Baby-Led Adventures – 5 Reasons Babies Need To Lead

Babies are born adventurers. If we give them our full attention and a completely safe, reasonably interesting place in which they are free to move, they’re on their way. Even the youngest infant can lead us on play adventures if we watch closely and use our imagination, because long before a baby has motor abilities, the wheels are turning. He’s seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. He’s never “just lying there”.

Then, once babies are able to grasp and move, they begin to show us some of their thought processes. (“Hmmm…wonder how this wooden ring would taste and feel in my mouth.” Or “I’m ready to crawl back to mommy for some hugs and refueling.”). In the second year they begin to tell us.

To follow a baby it’s best to discard any play “agendas” we might have, stifle our impulses to entertain, teach, demonstrate or even help. This can be challenging. We’re naturally eager to connect and might find it hard to believe that our supportive presence is enough. But, in fact, it’s even better than enough because it allows our children to engage with us on their terms — by bringing us a toy, for example, or looking at us to indicate their wish for a response. Meanwhile, our quiet attention is distinctly felt by our babies. Remember, babies have an even higher overall awareness level than adults. Recent studies show that they are actually unable to tune out stimuli in their environment and focus solely on one thing. They may not yet know-it-all, but they sense-it-all.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with entertaining babies, showing them toys and how to play with them from time to time. But to encourage baby-led adventures we must keep in mind that we are incredibly captivating, larger-than-life figures to our children. We are life to them. We are the world. So, when we do anything, our child’s tendency will be to focus on us. Encouraging a baby to lead play means we must be patient, observant and responsive in a gentle way so that we don’t interrupt the child’s process. It’s well worth it.

Here’s why…

The child:

1. Designs the perfect curriculum

OK, I admit I have a fantasy about reading babies’ minds. I would love to know what a baby is thinking as he gazes up at the trees, stares at shadows on the wall, feels the breeze, hears the dog barking or daddy’s footsteps and “Hello!” as he walks in the front door.  But in reality, children are the only ones who know what interests them and what they are working on. Given a reasonably enriching environment, each individual baby is capable of designing a curriculum that is meaningful, pertinent and developmentally appropriate for him or her.  Our ideas and decisions can’t compete, and can only distract from the important business at hand.

2. Accepts limits more readily

When babies are given the freedom to lead their play adventures — allowed to spend much of their time being inner-directed — they accept direction more readily. That doesn’t mean they always obediently follow our wishes (if only!). Infants and toddlers (especially) have a healthy need to resist and disagree. But our directions are much easier for a child to swallow when he has been trusted to be autonomous in his ‘free’ time in a safe play space. When a child has lots of green lights, he is much more amenable to accepting the red and yellow ones.

3. Learns to occupy himself and enjoys doing so

This one’s a big plus for parents, too. Babies allowed to lead their play adventures amaze friends and relatives with their long attention spans and interesting antics. They are a pleasure to be with because they don’t require us to expend energy entertaining them (and don’t need TV, either).

4. Practices being a leader, innovator, self-learner, explorer

Playtime is the rare opportunity babies have to be a leader instead of a follower, an innovator and initiator rather than an imitator, totally inner-directed. Encourage them to take full advantage.

5. Feels trusted and appreciated

Encouraging baby-led adventures means trusting babies to do what they wish, their way, in their time. So, our baby receives a consistent, profound message from the people who matter most to him…he is interesting and capable, and we wouldn’t change a thing.

The adult:

Does less… learns much more… is surprised, amazed and inspired… enjoys the ride.

Adventures like these are parenting gold – the secret to enjoying our job and the inspiration needed to carry us through even the longest of days. These are precious opportunities to leave our hurries, worries, all our agendas behind and enjoy now.

It can be difficult to step back and let your child take the lead, but in this way you will observe and learn from her. You will discover with delight that your child has many inherent abilities that might have been missed if she had not been allowed to explore in her own way. With practice, this relaxed sitting back becomes easier. Magda Gerber

For a demonstration of the benefits of baby-led adventures, here’s a video I’ve also shared in Infant Play – Great Minds At Work and Baby, Interrupted – 7 Ways To Build Your Child’s Focus And Attention Span. Please check my YouTube channel for other vivid examples of independent play.


resizedearl and baby maddie (2)(Photo: My baby’s adventure that day led her to dreamland. She led the dog there, too. I could only follow through my imagination…)

I share some simple, open-ended toy suggestions in 7 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play:


Read more about this unique approach in my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by peasap on Flickr)


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

  1. Janet,

    I love this. The benefits of baby led play are so great, for both child and adult. Such a wonderful reminder, and such a refreshing change of pace from all of the voices out there proclaiming that parents and teachers should play “with”, stimulate, and “show” young children how to play.I feel my shoulders relaxing, and am letting out a sigh, just reading this piece, and remembering my visit to your RIE parent class a few weeks ago. Yes, we can relax, enjoy, and trust our babies and toddlers to lead when it comes to play, and our attention is enough- we don’t have to do more, or exhaust ourselves and insult our children by taking on the task of “teaching” them how to play. They know, and they will show us…

    1. Lisa, you know I agree, and it was a great relief for me to learn from Magda Gerber about babies being natural “self-learners”. Trusting my babies has been the key to enjoying parenting…and helped my children in so many ways. I thank my lucky stars every day for receiving Magda’s great guidance.

  2. Great post & thanks for sharing. I’ll share this with my mother who is coming to visit at the end of this year. She is going to be looking after Azharia (4.5 months now) while I’m at work.
    By the way, I have a similar pic to that! Azharia on the mat with Sassy (our golden lab) nearby. We don’t have a playpen for our baby though. Sassy knows not to step on Azharia’s mat. 😉

  3. Janet, this is a beautiful post. You write in such a clear and articulate way, crystallising the most important aspects of parenting. I love your blog…
    And that video just brought tears to my eyes “Hi mommy, I love you mommy” – what a gift that is for any parent, especially spoken unprompted and with genuine feeling.

    1. Meg, thank you for such kind, supportive words. The video brings tears to my eyes, too. And this now 9 year old boy still tells me he loves me all the time…especially when I’m dropping him off for school or camp or soccer practice or a friend’s house. Right in front of his friends and their parents he kisses me and says, “I love you!” It blows me away.

      Another thing that amazes me when I watch this video is that this is a boy who teachers allow to stand up while he works because he is so energetic! This is a guy who can surf all morning, jump on a trampoline for 3 hours and then play intense soccer or basketball until dinnertime. It stuns me to remember that this bundle of energy was able to sit and focus on puzzles at 2 years old! Cultivating the habit of self-directed, uninterrupted play is something you will never regret.

  4. Janet, it’s just crazy that you are writing about this as I was starting to formulate a blog post about the same thing after a wonderful experience with a baby I was caring for the other day!

    We were outside and I followed this still-crawling baby as she made her way to the sandpit with purpose. I consciously decided to just observe… slowed my breathing consciously… and this marvellous moment unfolded where she teetered on the edge of the sandpit (still crawling), eased her legs over the side, leaned forward and then tried over and over to stand in the sand. Fell on her face a few times, but after looking startled got her self back up on the edge. And finally, for a fraction of a second, stood alone for the first time!

    In the course of this I had to stop another carer from ‘saving’ her by physically holding out my hand and saying ‘stop!!’. I tried to give this well-meaning woman a potted lesson on RIE and learning to wait… but I don’t think she got it.

    Sigh… I wish everyone would do a bit more reading about their profession. It was a magic moment which could so easily have been aborted in the name of ‘safety’. Safety? The only danger was a mouthful of sand, which the dear little thing managed at least twice without being unduly alarmed.

    1. Aunt Annie, I’m glad we’re in sync. 🙂 Thanks for your perfect example of the beauty of baby-led adventures. It is so hard, but so valuable to refrain from “helping” in these situations.

  5. love this.
    and that video is sweet-beyond-words.
    the “hi mommy… i love you!” reminds me so much of my guy… it makes my heart burst it’s so cute.

    some of my favorite moments are watching dylan play, read or just *be* in his own little world – totally satisfied to be there, doing what he wants/needs to be doing when/how he wants to do it.

    there are certainly times when he wants me with him, playing with him but i always take such pride and pleasure in the fact that he can be with himself comfortably, too.


  6. Another priceless post, Janet! And I just ordered Alexandra’s book – thanks for the link!

  7. hi Janet,
    I’ve recently discovered your blog and am an avid fan! I have a qstn – I completely agree with your points above, but I’ve got into a bad habit with my 1yr 10 month old. Whenever we play with play dough – she wants me to produce smthg ‘a heart’ ‘a sheep’ etc whilst she sits and passively watches me. I’ve tried to get her to play with it herself and not rely on me, but to no avail. Any tips on how to undo this? in other areas of play she is much more independent. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Sharon and thanks for reading! My best advice, always, is to be honest, “I know I used to make those things for you, but I’m done making them… I’m just going to roll the dough from now on” (or “feel it in my hands”, or something like that. :)) Then you have to be willing to let it be a “boring” time together. Don’t coax her at all. The more you try to work these things, the more resistant the child usually feels. Just hang out and roll or sit quietly with the dough in your hands. Do the same with drawing, sandcastles, etc. It’s too intimidating for most children to do those things if the parent does it so much better. And, in fact, young children experiment with the “feel” of materials for a long time before they are ready to make stuff. Please let me know how this works out….

  8. Hi Janet, You know I’m a fan! I was wondering if you think it’s possible to go too far in this direction. Even though my son is very happy directing his own play and can do so for over an hour (with plenty of quiet support from me), I occasionally read an article about say, the importance of finger plays for infants and I panic that I’m not playing patty-cake enough or something… Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Hi Lainey! Fingerplays, songs, stories, books are all wonderful ways to play together, but rather than allowing those adult-led games to interrupt the precious flow of your son’s play, I would do them during transitional and “care-giving” times. For example, Patty Cake at the end of his diaper change or a book and song (with fingerplay, if you like) before bed. I’m a strong believer in doing these things if and when you enjoy them, rather than out of a feeling of duty. If they become part of the routine, your son will soon begin initiating and asking for them. 🙂

  9. Hi Janet I have only recently found your blog and been introduced to RIE and I must say a lot of it really resonates with me and makes beautiful sense! I have to admit I’m having a little trouble with the concept of child-led play though. I also take with the attachment parenting style which highly advocates baby-wearing and letting the child experience your day with you. They also advocate high touch less STUFF (so in that way the concepts are similar) and I’m not sure how the styles would mesh. A lot of what I’m reading about RIE makes total sense to me but AP parenting does as well and while a lot of it cohabitates beautifully I’m not quite sure how these work together. Maybe just because I haven’t seen it in action? Any advice?

  10. Hi Janet,

    I feel really sad, as I was not actually leaving my boy to play on his own, I just seems he wanted to be with me all the time – crying and crawling towards me, as he grew older I was unable to do anything at home as he just wanted me, or so it seems, may be I was not giving him right activities. He is now a months short of 3 y.o and there is no way he would be able to do a puzzle like that and the attentions spam…well not really that long. Just wondering what can I do (like I have not done “enough”), but get that word in the right meaning of RIA to encourage him to be more self sufficient, what activities would you suggest I offer him. Many thanks in advance!

  11. Comadrona says:

    What a darling little child – you must miss those early years even though it sounds like he has grown up just as sweet. I couldn’t believe the concentration and lack of frustration – really interesting!

    1. Thank you, Alison! He is still a precious and affectionate child…a major athlete now. Regarding his lack of frustration, I’ve come to believe that we cause this through our own impatience or concern that our child will get “stuck”, etc. If we just let what IS be (the way children naturally do), they do not feel pressured or frustrated.

  12. Hi Janet,
    I’m fairly new to RIE and have been reading many of your posts recently. I have been trying to implement these practices with my almost 11 month old son, but I’m struggling with the independent play. He was an extremely colic-y baby from 2 weeks until almost 6 months (clean bill of health from multiple doctors), and so I was rarely ever able to just ‘leave him be’ as most of the time he was actively screaming and crying, and so I was trying to hold and soothe and be there for him. Unfortunately I did not have much help at the time while my husband was at work, and so most of our days passed like this until others in my life were able to help.
    As a result I find he is very clingy with me, and if attempt to have him play on his own he will cry and scream unless I am in the play area with him. Then, he is constantly looking for me to make sure I am still there, or crawling on/over me and pulling at my shirt and crying for milk (even if he was just fed very recently – so I know it’s not hunger)
    How can I get him to have some time of more independent play and not look to me so much for reassurance, considering that is how the majority of his life has been spent?
    Thank you for any advice you can give!

  13. Janet, this article is just brilliant. I have for a long time understood that what babies need is room to explore. I am a scientist myself with 4 bright and inquisitive children.
    I am just so pleased that someone other than me thinks that children don’t need toys but a responsive, understanding parent to share their amazement as they explore their world.
    I think some parents might think it sounds like child neglect when you say “allow your child to occupy themselves”. Of course there is a huge difference between ignoring a baby and giving them freedom. Your article makes that beautifully clear. Thank you so much. I have shared your post on my facebook page and hope many of my customers will read it and learn to understand their babies better.

  14. Long Fei Han says:

    Hi Janet,
    I am a first time mum. I have a 11.5 months old baby. He has a lot of attention from his family plus grandparents. He has always been parent led and hovered around and now I think he doesn’t know how to play by himself and he needs me to play with him, be with him and find new things for him to play. I also find he has a very short attention span where he will not play with one thing for more than a few seconds. He doesn’t want to finish anything and he seems busy all the time. I stumbled on your blog today. I was wondering if you have tips to change him to be able to play by himself, concentrate on things better and not cry whenever I try to walk away from his playing area but at the same time not feel like I don’t care about him anymore? He is ok as long as someone is with him doesn’t have to be me.

    Thank you so much in advance
    Fei Fei

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