Teaching Babies Language (And Much, Much More) While They Play

If we want our babies to receive all the many, well-documented benefits of self-directed play, Rule #1 is taking care not to interrupt. But that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be responsive — quite the opposite in fact. Our infants and toddlers, whether playing alone or with peers, appreciate assurances that we are paying attention – subtle reminders that their self-chosen antics intrigue and even delight us.

Through sensitive observation and a little practice, we can learn how to read our child’s cues and provide these responses without interrupting, interfering, directing. Simple, brief descriptions of the things we notice our baby experiencing (hearing, seeing, doing, etc.) encourage inner-directed play to continue and also teach language in the most age-appropriate, meaningful, effective way.  Soon these experiential language “lessons” feel perfectly natural for both of us.

But I’m afraid this may be sounding way more complicated than it is. This is far easier to demonstrate than to explain (for me at least). So, here are a few brief examples…

(Also in this video: a boy beginning to walk; infants interacting in what could be perceived as conflict, but looks to me like an attempt to play together; babies saying words that are a little hard to comprehend just yet, but are the beginnings of words just the same; undeniably brilliant children! No actors were hired.)

Letting babies know that we notice and understand (especially when they “ask” by verbalizing or making eye contact with us) encourages communication and language development, their awareness, trust in their instincts, and forges deeper bonds between us and our babies. What could be more gratifying than knowing that mommy, daddy, teacher, caregiver are not only watching, they’re sharing the child’s experience? And they get it.

(I share more about connecting with children authentically in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)


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

  1. Not only does the video make it easier for you to explain, it makes it easier to understand & implement. Thanks!

  2. Okay! I’m glad to find out that its normal or even good to do that. Thats what I always do when my son is playing, he shows the things he does to me and then I tell him what he does. Now he’s 2 years and he knows very well how to talk. I was just wondering how I can let him know that when I want to do something for myself, like read a newspaper or a book, that I dont like him to constantly show me what he does and then expects me to pronounce what he’s doing…..
    Hope you can help

    1. Honesty is always the best policy and it’s good for your boy to know that you have needs, too, and can’t be totally available to him all of the time. Just know that he will probably not say, “OK, Mom, enjoy your reading. I won’t bother you.” He’ll probably object, cry or whine, but it you remain calm and confident about what you are doing he’ll be able to focus again on playing. Acknowledge his feelings, but not in a “poor baby” kind of way. Instead, say something like, “I know you want to show me such-in-such. I hear how much you want my attention. I’ll be with you again in a few minutes”. This works best when you have done it at least a few times, preferably at a similar time each day, so that it becomes routine.

      1. thank you! this added advice is great for my daughter and I right now. much appreciated. 🙂

  3. I love these videos! This one was just long enough to help me get the gist. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of providing helpful responses without too much interruption, but now I’ll be even more aware. Looking forward to putting this into practice this weekend. 🙂

  4. What a clear video Janet! Beautiful material that shows again the importance to keep on connecting and talking to a baby.

  5. I love this! I so agree with you…it looks to me like those 2 babies were learning to play together. Funny (or sad) how most people see it as conflict, especially when you can see how beautifully they resolved it.

    I also love how well this video demonstrates that “not interfering” does not mean ignoring. Baby and adult are so clearly connected and engaged!

  6. It’s really helpful to see videos of this – thank you for posting them.

    There are two things I find I struggle with. The first is very repetitive behaviour. For example, our baby is currently fascinated with dropping with things so that they spin at the moment – provide him a plastic plate and he will happily do this tens if not hundreds of times and I run out of things to say! The other thing that I find myself wondering about is when he is really focusing on something, I worry about distracting him which I have sometimes done.

    1. Hi Juliette! You’ll notice in this video that I comment only when the child looks my way and seems to be “telling” me about it, or is obviously experiencing something worth commenting on (like the truck sounds). You certainly don’t have to comment on everything your boy does while he’s playing! That can get tiring for both of you. Peaceful time together is good, too. If he looks at you after spinning plates a number of times, you might just nod and say, “I saw”, or “you did it again.”

  7. LauraCLeighton says:

    Love it! 🙂 My little guy has always been particularly fascinated by crows. A few months back, on a walk, he got quite a kick out of watching 3 crows playing. He’s been imitating animal noises for quite a long time now.

  8. So helpful to see RIE in action!! Great video 🙂

  9. So so helpful! Thank you for this!

  10. I have two daughters, one is 4 months the other is about 2 years and a quarter. We are kind of late to RIE with my first.

    The 2yo wants us to be with her when she is playing, not always to interact with her but to have our presence. The thing is she plays best when we are all busy and baby is out of sight/mind and not receiving attention from us either. She has free range of the house and back yard. We have an au pair who watches the two in the morning while I work out and then stays on until 4 on weekdays.

    The 2 year old wants our au pair to be close by and watching her play otherwise she doesn’t get into what she’s doing. On the au pair’s day off she wants me to be with her too but doesn’t have as high expectation for me as she knows I have other stuff to do too. Our au pair tries to read and sit some distance away from her, but our daughter doesn’t like it. She is fine when our au pair is doing something, e.g. tidying up, then she just checks in with her periodically.

    We also have an issue with the 2yo getting rowdy and trying to hurt us or the baby. Immediately after she causes the pain (if its too quick to catch) she starts crying and saying she needs a hug and to be comforted. It is very difficult to know what to do. When she’s being like that I want her to go away and play by herself but she gets more clingy and testy. Yesterday I gated her in her room and told her because she was having a hard time being with other people she should take some time to cool off and play by herself. Hysteria ensued.

    What could we be doing to better support her feel comfortable in her uninterrupted play?

  11. Tania Haskett says:

    How do we interact with an infant on a video call? Can they “pick up” on this?

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