Boys don’t cry

sensitivityOne day, when I picked up Leander from kindergarten, I watched him ride a scooter around. Another boy ran into him with a tricycle and Leander fell. It wasn‘t bad, he didn‘t hurt himself much but still he cried a lot. Another boy watched the situation and then came over and said: “You know what I do when I fall?“ “What?“ I asked. “I don‘t cry!“ I was stunned and angry at the same time. And felt somehow sorry for that boy. (Nadine)

 


Boys are tough.

Boys wrestle and play football.
Boys are loud and wild.
Boys don‘t cry.

Right ?

Isn‘t that what society has in mind? What people think of boys? Don’t boys generally get a different look from those around when they cry, than girls?

But instead of serving this picture – wouldn‘t it be great to have a boy that is allowed to cry? That wants to cuddle up. That rather sits back and watches other kids run around and play every now and then? A boy who knows it’s ok to be happy AND it’s ok to be sad. That it’s ok to run around and be wild AND it’s ok to sit quietly in a corner when you’re not in a mood for running.

Well the good news is – maybe you can have both! How? Raise him like a child, not like a boy.

We have been talking about respect a lot. And about sensitive children in general. About acknowledging emotions, allowing feelings to come, responding to a child‘s needs. If you do this you will most likely raise a child who is used to express his feelings and capable of acting in a way that feels his own and not what others expect him to be. It’s hard sometimes, for both you and him. It might be different to what the people around are doing. You might be told you’re raising him like a girl. But he’ll also be grateful one day that you let him own his feelings; that he knows what it means to be happy, sad and angry; that he understands his emotions and when he grows older they won’t overwhelm him.

What the boy mentioned above probably heard from his parents (or peers) was that he doesn‘t need to cry, that he should be tough, be a boy! What he might lose then is his healthy sense of his own feelings and pain. So you might end up with a child that falls, gets back up and keeps running. Great? On the surface, yes. And of course, there will be times in life when he will have to do exactly that – get up and go like nothing had happened. But…

What about when he gets older, meets other people, falls in love? If he is not able to grasp his own feelings how can he understand others? How can he live a healthy relationship with someone if he‘s not capable of saying what he might need, if he does not even know that himself ?

Think about your daughters for a moment. Wouldn‘t you want them to fall in love with a boy who respects her feelings, who is gentle and caring?

But it‘s not about the people he might meet and fall in love with. It‘s also about himself.

Most boys are taught from an early age to act tough and repress their emotions. In particular, sensitive boys learn to deny their real selves in order to be accepted and approved of by their peers. This denial can create fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem. (Ted Zeff, “The strong sensitive boy“)

But won‘t my boy be bullied if he is so sensitive ?

We think – No! By acknowledging, understanding, respecting, responding and empathizing you provide him with strong self-confidence. If he is always allowed to express himself exactly the way he feels right now, if he is always accepted for who he is he will learn to be able to stand up for himself and protect himself. And he will most likely attract and gather around people who are more like him – sensitive, understanding and empathic.

But he is a boy after all – shouldn‘t he be allowed to run around and scream ?

Of course. We are not saying you should raise him to be sensitive instead of loud and wild and … well … boyish. But these things come naturally. Just as we don‘t brush away their feelings we also don‘t force them to be quiet and still when they want to jump and down and sing “Oh Maddo hadda farm eehaaeehaahooowww !!“ from the centre of their lungs.

When Leander enters the backyard of the building we live in some people quickly close their windows. In the U-Bahn quite often I am looked at as “Can you not tell him to be quiet?“ He needs activity and lots of body movement in order to calm down at night and sleep well. But he also needs a long cuddle and quiet space to be whole and happy. (Nadine)

Our task is to provide both. Love and understanding, empathy as well as action and wild play. But coming to think of it – isn‘t that what our recently born girls might need too ?

We‘ll see.

Do you think boys and girls should be raised differently? How? We are looking forward to your thoughts on this one!!

Nadine & Anna

Further reading:

http://www.positive-parents.org/2013/04/parenting-highly-sensitive-boy.html

“The strong sensitive boy“ by Ted Zeff

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/201201/the-highly-sensitive-boy

 

 

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

No risk, no fun

The other day I was at the playground with Leander who had just started enjoying the slides. So he was busy climbing up the frames or walking up the slides. At some point I watched a woman standing behind him, holding her hands to protect him – my son – from falling down. When he was up there safely she walked around and stood at the bottom of the slides – to “catch” him. As I was just somewhere between stunned and surprised I didn’t say anything, just watched her. Leander went down the slide and she helped him get off. While she did so her own son – age 6 or 7 – climbed up the frame. Slipped. And fell to the ground.

It was a very strange scene to watch. And obviously it did lead to the conclusion that this mother has – with the same behaviour she exhibited towards Leander – saved her own son from taking risks and – in the end – led him to experience such accidents later. If we are always around, surround our kids with the safety of our hands and arms and hinder any fall – they will not learn to estimate heights and distances, risks and what they are capable of doing. And what not. When in a new situation, they will look to us for help. But what if we’re not there to save them? And of course, we cannot always be.

This does of course not mean we let our children run around and not care at all. Streets are dangerous. Stairs too. Here our gentle guidance is inevitable. There is a middle ground between too much control, and none at all – even though in the media (and on some parenting forums!) it would appear that our choices are ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘helicopter’ or ‘neglect’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘permissive’, there are in fact a million shades of grey in between. We believe the same is true for risky play.

So all we have to do is to provide a safe play area for kids to explore. In the house, but also outside. We try to choose playgrounds that are made for children our age; use a stroller for long distances along big roads; provide a safe area in which our boys are free to explore. Because only then, once they are free to explore without our constant worry or our ‘saving’ arms, they are free to really learn. And this is when we can step back and learn to trust.

Learning to fall, Learning to trust

Risks are part of the game. As soon as babies begin to move around freely they start taking risks. They roll over one side without knowing what will happen when they are on the other side – on their belly. Their head is still heavy and difficult to control, and usually the first rolling over is followed by a bang on the floor or surface underneath. A crucial moment. Do I jump in and support him, place blankets and mattresses everywhere so he won‘t hurt? Or do I let him learn the Art of Falling? It is not an easy moment for babies and parents, but this is when we make big choices – how do I want my child to feel in the world? Confident and able or helpless and uncertain? And if I ‘save’ him now, am I saving him from all future falls? All bad decisions? Or…

The head to floor distance grows as the children grow and develop. First it is tiny, there might be a bang on the floor when they hit it for the first time, and of course this upsets them (and us!). But if we gently observe and explain, we will see that the second, maybe third time there is indeed… no bang at all. We will be left to admire how skilfully our child has figured out how to support his head, so he doesn’t hit the floor. How they gently pull the shoulder backwards, work those neck muscles, lift the head a bit higher, hold it at just the right height – this is truly art. And to know your own body so well is empowering, and so it gives them courage and confidence to move to the next step. So the earlier we start letting them learn to fall, the earlier we can learn to trust them. And allow them to learn to trust themselves – what a great gift to give, don’t you think?

Let them choose

First step in an unknown situation is usually: Do I WANT to try this? Do I want to climb up there at all? In other words – Am I ready? And we can’t know if our child is ready – only the child knows that. Only he knows if he has the courage, ability, strength and will to try this thing he’s never tried, and only he knows if he can try it right now. You see many parents arriving at the playground, lifting their kids out of the stroller and leading them around the space. “Come on, let‘s slide. It‘s fun!“ Without even once asking the child if she wants to.

When letting your child choose for themselves they might not look at the slide for a long time. This was the case with both of our boys – long looks in the direction of the slide, but no clear sign that they feel they want to go ahead. And then, one day, they walk over and have a closer look. Often the steps up are much more interesting than the slide down. So they start climbing up. If the steps are small enough for them they might go up all the way. If the space between steps is too high, they might try and try. Might struggle and complain. Or simply step back down. All of this is ok and part of the process. Part of learning what they are capable of. And what not.

We shouldn‘t talk them into doing it. All we can do is narrating. ‘I see you want to go all the way up there.’ Quite often this is enough. No need to comment that it‘s too high, they are too small or “not ready yet.“ All of this would discourage them and judge their capabilities that – seriously – we quite often underestimate. More often than not they know better than we do what they are and are not capable of doing.

If the child comes back down – we don‘t need to comment on that. Because she just went back to her own safety zone – she knew what she needed to do to feel safe again. If she won‘t come down but starts to cry or complain you can continue to narrate: ‘You are trying really hard to get up there. I see that.‘ And at some point she will ask for help or we offer help by asking: ‘Do you need my help?’ Usually they want help that moves them up. But that‘s not help, that‘s dangerous. Because this is jumping developmental steps – she will be higher than she can get to herself, which means she will have no idea how high she really is. And you will have taken away from the success that is yet to come and be her own – climbing all the way up by herself. Because surely, sooner or later, she will get there. When she is ready. Simply take her down and explain: ‘I will take you back down now because you got stuck.‘ And then see if she wants to try again or run off and do something else.

Don’t instruct

Imagine you climbed a really long ladder to paint the walls in your house. You are up there and suddenly you feel unsafe. You want to come down but the whole thing is shaking. Your legs are shaking and you are scared of bending down because the ladder could fall under the shift of weight. Down at the bottom of the stairs you see your partner, who says: ‘Just take your right foot one step down.‘ and grabs it. Don‘t you want to yell at him ‘I can‘t! It‘s too shaky!‘ and at the same time shake off his hand from your foot? Because from the safety down there on the ground this person can‘t possibly feel the fear you are going through up there. And even if he can – he would certainly do things differently on the way down. He might take the right foot first, you‘d prefer the left. He might take two steps at once. You want to go one step at a time. Always starting with the left. Very slowly. He might jump the last 3 steps. You will not relax until you are down on the floor.

If a child is allowed to climb up somewhere on his own once he is ready for it, he will find his way of getting back down at some point too. Until then – we do not guide. Not explain what to do. We‘ll simply offer help and take them back DOWN.

Let them be, but not alone

So the golden rule is to let them explore without leaving them alone. To be there but not in their way. To watch and observe without distracting them.

Our balance is partly situated in our inner ear. ‘Balance is a choreographed arrangement that takes sensory information from a variety of organs and integrates it to tell the body where it is in related to gravity and the earth.’ (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=21685). Balance is a combination of what the work done by your ears, your eyes and your brain. It is our inner instinct to shout and yell “Be careful!“ or “Watch out!“ But it‘s exactly these moments when children do fall. Because at that very moment they stop being careful. Because they heard us shout and turned their heads and attention towards us and away from what they were carefully doing. Because we are taking away the attention of their ear, which should at that moment be busy balancing.

The more you watch your child carefully the more you will learn that in fact he is taking care of himself. So don‘t just step back and let them be. Watch from a distance. Surround them with trust and jump in when they do fall. Help them out of a difficult situation when they ask you to.

Learning to assess risk is learning to judge reality; it is learning what we can and cannot do; it is, above all, learning what to do in a situation when we don’t know what to do. This is a great skill, one that is useful in just about everything we can think of. Knowing how to look at dangerous situations and figuring out what to do to stay safe is definitely something we want our children to learn. Knowing when it is worth making that extra step to the other side might be one of the things that will determine how they fare in life. Essentially, knowing how to take risks means also knowing how to stay safe… most of the time. After all – sometimes risking in life is exactly what allows us to go where we need to go, and maybe find our own path.

Man cannot discover new oceans, unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. (Andre Gide)

For more reading on risk go to:

Aunt Annie’s fabulous website and read these fantastic posts:

http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2011/10/reaping-rewards-of-risk.html
http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2012/03/turning-parents-on-to-risky-play.html

http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2012/06/good-news-about-risky-play-where-magic.html

and also:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/aug/03/schools.children

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/risky-play-is-good-for-kids-even-if-they-break-an-arm-researchers-say/article4615207/

 

 

Play at 3-6 months – Age appropriate toys

Your baby is on the move. He is crawling, rolling, looking for new possibilities and opportunities to explore. We have found this a little challenging in terms of providing the right, age-appropriate toys, that would not ruin our budgets, or limit the curiosity of our boys. Here is what seems to have worked for our little explorers.

Having spoken about swings and bouncers or activity centers and suggested to take those away in our recent post - what could you place there instead?

Maybe nothing? 

Remember that movement is play. Practicing to sit, to crawl or stand up is not just hard work. It is play after all. Nothing else is needed to help your child train those muscles or movements.

Maybe something simple?

Your child is moving around much more, this is play in itself, but there is also time when the interest in objects comes in play – right about now . You might see much more curiosity than before in reaching out and grabbing objects, checking out their different qualities, trying what can and cannot be done with them. First you may notice interest in one particular object – the simpler the object the longer time your baby is likely to spend with it. Open-ended toys, those with no purpose stimulate imagination. The toys you placed around him when he was still tiny are good for a start here!

Pick something simple and spend some time with it yourself – play! You might be surprised, but the longer time you give yourself, the more amazing and creative things you will discover about a simple wooden ring. Is it heavy or light? How does it feel in your hand? What sound does it make on the floor? What about on another object? Does it taste good? Is it pleasant to suck on it? Can you roll it? Can you thrown it? Oh look, here is another one – are they the same? Can you put them together? What if you bang them? What if you try to put one on your foot? What about the shadows it makes on the wall…….

Possibilities are endless!

A box (or laundry basket)

A very low wooden box allows children to follow their need to crawl onto or into things. The wooden box can be placed both ways around. First we would recommend to have it (in our eyes) upside down – so the baby can try and crawl onto it. Once she achieved that she will face the challenge to get back down. Therefore the box should be not too high. It can be an old drawer or an easily timbered box. Whatever you have on offer. The box can be extended with a ramp where the child can crawl up (and down). All these movements are simple play.

Later you can turn the box around so the child can crawl in. That way she can experience space and how to fit in (or not).

The box will be interesting for months. Even years. The child will then walk onto it, jump up and down. He will roll objects up and down the ramp extension if you have one (a good plank will do the job as well – safely attached). And you will be surprised what else your child comes up with when playing with, on and in the box.

The need to climb is a very strong one, and it is developmentally appropriate. It would be counter-productive to stop your child from doing it – instead try and provide something she can safely climb onto.

Other ideas we have used include:

  • Cups, bottles, baskets etc. – everything that can be stacked, things can go into it, some are bigger and some smaller. The discovery that two things are identical is an astonishing one as well – have more than one of something and see what happens in time.
  • Things that move – in our households cars have been the biggest hit for a long time. They will last forever, too.
  • Household items – no need to buy much, you can pick the safe things you have at home. This way also makes the baby feel like he really is part of the house – he gets to help with the real stuff!

„Do less. Observe more. Enjoy most.“ (Magda Gerber)

Have you learnt anything watching your baby play? What were the most exciting moments for you? What toys or play objects were among the favourites in your house?

We would love to hear you thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

The deal with baby walkers.

Most people we know have had a baby walker. Or a Bumbo seat. Or a swing. Or a bouncer. They have become so omnipresent in the lives of our growing babies, we don’t question them anymore – are they good? Do they support our babies development? Do we need them?

What’s the big deal with…

… baby walkers

Walkers have been banned in Canada since 2004 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3609723.stm). Due to a high number of injuries walkers are no longer legally available in Canada, and anyone who has one is advised to ‘destroy it and throw it away so that it cannot be used again’ (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/child-enfant/equip/walk-marche-eng.php). As far as we know, this is the only country so far to have banned walkers. Are they crazy? Is this too much? What do you think?

Some time ago there was a huge recall on Bumbo seats (http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/story/2012-08-15/Bumbo-infant-floor-seat-recalled/57068158/1) – a safety issue, similar to the one often raised when assessing the safety of walkers and other devices that keep babies in a position they are not yet ready to be in by themselves (like standing or sitting). The solution to the Bumbo seat issue was adding straps, to keep the child even more securely placed in a position, which his skeleton and muscles are not yet ready to support by themselves.

The problem that is raised (the same that led to banning the use of walkers in Canada) is that these devices tend to be misused, placed on high surfaces, or that children are left in them without supervision and accidents happen all too often. While we agree these are the immediate dangers, we would suggest that the reason for abandoning equipment that places a child in a position into which she is not yet able to get independently is much more long-term.

So, while we cheer the Canadian government for banning the walkers, the idea that they be replaced by stationary activity centres is not exactly what we would have in mind when designing an appropriate environment where your child can thrive.

So really, why not?

First of all, why do we go for the walker? Because they are there. Because once our babies start crawling, their world expands, sometimes dangerously (playpens and gates are a great antidote to that). Because our neighbour’s child has one and seems so happy in it… There are probably many reasons why we go for the walkers, bouncers and swings.

And here is what their manufacturers tell us, just to make this decision even more difficult:

“Learning to walk has never been this much fun.”

“[…] activity walker will guide your baby towards his/her first steps…”

“maximises your baby’s development”

“keeps little ones entertained for hours and encourages their first steps”

Now, let’s have a look at those claims:

  • Baby walkers are usually recommended for the children between 6-12 months. This is when you will see your child learn to roll and crawl, move from crawling to sitting and back from sitting to crawling, learn to kneel, and then pull up to standing. All you need for this to happen is your baby and the floor. None of this happens in a walker.
  • A study reported in the Journal of Developmental Pediatrics (http://journals.lww.com/jrnldbp/Abstract/1999/10000/Effects_of_Baby_Walkers_on_Motor_and_Mental.10.asp) shows that out of 109 babies between 6 to 15 months, those who were placed in baby walkers sat, crawled, and walked later than those who were not. (That’s just for those who are concerned with the idea that baby walkers ‘maximise your baby’s development’ as suggested above, or that they will ‘guide your baby to their first steps’).
  • The same study suggests that due to the placement of legs in the activity centre – below the surface so that babies cannot see them – the use of baby walkers should be ‘conceptualized in terms of early deprivation’. Because this kind of experience prevents the baby from seeing his legs while moving them about, it does not provide a situation babies would be in normally.
  • How do we learn to walk? Let’s think for a moment about the claim that walkers can help your baby learn how to walk. To be able to walk, we need to be able to have both feet flat on the ground with no support. We need to be able to balance on one foot lifting the other one up. We need to be able to move forward, changing the position of our feet. None of this happens in a walker, where a baby is dangling in a seat with a whole lot of pressure on his spine rather than on his legs.
  • And finally, going back to Canadians – injuries… do we need to say more here?

So, is it worth it? We don’t think so, but we are fully aware that not all of you will agree.

While walkers in our opinion in fact hinder gross motor development, there is another problem that makes us want to ban them in all countries in the world. They hinder the ability for a child to engage in free and uninterrupted play.

But it‘s not just the walkers. There are more devices we think are rather cheaply bought coffee breaks for parents, than long-term enjoyable play items.

These are swings and baby door bouncers.

  • With the bouncers we don‘t want to go into the injuries and health and safety talks too deeply. A baby that is not yet able to sit up by herself, has no strength or sense of gravity for the kind of position s/he is in while in the door bouncer.
  • The spine is not supported enough, but bounced up and down uncontrollably. After your baby has been lying on her back or stomach for most of the time, seeing the world not just upside down but bouncing up and down in front of her might seem like fun. But it can result in even longer times of uneasiness and distress. The child can simply not process what has been happening and therefore will likely seek support from his parents. Which means longer and more intense times of looking for comfort after all the ‘fun’ spent bouncing. We are not sure if that is what parents, who “need a break“ and place their children in bouncers have in mind when doing so.

The real problem we see with bouncers and swings is that they take the chance of the baby to engage in independent playtime BY HIMSELF. They are simply devices we (adults) use to “have a minute“. To shower, do some cooking. Have a coffee.

All of this is fine since we are human beings and not 24/7 entertainers. But what we actually create is a spiral that makes us become exactly that entertainer. Because children grow. They grow out of swings and out of bouncers, out of walkers and activity centres. They need bigger and more age appropriate entertainment. We can‘t strap them into some seats or devices any more. They want fun. Fun that moves around and satisfies their need for action.

What they have never learned by then, is how to satisfy their need for play and entertainment themselves when Mommy says: “I am really tired and need to sit down for a second. I will be with you later, ok?“ or “I feel really sweaty after that night, I need a shower and then we can go outside.“

So yeah. Everyone has a swing. And yeah – it works. Parents can cook, have a coffee, take a shower without interruption. But these are moments we enjoy. And in all honesty – like with all moments, they don’t even last all that long. Instead we should make sure that we can create times for everyone to enjoy. At all ages. By allowing free play from the very start. The swing won’t always be there for our child, and the ability to independently play, create, explore and examine is the one thing we can allow our children to develop that will last them forever. We don’t even need to buy anything extra to do that – all we really need is some space, a lot of trust, and time.

Now, we know this was a very long read, but we would love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

http://www.dynamicchiropractic.com/mpacms/dc/article.php?id=15476&MERCURYSID=8380b16ce0247e70f6c705c50cc4a92f

http://www.vancouverspinecarecentre.com/childrencentre/23/

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/04/sitting-babies-up-the-downside/

http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/the-dangers-of-baby-walkers/

(Free) play and (free) movement – How does it happen?

In this post we will talk about what helps uninterrupted play, what are the necessary conditions and what we found useful with our 6-12 month-olds. In the following posts we will talk more about what kinds of things hinder free play. And maybe badmouth baby walkers. Just a bit.

We want our children to play freely. We all want them to be able to engage in an activity for a longer period of time. We want them to be able to do it for their sake – to develop creativity, critical and analytical thinking, concentration span – but we, as parents, also want this to happen, so that we can sit back and relax, rather than constantly feel like the entertainer. If we create an environment and conditions where free play can happen – it’s a win-win situation. By allowing our child to play without interruption (our interruption as well), we are empowering him to be the leader, the inventor, the discoverer, the explorer. So how can we do it?

How does it happen?

What has changed? Well, not much, except your baby is getting bigger, and his space should be getting bigger accordingly. So what does he need to help him develop in his play? Here is what we think, though in no particular order.

  • Space: By 6-12 months, if your baby has been allowed to move freely, you will see a lot more movement than before. The mastering of rolling back and forth, as well as rolling to get to places; crawling; maybe pulling up to standing (we say maybe because some children are faster than others. Please don‘t get the imagination that a child that age SHOULD have developed those milestones.). The safe space for your baby needs to be big enough to let him practice all these movements, but secure enough not to have you worried what will happen if you go to the toilet. We have already suggested playpens, you could gate off some parts of the room if you are not keen on the playpen itself – this way the more dangerous places will be safely out of reach. This creates a good place for exploration, but without the need to constantly keep guard, and significantly reduces the use of ‘no, don’t…’. If you feel confident that your baby can explore the space you have created for him, chances are he will feel the same way about it. If you do decide to use a playpen, it has been suggested that once you notice your baby pulling up all the time instead of crawling, it might be that the space she has for exploring is not big enough.
  • Stuff: Now what ARE appropriate toys your child enjoys during this period? That encourage him to develop in their own time? We are going to mention these in an upcoming post where we talk a little more about WHAT free play at this age really is.
  • Emotional security: We have talked about it and this part does not change for a long, long time. Focused attention in times of care allows the baby to be filled with it and ready to let go of you in times of play (though remember that we need to learn to let go as well…).
    But emotional security is not just about those intense care moments during the day (and night). A baby that has engaged in an activity for almost an hour yesterday might not enjoy it today. Because something is different. Teeth might be coming. Mom and Dad might be in a different mood and the baby is sensing it. She might have had a bad dream or the world is just completely upside down. Remember: „Every child is different. Every day.“ (Lienhard Valentin)
    Plus – if the baby needs you apart from those care moments. Be there. Even if you are cooking and the baby needs you right now. Acknowledge and explain, understand the feelings, do what you need to do and then provide what he needs. „I hear you are upset. I am right in the middle of this task and then I will be right with you.“ And then BE right with your child. A child that can trust you in being there if he is upset but is not constantly interrupted when struggling with a task that she might be able to handle herself will be able to engage in free play much easier than one that is scared of being left alone for the whole time now until Mommy is back.
  • Self-confidence and the ability to play: Learning how to play takes time. Lots and lots of time. Good news here is, that it is not an innate feature of character, we can watch our babies build it, and we can help them on the way. Apart from the three important aspects of free play mentioned above, we believe that one of the key factors here is free movement.

Movement and play

There is a sequence of movements you will see your child go through as they grow and develop (we will talk about this a bit more next time, but for those who have not yet seen Baby Liv does a great demo – you can check it out here.

Each of these movements is unique, each needs to be mastered to go to the next stage. Each of them comes at the time when your baby’s bone and muscle structure is ready for it, but also when his confidence in mastering the previous step has ben fulfilled. Pushing him to go to next level when he is not yet satisfied with what he has just learned (like sitting him up before he can do it, or ‘walking’ babies before they are ready) might send this message: “You are not doing enough”. Surely, none of us would want to say that to our baby, who is not even one year old! Instead of waiting and anticipating, enjoy what he is doing – it will come (all too soon most likely).

Learning about movement is like learning a language – you need the letters, to form the words, to form the sentences, to build a metaphor, to tell someone you love them (and know what it means), to write a book about it. It is less important when you will master which step, but much more important that you have enough time to practice it, and that the order remains unchanged.

Movement as play can still be seen in 6-12 month-olds. But from now there is an additional layer to the importance of free movement in the development of play – children start using movement to get to play with objects. We have all seen this scene, when a baby is sat up and plays quietly with an object, which suddenly rolls away. The play is over – he is stuck in the sitting position, he didn’t get there himself, he can’t get out. He cannot continue playing. The parent needs to come and rescue him. Instead, if we allow babies to develop in their free movement, their ability to play freely will be developing alongside of this. Gaining more and more confidence in their movements, babies learn how to get to places they want to get to, and how to get the things they need. Even when the ball rolls away, they know how to roll, crawl, or creep to it. Free movement is therefore a necessary prerequisite for free, uninterrupted play.

I think when we put it that way, it makes sense, would you agree? Of course they have to learn to move by themselves to play by themselves, right? And while we know we should trust our babies to do all that by themselves, and we know they will learn (after all, there is no child that crawls to school on their first day, right?), the industry makes it really hard on us, parents, coming up with millions of things our babies absolutely need to … play, learn, move. We will talk about it in our next post.

In the meantime – enjoy your babies play!

Nadine & Anna

* Big thanks to my friend Elena Marouchos for the talks where the idea of movement as language was created… (Anna)

** While we support free movement with all our hearts, and believe that all healthy children will get there in time, we understand that the concern is very different when it comes to babies with delays. However, the wonderful work of Monika Aly and colleagues in Germany has been consistently showing that giving babies with delays the freedom of movement brings huge improvements.