Starting the toy revolution

Our views of the play area and things infants can play with have been evolving quite a lot over the past two years. Please read this with an open mind – these are our thoughts, conclusions we have come to, and general musings on the subjects. We are going to talk about the most popular baby things, and suggest that maybe we (and our babies) don’t really need them all. Maybe, actually, they don’t need any of it. Just a possibility…

A lot of these things are so engraved in our image of childhood, we no longer question whether we need them, wonder what they actually really do to our baby’s development, or whether they are appropriate for a given stage of development. Our wallets are taking a hit as well, which, for new parents, is really really not necessary.

It seems much easier to imagine simple play objects for older babies and toddlers – there is mud, sticks, boxes, all the fun stuff. But for infants it is hard to think of something simple, and toy makers pour their products through our mailboxes and windows. We don’t want to deprive our babies of the necessary experiences, when all we hear is how crucial these first months are, and how important it is to provide the ‘right’ kinds of toys and environment.

And if you do end up questioning how necessary these toys and all the equipment really is, you may end up as ‘the weird parent’, or ‘oh, you’re one of those’. So, for all of you who do not fear being ‘one of those’ – we salute you. For those, who do – we understand you!  And for those who need some encouragement in thinking critically about the eternal truths of marketing gods – we intend to provide some food for thought. Here goes.

So, what are these things ‘everyone’ takes for granted? Let’s have a look.

Baby mobile

We had the baby mobile from day one, practically. It was hanging above Antek’s cot like a giant insect, a very cute one, given to us by thoughtful friends. Everyone had one. Seriously. How many people with babies do you know? How many of them don’t have a baby mobile? It didn’t even really cross our minds not to get one – amazing, isn’t it? The second we take something for granted we don’t even question it anymore. It doesn’t occur to us that we could question the status quo. Hmm…

We started reading more into Pikler & RIE philosophies, and came across a post by Janet Lansbury ( where she recalls Magda Gerber’s words: ‘Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs and leave them alone’. Take the mobile off the bed? I started wondering. The same evening a friend came over, looked at the baby mobile and commented: “Man, it’s like a giant TV above your bed. One you can never switch off. Cool!” Ouch. Actually, I remember thinking the same thing. In the before-baby world, that is. Back when we questioned things a bit more. Maybe because we had more sleep…That evening our baby mobile found a safe home under our bed. Over the next couple of days the same fate was met by a number of different things. The room was decluttered. So was Antek’s line of vision. Suddenly, he started wriggling and moving much more, started exploring his limbs, trying out new moves. It was as though the baby mobile immobilized our baby a little bit. (Anna)

Baby mobiles are cute, they can be a lovely ornament in the room, and they keep your baby entertained. All the time. So…

Why not?

Baby mobile keeps your baby entertained all their waking hours – with the sounds, the movement, the colours and shapes. But look around the room – your baby has just arrived here from nine months in the darkness, surrounded by constant muttered sounds. Does he need more stimulation than he is already getting? The day and night, the light and darkness, the sounds around, voices of people that care for him, the fly that has just passed above his head, the sound of the kettle, the breeze, the feeling of his own body, the feelings of hunger, being wet, pain… With this much stimulation already in the air, the quiet time when your baby is not stimulated even more allows him to absorb the already complicated world around.
With the mobile above the baby’s head, your baby has no choice but to look at it. Very young infants cannot yet turn their heads. Even if the stimulation gets too much, they cannot choose to look away.
Introducing 24/7 entertainment can tire us (parents) out in the long run – once we accustom the baby to being entertained all day long, it will be very hard to change that habit. On the other hand, if we provide our babies with some time and space to explore on their own and play according to their own ideas, we are preparing a rich ground for future independent and creative explorers. “…[E]ntertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or, later on, wind-up toys or battery-operated items) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained and sets the scene for later TV watching” (Magda Gerber, ‘Dear Parent: Caring for infants with respect’)
Babies’ attention works differently than ours. Alison Gopnik’s (among others) research has shown, that they do not focus on one thing and disregard everything else around them like we often do. Therefore when they are looking at the moving, revolving, musical baby mobile, they are also, at the same time, taking in everything else that is going on in the room. It can be a lot to take (

If you bought, got or made a lovely baby mobile and really want it in the room – place it slightly further away, not directly above your baby’s head. So that, once he is capable of doing that, he can turn his head or body and choose to look at it, or not. So that he is not forced to look at it the second he wakes up. You can choose when to enjoy looking at it (or TV ) – why not give your baby the same possibility?

All-in-one toys

The toy industry is actually quite smart. They are nice enough to make things easier for parents. So it seems. Because instead of buying one toy that is bright, one that rattles or plays music and one for the baby to chew on when teething you can by them all in one! But by now you can probably imagine what our thoughts are on that. Don’t buy them 

These toys might make our life easier in the short run – seeing your mesmerised baby’s eyes staring at the blinking, rattling, flashing wind-up rabbit might let you sneak out to the toilet and lets you have a bit of a well-deserved breather. But if, like us, you want to be able to have that moment of calm also in the future, simple toys might be a better solution. So…

Why not?

Children are easily overstimulated. They discover the world step by step. In their own time. They want to understand what is what, what does what and what results do their actions have (don’t we all)? They can only learn and understand these things when they have a chance to discover toys or daily things one after another. And only when they are as simple as can be. Something that rings, blinks and shines in 3 colours at once is far too much to take.
Too much excitement might mean less sleep. When babies are overstimulated, they might have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. Calmer toys and environment make for a better nights’ sleep – for all of us.
Toys that are easy to understand allow for curiosity to develop. The ‘busy’, complicated toys, that are not easily understood by babies, can quickly trump their inner need to discover and explore. After all, what is the use of a toy that does all the playing by itself?

If you want something that makes sounds get a rattle that is easy to understand – from your baby’s perspective. Something the child can follow, and see where the sound is coming from. Maybe a wooden stick with (a) ring(s) around it? That way the child can see what is making the noise (rather than with those rattles that have some sort of material inside which only we – adults – understand as the “soundmaker”). So again – same as with the mobile – the child chooses when to play with something that jingles or rings. He understands what makes the sound (and how), and he can make it happen when he wants to. This also sets him up for being able to understand the world in the future – rather than the idea that the things around are mysterious, and there is no way of understanding the workings of the world surrounding him, providing simple objects to play with at the same time provides your child with something akin to what Gever Tulley of Tinkering School describes as knowability. A sense that it is possible to understand things around you and know how they work.

So, if, like us, you are keen to let your baby have simple play objects, get a simple wooden ring, a plain one, if you can find it. And see what your baby does with it. Babies are just starting to grab things. This action itself is their interest, their intention. It is their play. Watch the exploration and the possibilities of that simple thing. And pay attention to the time he enjoys playing with it – because of their simplicity, toys like that don’t go out of style. Sometimes they are put aside, but soon enough there will be new uses for them, as your baby develops new skills and abilities. Our sons still enjoy playing with toys from their early days, though, of course, in a very different way.

Now, we are not asking you to deprive your child of any experiences, on the contrary! But if you’re still unsure about toys (or play objects) that might be ‘too simple’ or ‘boring’ imagine every time you flip the page in a book it makes a loud noise. How long would you continue reading that book?

Baby gym

Also known as activity centres. Don’t these names make you smile? Look at your baby. Observe him for just a minute. Now lie down next to him and imitate EVERY movement he is doing. At the same speed. With the same intensity. And now think again about the purchase of a baby gym or activity centre. Does your baby really need a work out?

Why not?

As with a mobile those activity centres create rather passive babies. Surrounded by toys that they can barely grab but not take, not taste, not smell they will become frustrated and again possibly rather passive TV watchers.
Maria Montessori had already discovered the importance of “learning through our five senses, and particularly through the relationship between hand and the brain. In recognition of the building of the intelligence through this feedback loop of information from the hand to the brain and back again, Montessori stated that nothing should be given to the brain that is not first given to the hand.” (“Montessori from the Start”, page 60)

The challenge of simplicity

We are coming from a bit of a different view. We have been reading and thinking about the Pikler/RIE approach so much before Leander was born, that we didn’t place any toys near him at all in the beginning. It was difficult though. I kept wondering if that way I could be missing the moment for him to have those toys? That he would miss out? If everyone has it – is it really that bad? Should we not have it too? (Nadine)

Where do these thoughts come from? What do they say about us? In a time we question everything experts tell us and join every discussion on every major topic concerning our baby like breastfeeding, bottle feeding, vaccinations, co-sleeping… the list is endless

So most of the time decisions on mobiles or rattles seem minor. What harm can it do to my child if he has a mobile with cute bees dancing above his head? Sure, it will not be damaging. It might though be, as Janet Lansbury put it, counterproductive. Considering that early play creates the path for a child’s ability to play, to concentrate, to maintain a longer attention span, and to learn – maybe all of these obvious toys are worth giving a second thought? We are not planning to start a revolution… yet  But just imagine this for a moment: Your baby is happily lying on a blanket on the floor, exploring the soft piece of cotton you have provided for him. The house is peacefully quiet, and so is your baby. He is learning through all of his senses, his toys are simple. You know his attention span is increasing, his problem-solving skills are growing every minute, he is engaged, focused and his brain is developing at speed you cannot even imagine. You know you have provided the best possible environment, without spending all your savings (there will be time for that). And you have not given in to the marketing gods, who claim that all the stuff out there is exactly what your child needs to be this or that. Is that so bad a vision?

So maybe we should not just question every vaccination a doctor is suggesting. Maybe we should also question EVERY toy in the store? Wink, wink 

And now let’s play!

Now having spoken so much about what not to buy – let’s have a look at the fun side. We are parents after all. We want to have toys for our children because we want them too. What can we get? What can we play with when our child is engaged in shadow plays on the wall once again?

Here are a few things we would recommend – again – from our own experience:

Safe area
Your infant needs a safe place, where he can comfortably play. Consider gates, or a space where you can leave your infant when you go to the toilet. Some babies like playing in their cot. If it is true that infants in the beginning cannot distinguish themselves from their environment, it is especially important that we provide a safe and consistent environment – try not to change all the objects everyday. Keep some things the same, so your baby can get used to his own space, and feel comfortable to explore – it is the work they do all the time, and we need to provide a good environment for them to safely do just that. Again, imagine coming to work and finding your desk rearranged every day. Would be quite hard to do any work.

Cuddly blankies, pieces of cotton, cotton scarves
These are the best first toys for little hands. They are safe and can be used in a number of different ways. Provide your baby with a few cotton toys, and see how many different uses he will find for them, and how long he can manipulate them for once he begins to be able to grab and hold them! They are also good because there is no way ain infant can hit himself with it. Make sure the pieces of cotton are large enough not to fit into their mouths, and not long enough to wrap around their necks.

Net balls or Oballs
Those are balls a baby can grab. He won’t get frustrated that it rolls away the second he touches it. They are light and allow transferring it from one hand to the other without dropping it. Again – toy industry has been very creative and found a way to build a rattle in those Oballs. So make sure you get one without!
The Oballs are also good for teething since the material is very flexible and babies can squeeze them and chew on them.

Plain wooden rings
These are really just great for teething. Make sure the rings are simple, not painted, not varnished to avoid toxic materials. Get a box of them in different sizes – your child will love those for a loooong time.

And just to give you a taste of how wonderfully an infant can play with such simple toys, have a look at Leander!

More great reading:

‘Dear Parent: Caring for infants with respect’, Magda Gerber.

8 thoughts on “Starting the toy revolution

  1. Great post! Love the thorough explanation of each piece of unnecessary equipment. The challenge of simplicity as you suggest is sometimes so difficult to protect given the various ways playthings come into our lives. I find myself often trying to balance appreciation for the generosity of others and our preferences for specific types of toys. Have you ever been gifted toys that are not in line with your beliefs and how do you negotiate that?

  2. Marisa…

    Yes, and it’s a tough one. There are a lot of feelings involved – yours, your child’s and the person who has, no doubt, thoughtfully chosen the gift. If the gift is not something potentially harmful (I consider any contraptions that limit movement harmful – we were close to being gifted a walker once, luckily never happened) I always let our son play with the toy when the guests are around. It is important for them. What happens after they’re gone is your choice. We tend to keep some of the toys around for occasional visits ;) but by now most of our friends and family got used to buying books rather than toys, as they have noticed our strange taste in toys ;)

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  5. Great post! If I might add avoid standing activity centers as well as those floor ones–overstimulate protective reflexes, create compensation patterns, and overall detrimental to “normal” development on many levels!

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