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.
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.
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.
I share some simple, open-ended toy suggestions in 6 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)