Just playing?

This post is part of the Just playing series inspired by Childcentralstation.

Instead of us telling you about play – YOU are invited to watch play at its best. Observe the pictures and tell us: What do you see?

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What is happening in the photos?
Who are the players?
What materials are present?
What are the developmental values embedded – possibly – in the scenarios?
Why is any of this play important?

Three kids age 1, 2 and 3 discovered this gutter and small stones today. The obvious thing to do was… well throw the stones down the gutter. At the bottom was some rainwater left from the previous rainy days. They simply couldn’t stop.

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All three of them just played and made their own experiences. The stones. The holes. The water. Sounds.

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I almost forgot to mention a 35year old enjoying this play by simply watching the kids. Feel their experiences. Hear the sounds, the laughter, the joy.

Were they really just playing?

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A perfect balance of free play and care times

In response to our recent post (Free Play) we have received a few comments from people suggesting that allowing children to play freely, without our directions, suggestions and guidance (as in our example with the cup, when a child comes running to you with a cup and rather than prompt what it is, or suggest what to do with it you… wait) might mean losing out on numerous valuable teaching opportunities. We respectfully disagree, and here is why…

First of all, let us clarify this: we are not suggesting that children should be left alone to figure out the world, without our help, assistance and presence. Even in play, it is great if we can be around to observe and help when needed. If we can be present, we can then be invited to participate and follow our child’s lead, making sure that the game is their, not our, invention.

But then again – do children need our guidance in figuring out the rules of this daily game of life? Sure. Do they need our modeling of certain socially acceptable behaviors, and our help in acquiring them? Of course. But does this mean we need to do all of this guiding, teaching and modeling while they are engrossed in play? We think not.

Even with very small babies there are plentiful other opportunities that will allow us to do all that guiding, teaching and modelling, and yet leave their play to them. If we allow ourselves to see all those moments, we can then happily sit back and observe how they spread the wings of their imagination, and let the cup be a flying saucer, a turtle, or their best friend.

We believe that the moments of care (feeding, dressing, changing etc.) are those times when we can ask for collaboration and lead, while playtime is the time when we can step back and follow.

This allows us and our children to have the balance we want (and need). To connect in times when we need to be there. To guide and model, and ask for cooperation. To teach the rules of the game. But at the same time, play remains play. No hidden agendas, no teaching language, social skills, or numbers, no jumping the line.

Lead and ask for collaboration in care moments

‘Many people may believe – perhaps […] due to […] taking obedience for cooperation […] – that the cooperation of the infant and young child (in fact his obedience) is important […] because in this way, they can learn quicker how to dress, undress and wash by themselves; and once it runs in his blood in what order he is requested to reach out his hand and feet, he will stretch then out even before he is asked to; once he knows how to take off his T-shirt, how to put on his trousers, the time required for the care activities can be shortened down, and the child will become independent sooner. And by all this […] time that can be devoted to “more useful”, “more noble” goals: like being “engaged” with the child, playing together etc. can be saved’ (Maria Vincze, MD, ‘The meaning of cooperation during care dressing on the diapering table, dressing table, cushion’) [italics ours]

All too often we try to rush through moments of care in order to engage with our children in play. And all too often we want to be so engaged in our children’s play that it might become our play, or that play changes into fulfilling our agendas (like teaching words, letters, numbers etc.). If, however, we choose to see moments of care as equally valuable to all the other moments when we can be with our children, they provide a world of opportunities for all this guiding and teaching we want to do. It is in our nature to want to teach, and want to share what we know.

What can happen in moments of care, if we are fully present, connected and don’t feel the need to rush? We can teach our children:

Lots of language (possibilities are endless!)
How to cooperate
What is ok and what is not
Some social expectations
Respect for their own bodies (and, by extension, those of other people)
What our expectations are, and how far they can push the boundaries (and they can test and test and test…)
How to try again and again
How to approach a problem
How to enjoy being with other people
Respect

In other words, we can give them roots.

Follow and collaborate in play

If we do all that, or maybe if we realize that we are already doing all of that, perhaps the pressure will lift and we can give the babies back their sacred time of play. We will no longer feel the need to teach, lead, model and guide when they play – we are already doing all that in times of care, in those times that are equally valuable, and that provide us with endless opportunities to do just that.

So, is there anything we need to do when our children play? Yes – be there.

If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. (Rachel Carson)

If we are there, present and observing, waiting rather than jumping in with our hidden agendas, our children can learn:

That because they are important to us, whatever they are interested in is also interesting to us
That their ideas are valuable
That their ideas are not wrong, or inappropriate, and that they can share them with us
That dreaming is great, and making things up is even better
That there is not only one correct solution to any given problem
Taking lead, sharing and inviting others to join
Respect

In other words, we can give them wings.

So yes, we don’t think children need our guidance or our teaching when they play. They need our presence.

What do you think? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More interesting, related reading:

A recent article reporting a study on children’s response to directiveness of mothers in play (among other things) is here.
The link to the original article is here.
‘Ten commandments of play based learning’ from Emily at Abundant Life Children is here.

 


 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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 as movement

Having looked at what helps uninterrupted play and what might hinder it we now want to look at the fun side. What DO children at the age range between 6-12 months do? What are they interested in? What keeps them busy? In this post we will talk about different movements and positions you may have observed in your child, different ways of understanding play at this stage, and age-appropriate toys or objects. Happy reading!

 

 

A child at the age of 6 months is getting mobile. You might notice he is spending much less time now lying on his back observing his fingers. Your child will roll onto his belly. And back. Suddenly the world is upside down – or as they will soon find out – the way it really is. The neck strengthens and he will keep his head up for longer and longer times. That gives him the opportunity to look around more, follow you and your movements more. But also follow moving objects, which makes him want to follow with his whole body. And this is the challenge that will keep him busy for another while. Some children start creeping, others crawling. Some won’t do this for months.

Fact is – your baby is in motion. He needs more space, a wider area to practice all those new movements.

This is what you can expect to see or have seen (as far as movement and coordination is concerned) once your baby gets to this age range:

Movement (a.k.a. milestones – there are many more than you may have expected)

  • Lying on their back

Babies can spend an enormous amount of time on their back – try it yourself, lie down, get an object (or not) and give yourself enough time to explore everything around you. You might be surprised at how much you can see. We often have the idea that babies don’t see enough when on their backs (sometimes people place cushions under their head to help them see better) – but have a look yourself, and notice that if you use your head, neck, and shoulders enough you can actually see everything you need… and maybe more! One of the bonuses of letting babies lie flat on their back for as long as they want to is the intense neck exercise they set up for themselves in that position – if you do this, no tummy time is definitely necessary to strengthen their neck.

  • Lying on the side

This position is often missed at this stage if a baby is put in tummy time (read Lisa Sunbury’s excellent article on tummy time here and Janet Lansbury’s wise words here), as they do not get the chance to move into and out of that position on their own. It will probably be learnt later, but at this stage in development, a side-lying position is excellent for practicing balance (try!) and a little later for playing with objects

  • Moving from the side to tummy and back
  • Turning from back to tummy and back

In all those turning and moving positions you will see a lot of struggle and effort. That is because it is difficult. It is a challenge. Trust that your baby is capable of doing it, and trust your instinct on when to step in and help: ‘It seems like you have had enough. I will put you back on your back’. In the Pikler home, the nurses never rolled the babies onto their backs from the tummy position – they picked them up and placed them gently on their backs. This was so as to allow the babies a chance to learn that movement by themselves.

  • Lying on their tummy

Lying on their tummy using forearms for support (head up).

Lying on their tummy with arms stretched for support (now try doing that for a longer period of time and play at the same time – wow!).

Lifting head, arms and legs up from the floor (who said babies need more exercise?).

From this position (or any variation of it) you may see your baby pulling up to a half-sitting position (supported with one arm stretched out), and later to creeping on their arms and knees.

  • Rolling
  • Crawling

What some of us have some to call ‘crawling’ Dr Emmi Pikler has termed ‘creeping’ (using hands and knees), what we will refer to as ‘crawling’ here is borrowed from Pikler’s terminology and means your baby moving forward in a lying position, using their arms to pull the body forward.

Here you can see your baby using their arms to pull, or their legs to push their body, alternating between right and left or using both at the same time.

  • Sitting

This usually comes later than crawling, creeping and all those positions we mentioned above. We are often being told that babies should be able to sit when they are 6 months old. In our experience, if a baby is not sat up they will sit by themselves between 7-10 months, but don’t take that as a guideline.

Pulling a baby up to sitting is not how he would naturally learn to sit. Most babies learn to sit from a side position (half-sitting), or by pulling up from crawling. Lie down on your back and try getting to sitting in different ways – which one is most natural to you? Which one comes with least effort.

  • Kneeling and moving on their knees
  • Pulling up to standing
  • Standing
  • Walking

There are many many transitional positions, which we have not mentioned here. But as you watch your baby grow and play with their movement, you will see the growing competence, self-confidence, and joy. Learning to play through movement is the first time they are also learning to learn.

So this is it. A few milestones. A bit of going back and forth in development. A bit of struggle in between and some relaxation here and there. That‘s not too hard is it?

Well. We are aware that this is a learning process for all of us. In all aspects. But in the end this is what your baby does most of the time in his first years on Earth. This is what really interests them. This is part of their foundation they build on which they then keep developing. So make it possible for them. Be part of the process. And gain a good chunk of it all for yourself.

What have you observed your baby do in these positions? Was there anything that surprised you? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

 

Some more reading around the subject:

‘Unfolding of infants’ natural gross motor development’ Dr Emmi Pikler and Klara Pap, RIE.

‘Pikler Bulletin’ Dr Emmi Pikler (also includes and article by Dr Judith Falk). Sensory Awareness Foundation.

 

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/

How to make PLAY happen

Play is movement. Play is self-regulation, learning. Play is… life. In our last post we talked about looking at play with fresh eyes and figuring out the millions of things we put in one bag, and then call it ‘PLAY’. But for babies 3-6months, as much as play is a natural state of being, there is a need to set up conditions for it to happen. How can we help our babies play freely, and help ourselves enjoy it? Here is what we have learnt so far.

How can we facilitate this play?

A lot happens at this age (wow, this seems to be true for just about every age group once we start thinking about it), and for the child to play he needs certain conditions. Good news is – it’s not that difficult, it does not require specialized equipment, and anybody can do it. So, what do babies need to be able to play freely?

  • Emotional security
  • Care
  • Quiet, peaceful environment where they can play, learn & discover

Since you could probably write a book on the tons of aspects of each of these points, let’s take one step at a time. Today, we will focus on the environment, and specifically – the playpens.

Playpens

Only pictures show me that when I was little I was playing in a little playpen. I obviously can’t remember. What I can remember though is visiting friends of my parents who had a baby when I was about 6 or 7 years old. They had a wooden playpen, rectangular and just the right size for a baby that can’t move around too much yet. I always wanted to climb in it with the baby. In fact – I did. Because I liked the cosyness of it. I liked being away from the adults who bored me. I enjoyed just being in there, watching this little baby. In this small comfortable world of his. (Nadine)

Nowadays most parents think of playpens as of little prisons. Many refuse to buy them because they don’t want to place their little baby behind gates. And we say – it’s a matter of perspective.

A child does not know what a prison is. A child has no negative connotation of the bars around him with being locked. More importantly – if you use the playpen from early on it will become your child’s safe space. So he won’t necessarily feel “locked away“. As in Nadine’s case – he might actually feel safe and secure. Comfortable.

Try and think about it. You have those gates – preferably a few flexible ones to form a safe area that fits into your flat furnishings. Your baby has just been fed and changed. You have given him all your attention and had a wonderful time together. Now you need a coffee, maybe a snack or just a moment for yourself. So you put your baby into this safe play area that has a few toys in it. There is a chair nearby where you can sit down and relax. While your baby explores… well – his own body? The world around?

If something bothers him – you are there. You are not out of reach, not ignoring him. But you don’t have to constantly keep your eyes fixed on him – he is safe, his needs have been met. And he knows that. Because that’s the way it has been for a while now.

How does that sound?

  • But why is a blanket on the floor not enough?

Take a moment and imagine this: You are lying on a mattress in the middle of a football stadium. You can barely make out the walls, everything seems endless. Could you feel safe? Could you focus on a book or any task without having the feeling of looking around, making sure everything is ok? It may sound a bit excessive, but considering the fact that distances are still a bit vague for little children, you might imagine what it feels like to lie in a room with no close borders around.

  • When should I start using a playpen?

In the beginning the baby is usually close to you or in his cot or pram. But as soon as he starts moving around – may it just be rolling onto his side – he needs space to freely do that. The sofa or bed become dangerous because you never know, when he will roll over (and over) fort he first time. With flexible playpens you can build a small one for a start. Then extend it with the baby’s gross motor development.

  • How long should I use the playpen?

When your child starts moving forward you may either extend the playpen even more or take it away. The latest moment to put it aside is when your baby starts walking. This is the time when the whole flat should become safe and secure because stopping your child from entering areas he physically could reach will just be an unnecessary core of frustration. For all of you.

We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine