Free Play

Over the past few weeks we have been having conversations with lots of people about what it really means to play freely, and what free play is. And why it’s so important. And how to make sure our babies get lots of it. And maybe that we get some ourselves. And why… Can you tell this is one of our favourite things to talk and write about?

More and more research is being published (and hopefully much more is being conducted) that talks about the value of play for children’s development, learning and later life choices. There are many ways to talk about and define play. Our understanding of Free Play comes from the work of Dr Emmi Pikler and later Magda Gerber. And it seems we need to clarify what we mean by this :)

What is Free Play?

We believe there are three key elements to this kind of play – three things that identify play as free:

  • It is self-initiated. Humans have the innate need to play. Babies seem to know what they want to play with, how they want to go about it, and what challenges they are ready for. Self-initiated play means allowing the baby to start their own play in their own way. Without suggesting the toys, placing a new rattle in their tiny hand. Sounds easier than it is done, and we have found this one to be particularly hard for a lot of people, especially parents of newborns and small infants – we often, almost intuitively, want to entertain, to provide, to suggest and to offer toys. If instead we let our babies explore on their own, we can find that what they see as play is not what we would do at all – but we can so easily get drawn into their incredible world of discovery.
  •  It is self-directed. When a toddler runs to us with a cup in his hand, it is nearly impossible (Anna still learning this one!!!) not to jump up and say: ‘Oh, are we having tea?’ But maybe we’re not having tea. Maybe that cup is a flying saucer, or a duck (that’s right!), or maybe he was running to you to tell you he knows what colour it is. Here is the time to explore one of the many ways to use the magical parenting word: wait. Wait and see what happens. Wait for the discovery that your child is making right now to happen, and the joy to appear on his face. Wait for his ideas (not yours) to flourish one after another. Join in and follow, but try not to lead. Be the cast, not the director.
  • It is self-paced. When enough is enough, let it be. Try not to encourage one more try to reach that ball, one more stretch. Babies know how to set their challenges, and in time they will learn to pick their battles, and learn how important it is to know what they can and cannot do. And when. When it’s nearly time to go and they are still engrossed in play, warn them in time, so they are given a chance to finish.

Why is it so important?

If play is self-initiated, babies have a chance to discover the world at their pace. They know their bodies and their interests at any given stage better than we do – after all, they get to live with them. And by letting them choose their own play (even if sometimes we are not sure what it is they are doing, and feel like we would have a better idea of what to put on top of that basket… you know what I’m talking about :)), we are watching as they learn all about their own interests, passions, about the world around, their bodies and set up new and exciting challenges for themselves.

If play is self-directed, our kids have a chance to learn about their own interests, but also limitations. They are able to explore their imagination to its fullest, without us giving them ideas and guessing what it is they are trying to do. They are given a chance to surprise us.

If play is self-paced, we are letting them stop when they want to stop, or change direction when they need to recharge or focus on something else – they are learning when to keep going and when to move on to something else. When to take a break. And when to call it quits. We cannot learn it for them (sometimes we can learn it from them though!)

Mama Nadine just had her little baby Mona two weeks ago, and she is once again discovering the joys of watching a newborn play :) How do your babies play? What is their favourite thing to observe, explore, attempt to do right now? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine

The Healing Power of Play

One afternoon Antek woke up from his nap, had something to eat and went to play in his room. I peeked in to see what was going on, and I noticed he kept throwing his teddy on the floor, then picking it up and throwing it again. He doesn’t usually throw toys, so it had me wonder. I moved closer and was listening. ‘You fell down. It hurt’ he said picking the teddy from the floor. ‘Do you want a hug?’ A little break and the cycle went on again. And again, and again. Until he had enough and moved on to play with his cars. Later in the evening, my husband told me Antek had fallen down on the playground and cried for quite a long time – nothing major happened, but clearly it had upset him quite a lot.

It is often difficult for children to express what they feel. It is probably often difficult for adults, as well. But there is a lot going on emotionally we are working through all the time, and we need tools to deal with it. For children, one of these tools can be FREE PLAY. Free, that is self-initiated, self-led and uninterrupted (as intended by Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber). Of course going through big emotions more often than not requires our (adults’) help. Again, it does not mean to leave the children alone at all times, and let them figure out the world without our guidance – it simply means to be sensitive to when and how to allow play to be a healing tool without jumping right in with our assumptions and expectations.

Given time and space, children, scratch that – people, who are nurtured and whose needs are met, can on a lot of occasions work through their own problems in their own play. Or in their own way. We talk, if we can. We doodle on a piece of paper for hours. We kick things. We scream. We run, or go outside. We lie in the grass, go hug trees, go for a swim. Kids also work through their emotions in a way which helps them cope and understand.

If nobody steps in to stop or ‘help’ in the process, the play itself can sometimes become a self-organized therapeutic tool. There were definitely some emotions with Antek falling down that day. He got hurt. He didn’t like it. He was surprised how much his knee hurt. Had anyone stepped in to stop the throwing, or to ask what happened, the process of going through this could have been stopped.

We have both seen it happen with our children, and time and time again it is incredible to see how capable they are in working through their feelings, fears and doubts. How does the healing power of play work, when we look at FREE PLAY as a tool for dealing with emotions? Here are two things we have noticed:

Understanding and re-living reality

In one of the videos from the Pikler home, there is a scene with one little boy who keeps hiding his toys up really high, where he can barely reach them. He then walks away, looks at the shelf, and comes back to try and reach for the toys. He does that several times, always making sure he cannot see them, and then always returning to make sure they are there.

This little boy, we were told, had not been there for too long. It was still the time when Pikler home was an orphanage. His parents, who could not care for him at the time, came to visit him every week for a little while. After they’d left, he immediately went to play his ‘game’ of hide-and-seek.

Why is this interesting? Perhaps because of the amazing connection this little boy was making between his parents disappearing every week, to appear in the next. Perhaps this game helped him to understand reality, and reassured him that things that go out of sight can be brought back. Perhaps he was testing the permanence of objects, which had affected his life to such a great extent – his parents were constantly in and out of his sight, after all.

Practicing to deal with fear

We have already talked about Antek’s fear of planes, and how he managed to combat it by practicing getting into and out of the plane, sitting down, preparing his bag (http://mamas-in-the-making.com/2012/10/our-boys-and-their-toys/). Going over some things children are afraid of, or have doubts about, often appears in play as a way of making them familiar.

A lot of our fears are born out of a fear of the unknown. If we know what is coming, we can prepare – which is why talking to our babies (even very small) through the events of daily life helps so much in the long run – it makes the world a little more predictable, and through that, less scary.

In their play we often see children doing something over and over, repeating certain actions – sometimes we can make a clear connection to a real-life event (like getting on a plane, or going to the doctor), and sometimes it is too abstract for us to see. But if we manage to allow our babies to develop the habit of free play, they will also use it to deal with their fear of the unknown – by finding their own ways of making it known and familiar.

Have you noticed your child dealing with emotions, fears, or reliving past events in their play? We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

Janet Lansbury talks about ways to encourage free play as a tool for self-therapy here.

 

 

 

BCF 01/13 – “Loving Hands”

We would like to kick off this new section of our website with a wonderful book by Frédérick Leboyer. Not only has he introduced “Birth without violence” – the importance of which we both from Mamas  in the making can’t underline enough. He has also written and photographically documented a traditional Indian baby massage in his book “Loving hands”

Topped with some wonderful poem like quotes he describes The Art of Indian baby massage all Indian mothers use with their babies and teach their daughters to give their babies.

But this book contains a little more behind all the words and pictures. It’s the focus on our hands. How we gently, soft and loving touch the baby’s body. His soul. It is something also Emmi Pikler has talked about a lot.

“How different the picture of the world is for an infant when calm, patient, soft but secure and firm hands touch and lift him – and how distinct this world will look when those hands are impatient, rough or hectic, restless and nervous.” (Emmi Pikler)

And this is it. Not only during a baby massage or close cuddling should we take the time to touch our baby calm and gentle. We should do so every time we get in contact with him. 

“In the beginning hands are everything for the infant, they are the human, the world. The way we touch him, pick him up, dress him: that is us. precise and more characteristic than our words, our smile, our look.” (Emmi Pikler)

And so Leboyer’s “Loving Hands” is a wonderful introduction for an additional connection with our baby through which we can become even more aware of our hands and the way we touch another person’s body respectfully.

What are your thoughts on Baby massage? Has s/he enjoyed it? Do you think it has helped or supported attachment and bonding?