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“There are certain things children are obliged to do, but in play where there is no obligation, they come to something new and fresh. Play is a trying out experimenting. It’s not a joke, children don’t play for fun. They play for real, and adults don’t understand that; they laugh at what children do. To children, play is very serious.” –Educator Margaret Flinsch
Imagine you and the grandparents are taking your 14-month-old to the beach for the very first time. For days you’ve all been enjoying fantasies about how you’ll share the magic with your baby: making sand castles, finding shells, sitting under an umbrella with a yummy picnic lunch, holding her hand and wading in the ocean together. But then you get there and your toddler chooses to do something surprising and a little bit odd — it throws you for a loop. She’s in no danger, isn’t bothering anyone and is obviously following her desires, but you worry… Is it okay? Should I try to engage her in the activities I’ve planned or just let her be (and if so, for how long?).
Infant specialist Magda Gerber would strongly encourage you to let go of your expectations and agenda, relax, trust, keep an open mind and enjoy your baby’s play, allowing her to continue her self-chosen activity for as long as you can. She’d suggest you take advantage of the opportunity to join her on this child-led adventure (which Magda referred to as “wants nothing” quality time).
“Most of us are used to, and conditioned to doing something. “Wants nothing” time is different, more a time for taking in and waiting. We fully accept the infants’ beingness just by our own receptive beingness. Our presence is telling the child that we are really there and aware.” -Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
Self-directed play encourages toddlers to be independent thinkers and learners, allows for creative exploration and self-expression, and often serves as play therapy since our babies instinctively know what they’re working on (or working through). Honoring our child’s choices rather than imposing our own validates more than any amount of praise and adulation ever could.
Here’s the vivid example that inspired this post, sent to me by a mom in my RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class after she returned from a late summer vacation…
I just have to share these pictures with you. To everyone’s amazement, Eva just kept lying down on the sand! She would just lie there and hang out by herself. My parents were sort of shocked and like…’what is she doing?’ I was thinking Magda would be proud and that her actions were a testament to what I’ve learned at RIE…just to let her be her!
“This is a free-flowing space in which the child should not feel he has to perform, because the parent is not sending out the kind of demanding messages that say, ‘I am here now, what shall we do?’” –Magda Gerber
“If the infant seems to ignore you and is doing something completely on his own, don’t leave. It is very comforting for him to know you are there, really there, without any pressure to have to do something to keep your attention.” –Gerber
“Do less, enjoy more.” -Gerber
“In play, there’s no time.” –Flinsch
I share more about infants, toddlers, and self-directed play in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Besides being an exceptional mom, Tracy is an uber-talented artist and fitness guru)
I LOVE those photos! That child has captured a sense of freedom which many adults have lost.
Simple, true message- and precious pictures that speak for themselves! Thanks for posting this!
ahhh!!! i love these photos! Eva is clearly following her bliss, and what a wonderful mom to allow her just that!
Ah, ha, I know this is a comment by you, Elizabeth…Your loving momma
I could not love these photos more. Thanks so much to Tracy for sharing them. We are taking our toddler to the beach for the first time in October (she will be 14 months). Now that I’ve seen these, I am even more excited to see what she comes up with.
such a beautiful moment. i am sure many adults wish to do “silly” unexpected things at times but are forced, usually by themselves, to conform. it is nice to see children who have not yet been taught that they must conform!
Hi Janet! Hurray for play. It’s amazing what kids (of any age) will do when they or we shut off all the devices, instructions not to mention highly structured lesson and practices! Well, it shouldn’t be so remarkable but unfortunately often seems so in our new social media environment. I’m always a little sad when another parent finds it surprising when kids create and explore on their own…
Hi Polly! Yes, hurray, hurray! But even without so much structured time, don’t you think parents generally believe (especially with the first child) that we should be playing with our babies? Which usually means the baby follows and we lead, or at least have a big influence… I know that I believed those things before meeting Magda Gerber.
Love this. Thank you.
Great pictures! I love the long expanse of wet sand.
I’m thankful that my daughter is at an age now (near 2 1/2) when my watchfulness can be a bit more hands-off. She loves exploring and bringing me things. Lately we closely examined some neighbors’ garden rocks; before that it was cicada husks and carcasses. I must say I prefer the rocks.
This post has really challenged me. I have to admit that I would be the parent saying, “OK honey that is enough lying on the ground. Let’s go splash in the water now!” It is not that I don’t value child-led play, but I would have had trouble recognizing beach-laying AS play, and would have been focused on getting my child to choose from one of the activities I had been fantasizing about. But your post has gotten my gears turning…
Thank you, Lisa. I love, love, LOVE your honesty. I think your feelings are shared by many.
I love this and would love suggestions how to encourage my husband to appreciate the importance of “allowing [the child] to continue her self-chosen activity for as long as you can. ” When playing with our 2.5 yr old, say, with blocks, my husband is constantly trying to show the boy “look! look what we can do with these!” rather than just letting the boy do with them what is in his own mind. My husband has all the right intentions, wants to make it a really rich play experience for the child, but I think he doesn’t need to butt in until the boy has shown signs of running out of his own creative gas. Thoughts appreciated.
Hi Connie! Dads definitely need the space to develop their own relationship with their kids. But, unfortunately, the dynamic your noticing can sometimes discourage the child from making things himself… Daddy or Mommy can do it so much better! My educational tactic (with just about everyone) is modeling and providing examples… Like making sure to mention how difficult it was not to help your son with the puzzle or blocks, but being happily surprised by the results of your patience.
I’ve often shared about the toddler I observed playing with a puzzle…the kind with little handles for each piece. Rather than put the pieces in the puzzle as she “should”, this little girl balanced the pieces on top of each other — quite a difficult task — and managed to stack 4 pieces. That took far more “skill” than putting the pieces back where they belonged, and it was a great lesson in the power of letting go and “trusting the child”.
Thanks for the input. I think he tends to agree in theory but in practice he isn’t even aware he’s derailing the child’s self-chosen activity. Which makes it sort of a more difficult situation to rectify since he doesn’t really realize he’s doing it. Not the end of the world but still.
Its easier for me to notice when my husband does that than when I do it. Its going to happen sometimes, and a little input now and then is OK. As long as you provide the child with “wants nothing” time, its all good. Not every play session needs to be like that. Its just as important that dad forms a confident and solid relationship with the kid. So tell him your suggestion, or forward a link, then let it go. He’s not going to screw the kid up.
I actually empathise strongly with Connie here, and I don’t think it’s merely a matter of ‘ He’s not going to screw the kid up’. (though I def see yur point Julie! Dads have their own special daddy bonds with the kiddies!)
Hi Janet, my nearly 3 yr old daughter “seems” to never actually be playing. I’m a bit confused by her free time choices. She likes to stand on the living room couch and bounce or just watch stuff. The couch is like gravity to this girl. I have no idea. We will be outside watering plants or playing sprinklers and she just disappears through the dog door and sure enough, just hanging out on the couch. Toys don’t seem to hold her interest for long. As long as she is content, I don’t interrupt but I have a beautiful backyard and a lovely playroom with a swing and even a couch but she prefers that one couch. What’s my move here?
Thank you for this. I needed this validation!
Thank you from a mom who feels constantly she’s not doing enough play and activities! Love the reminder to let them be and honor their choices. Great photos!
You’re welcome! It was a big eye-opener (not to mention relief) for me to realize that initiating and directing play with my children was not part of my parenting job description. Yes, our children need our undivided attention for periods of time each day. No, it’s not up to us to make a plan for these time periods other than being fully present.
SO GREAT!!!!!! LOVES THESE SHOTS AND THE QUOTES…. SO FANTASTIC. THANKS FOR SHARING!!!
I love the photos of the bubba lying on the sand. It makes you wonder what it is that’s she’s feeling or seeing. Is it the feel of the wet sand on her back, the change in perspective, both or something else. Perhaps adults need to play more too 🙂
Sarah, those are the kinds of ponderings I always enjoy while observing children play. That’s really the beauty of this… Not only is it freeing, educational, therapeutic and all around wonderful for this toddler, this is the key to parenting joy, too, if we can just let go and let it happen.
Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking…she was obviously relishing thatexperience and Id love to know whatwas so amazing about it!
Great post! I love the pictures, too. I really struggle with this topic as my daughter has developmental delays due to low muscle tone. She and I generally have a great time playing games together, but her favorite solo activity is to play with black nylon straps (on her backpack and her ergo carrier). She could play with straps forever. I struggle with the question of to redirect or not!?!! On the one hand, she is making great leaps since we started OT, but this is definitely not “age-appropriate” play. On the other hand, shouldn’t she be allowed some time to do what she wants without it being work! Is her desire to play with the straps because they are fulfilling some need (maybe fine motor practice) or a symptom of her inability to do more exciting activities because of her muscles. I wish I had answers.
Nanette, thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions. Since your daughter spends time doing OT, I would believe it even more important for her free time to be hers to use as she wishes. I have to admit that the term “age-appropriate play” offends me a little. Who are we to decide what kind of play is age-appropriate? Don’t our judgments defeat the very purpose of play? Shouldn’t play belong completely to the people playing? If there’s anything in the world that shouldn’t be “one size fits all” it should be play, don’t you think?
So, my response to your questions (not that you asked…sorry) would be to trust your daughter 100%. Allow her to work on the straps and whatever else she’s interested in working on, even if it doesn’t seem important to anyone else. Allow her to achieve mastery whenever possible, through her own desired activities. She may not master all the things others believe she “should” by a particular age, but she will gain something far more important…self-confidence.
Exactly! What is ‘age-appropriate?’ I had all kinds of fun doing things that were too young or too old for me. I loved playing with dolls well past the time when most girls had put them away, but I also read classic literature instead of kids books. So, who’s to say what is age-appropriate.
Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
My wife and I totally try to let the self directed play of our toddler go on as long as possible. Not only does it allow him to explore his environment on his own terms and learn from his experiences, it makes for a bit of rest (and usually a laugh) for us.
On a side not related to your experience at the beach, our 20 month old son did exactly the same thing at the beach last month. He chased the waves in and out for a bit then laid down right at the high water mark and let the water come to him. We had planned on walking the beach as he never stops running, except this once.
Oh, and your daughter is way too cute!
Hi Janet, You definitely hit a resounding chord with this entry. I love it that we can scratch our heads and wonder why/what our toddlers are doing. And I love it even more that we can just let them be. LeeF
Me, too! Lee, do you still have your wonderful article about infant/toddler play spaces posted somewhere? I was thinking about it the other day. Would love to be able to link to it.
Love these photos! And especially love how the mom laid down with her – Do less, enjoy more! 🙂
I love this! When I first took my daughter to the park, I introduced her to the typical things for a small child, but she always went for the dirt. So I began bringing shovels and buckets. That’s all she wanted to do was play in the dirt. She now just wants to climb up the ladder. Over and over and over. She wants nothing to do with the swings, and only sometimes wants to go down the slide. Only if she gets there with her own two feet. So be it.
I have recently started following your blog and am absolutely intrigued. I enjoy it so much because most of what you write about I feels in line with our beliefs as parents. We have been doing much of it at home already, and all the gaps we have as new parents are being filled by experience and helpful insights from you (and other peaceful parents). Thank you Janet.
such beautiful images! i wish i could *be* that sweet baby on the sand, just for a few minutes. maybe i’m romanticizing, but she seems so, so content . . . i’m trying to remember the last time i felt that way. probably while hanging out with my own babe. who wouldn’t want to give her kid that gift? i hope i can remember to do it more often. your blog is such a great reminder, a re-commitment to the things i know i believe but sometimes fail to practice.
Thank you, Lindsay! “i wish i could *be* that sweet baby on the sand, just for a few minutes“…. I won’t stop you. 😉
The pics are so cute! I wish my daughter had been the same as this little toddler…mine instead decided she didn’t want anything to do with sand until we went to Maui recently. The first time she encountered sand was at 14 mths old…and she just turned 3 years old.
Although I was surprised she didn’t like touching sand at all…we let her be. We figured by 16, she’ll WANT to be on the beach, barefoot, with all that sand around her LOLOL!
Another thing I wanted to say: I often find that kids TEACH us a lot about how to learn and relearn many things – and obviously not from books. We really oughta listen to them and learn from them more often.
I love your blog and all of these topics and have been trying to put them into practice with my three year old. I feel there is a time for all of it, I think there is time for self direction, parallel play with us and play where we are truly interacting with time or offering structured activities. My daughter plays so much by herself now compared to prior that sometimes I feel oh I should be playing with her and engaging her, but I would like to remember the balance. There hardly seems time for it all.
Thanks, Kristin! I understand how the transition to allowing for more independent play for your daughter could make you feel as if you aren’t interacting with her enough. But this comes down (again) to trusting children. They always let you know when they need “together” time. When independent play is working, I would never mess with it!
It seems that sand is very inviting to the young toddler for just being. We just took my 16 month old to Hawaii and he enjoyed diving into a pile of sand somone else had left, sitting in a sand hole and just feeling the sand with his hands, feet and mouth. He also bent over to rub the top of his head in the sand. (and maybe to see the world upside down?) Instead of laying in the wet sand he did go sit there and giggle at the water coming up to touch his toes or go all the way to his belly. Watching him enjoy it all was so much fun for us.
Awesome 🙂 I have learned so much from your blogs. The beach is great. No chasing, no worries. Well, unless he eats a fistful of sand. Even then…the only consequence is that he’ll have really sandy poop the next day. 😉
Beautiful pictures…a lovely way to allow a child to truly enjoy a trip to the beach!
Thanks for sharing this.
I absolutely love this!!!!
Just found this website….I have a 2 year old and pretty much let her do what she wants at the beach, which usually means that I don’t get to sit & relax. She loves the water & wants to be in it & I’m not talking about in the shallow part where it rolls up to her ankles. She likes the waves that splash her face. So, we “jump” the waves.
Valorie, sounds like fun. But don’t feel reticent to set personal boundaries for yourself, like, “I’ll jump 3 more times and then I’ll just be watching you.” It’s always better to do this before getting worn out or annoyed.
Janet, this is the part of your posts that was a real eye-opener for me, especially to share with parents of my students. I teach in a Montessori classroom (which at times feels at odds with the free play concept), and I have pointed to your blog as our ‘guru’. When parents seem to be very adept at allowing their child freedom and space to be who they want to be, often they lack the ability to set boundaries for fear of interfering. I now can easily recognize this, and because of your posts, have been able to encourage parents that when they begin to feel they might get to the worn out/annoyed stage, it is important that they do set boundaries to take care of themselves–and not to worry that it will interfere with their child’s play and exploration. It can feel guilt-inducing for many parents to try this, but when they get it, it is so freeing! They get to enjoy being parents again.
I love this post so much, I just come back again and again to feel the joy. Thank you
I, too, am excited to take my little one to the beach this summer. I guess I better throw out all my expectation out the window. I was looking to buy her toys to build sandcastles. But, now I think I will just be sure to get some good sunscreen and just hang out at the beach maybe even collecting what ever little shells she can find. =) Thanks for the reminder of RIE parenting.
I wish my toddler did this MORE often! He always wants to be up and moving; especially near bodies of water. He does not have a healthy fear of water whatsoever, ha ha :p
Same here! He always tries to go deeper and deeper :/
This post makes me so happy! Beautiful baby doing just what she wants to. Thanks for sharing!
just remember the baby powder(magically removes sand from small people and big people)
That actually looks pretty fun! I have a 4 year old and I still need to be reminded of this on a daily basis. We went to Cape Cod on vacation and went to the beach every day. Its true most of the times kids don’t even do “typical” kids things most of the time like building sandcastles, collecting shells or playing in the water. Most of the time it was playing with slimy seaweed and burying himself waist deep in sand.
Janet, I have a question. I didn’t discover the concepts of RIE until very recently. My daughter is nearly 2. I’m totally guilty of interfering and showing her how to do things and teaching her to ask for help if she needs it. Now she’ll start doing something on her own and I’ll start going to prepare lunch, for example, but not a couple minutes later I’ll start hearing the constant asking for “help!” If I don’t respond right away or tell her to give it a try herself before mommy helps (or even give her verbal direction) she’ll sometimes try but more often resorts to whining “help” really loudly or saying “mommy do it”. this is generally with building blocks. What do I do at this point to reduce her reliance on me and get her to try to do more on her own?
Wow, was it ever neat to read this article and see the pictures, because I had virtually the SAME experience a few weeks ago. It was the first time on the beach this year for my son (2), and he spent some time just laying in the sand, like little Eva. He luxuriated, is all I can say, laying still on his back, looking at the sky, rolling around a bit…I was so surprised that it was one of the first things he did, before digging or picking up rocks. It was a beautiful thing to watch, and while I wished I’d had my camera, I was happy to let him have his ‘moment’ in peace. I too, a few years ago, would have thought it bizarre and likely interrupted…
Hi! I love this baby! which one of your books is more appropiate por children 3 -5?
Thanks, Paola! She’s adorable, isn’t she? I’d recommend No Bad Kids for your children’s ages. Here it is on Audio (linked). I hope you find it helpful.
I just happened upon this article and absolutely love it! This parental approach is becoming (I think) the defining philosophy of this post-millennial generation. Even before I really researched any one parenting technique (10 years ago now, when my oldest daughter was born), I remember thinking how different she was from either me or my hubby, and then I realized that I had to give up control and let her be her. She is now my best teacher, and I learn something new everyday, not just about her, but from her; she gives fantastic insight into topics I never dreamed we would breach at such an early age. I believe this to be because she is independent of my views and carries her own values and messages. So thank you for sharing this! It is such confirmation. BTW, those pics speak volumes about her character, and how she’s experiencing the world around her. 🙂