Playing through the first 3 months

We love to play. In fact, this website is our playground – one of the many we have. And since play is something we both love and care about, we decided to approach it methodically (doesn’t that sound fun? ;). This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts about play at different ages and stages of development. We will kick off, originally, with infants 0-3 months and then move on to older babies and toddlers. We would love for you to join in, with your ideas of play, your memories of your own play and that of your children. We are no play experts – we can merely recap for you what we think, and what we have observed so far !

Let us know if you like what you’re reading.

Playing through the first three months (or – what is this ‘play’ everyone keeps talking about?)

When we hear the word play, the first connotation of this word are children. In fact, play is what is suddenly everywhere when you have a child – playthings, playgrounds, playgroups. Suddenly it all becomes to be about play. But what is play really? What does a newborn need to play? And how do infants play?

What is this ‘play’ thing?

Tons of images come to mind when we think about play. Children playing in the sand, making mud pies; role-playing; pretend-play… With all of this in mind, it is very hard to talk about infants playing. If we conceptualize play as a form of specific activity, it is difficult to imagine a 1-, 2- or 3-month old baby playing. After all, what kinds of activities do infants engage in? We want our babies to play, we want to see them play, but do we know what to look for?

Essentially, we all want to understand the world. And more than the world even, ‚we are the species that needs and wants to understand who we are’ (Anne Lamott). We want to understand ourselves and our loved ones and be a part of their world. So when it comes to infants playing – we want them to play, but we also want and need to understand their play, and so also perhaps participate, encourage. We want to do all those things that will make us a part of their world, and them a part of ours. But this understanding of how we see our infants play needs a bit of shift, in our humble opinion. We need to let our infants play and to be able to comfortably do that, we need to know how to understand play. If we see play as an activity, we will usually need to ensure that infants engage in an activity that we validate as play. We may feel the need to ‚entertain’, to make our babies giggle, make sure they are having fun. We may stimulate. And in doing so, we may not allow their own play to develop. But why?

Maybe it would be easier for us to see infants at play if we reframed how we understand play? What if, instead of thinking about play as some kind of activity, a game, or ‘having fun’, we tried to think of play not in terms of its content but its mode. What if we saw play as ‘an approach to action, not a form of activity’ (Jerome Bruner)? It might be more similar to the way we think about ‘playing with ideas’ – it is a way we discover, explore and engage with the world around.

Putting it this way, we are no longer confined by the belief that we need to help our babies play, but rather we are free to observe how they play. And yet, we can begin to grasp what playing is for them. How they play. What if we started conceptualizing play in terms of exploration, engagement, discovery? Because surely, even at later stages of life, this is what play is essentially about. Only at these later stages it also has a form (or content) that is more familiar to us, that we can relate to, that is more to do with the world around us and with what we know. With mud-pies and role-playing. But during those early months it seems to be about mode, and content might only come into play later on… If we define play as an approach to action, an engagement in something with an open mind, ready to explore and discover and open to possibilities, chances are we will see our infants playing practically all the time. And we will be enchanted. We might even join in…

Free play

Emmi Pikler said that play is a child’s inner need just as movement is. It’s an inner drive. A must. No healthy and cared for newborn would just lie on his back not moving, not looking around or not “playing” at all.

Dust particles, shadows, a moving curtain, the sunlight on the wall, flying arms and legs – which only later will be discovered as their own – it’s all part of a baby’s play. And this is the key. If we allow that, if we sit aside instead of “in front” we can observe the “origin of free play” as Emmi Pikler called it. Because that’s what it is. The play with their hands – opening and closing them, moving them into eyesight and out again, touching one hand with the other – is the actual preparation for the play with objects. In the same way the infant will then later grab a toy and move it above his eyes, let it fall, pick it up and give it from one hand into another. This is why this early form of play is so important and why every child should be allowed enough time a day to play that way. It sounds so simple, but it’s not.

One big rule of free play is that it has no rules. The child is leading and following his own ideas. But above that hovers one greater rule – Don’t interrupt! And this is a wonderful rule, a chance actually, because that way you can learn to read your baby. You will get to know his ways of playing, what he enjoys, what interests him. Isn’t that how we learn most about a person?

What can we expect?

Infants from birth to three months are only getting used to the world around them. Everything is new, and so, in a way, the possibilities for discovery are endless. If we allow for uninterrupted self-initiated play we will quickly learn what our child likes to engage in, what interests him most, what kind of character he has. The biggest part of their play is usually discovery of their own body – you will notice the movement, the fascination with their own arms and legs. Imagine how amazing it must feel to discover that you have control over your own body! The development and refinement of senses is also a constant stimulus for exploration. Voices, sounds, faces, details on the wall, a moving branch outside the window – all of it can become an endless point of focus for a newborn. It is a magical sight to see an infant engrossed in an activity. It’s possible. But we need to provide the time and space for it to happen.

Allowing all of this to inspire our child will also allow us to see the world through their eyes – a truly powerful gift, especially on a day when we forgot how wonderfully exciting everything around us is.

Once we realize the amount of physical, cognitive and emotional development babies do in the first year, the need for us to provide external stimulus fades away. Do they really need more to play with than what they already have?

When and how does play happen?

Modern motherhood begins with all sorts of appointments. Doctor’s check ups for the baby and the mother, postnatal gym classes to which the babies are invited, breastfeeding classes, playgroups and not to mention restaurants and coffee houses because modern moms don’t sit at home all day anymore. This is great, we can and should go out and we are not suggesting you should lock yourself in. What we are suggesting though is just be aware of how much time in between all those appointments, feeding sessions, diaper changes and naps a baby has to play happily and self-initiated. Play, just like anything else we fully engage in, takes time. If we believe that play is a creative process of discovery we need to allow it to happen. (a wonderful talk on creativity – where he mentions time twice! – by John Cleese can be found here: The fascinating thing is – babies tend to do all these things kind of naturally!)

Free play is only possible if the child is rested, fed and all his needs are met. It’s not something they “just do in between”, especially not, when we would love them to (e.g. when waiting for an appointment, in the restaurant, in the car etc). Quite often parents say: “He will not play on is own for only a minute.” This is the moment we should stop and think about our day, our routine, our expectations. This does not mean that it’s our “fault”, if the child is not able to play independently. It just gives us a straw to pull on. Again think about it as a creative process – imagine writing an article, solving a problem or coming up with a good idea in those ten minutes you have between cooking and doing the laundry…

Another point is that we should still be present. When thinking of free play we often have the picture of a little baby playing happily while mommy is cooking dinner in the kitchen. While these moments do happen, we should not expect that but rather sit down and observe the child. Especially in the beginning babies just want us “there”. And this is the fine line between being there, being present, listening to him and playing for him, entertaining him, leading his play. This is what Magda Gerber refers to as ‚wants nothing quality time’. I don’t want anything from you. Just to be here, get to know who you are and watch you play.

Parenthood is a great opportunity to throw the TV out (at least for a while, if not forever). Because watching your baby, observing his play and allowing yourself to get engaged in his world can be such excitement and entertainment that no TV show can compete with.

What is your idea of play? What were the most grasping and eye opening moments for you during those early months? Join our playground! Play with us!

More reading…

„The Origins of Free Play“ by Éva Kálló and Györgyi Balog (published by the Pikler Institute Berlin)


3 thoughts on “Playing through the first 3 months

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