let that get in the way of trying to get them to play independently. They will play more confidently and independently knowing you are there for them.

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