A fresh look at play

This post is a continuation of our musings and reflections on play. Last time we talked about the importance of uninterrupted play for the age of 0-3 months, and about when and how play happens. The information in that article we believe to be of importance for all age groups. But there are things that change, things that shift and develop as the babies grow. Have a look at our previous post to see what we mean by play in this very early age, and continue on reading to see what play can look like in infants 3-6 months old.

“Play is the highest form of research” (Albert Einstein).

If we understand play not as the action itself, but an approach to action, and if we consider it to be research, the important think to ask ourselves at any given moment is this: What is my child researching at the moment?

To understand this we need to observe. There is no other way to understand the researcher at work, but to observe his actions, try and see his thought process, and not let ourselves interrupt. ‘A journey of observation must leave as much as possible to chance’ (Tahir Shah). To be able to really observe we should put our expectations aside, and rather than guessing what is going on, we should simply let the things unfold in front of our eyes.

Try not to anticipate, expect, suggest. It’s hard. It’s hard to just look, without expectation or judgment. But it is also incredibly rewarding for us as parents to know that we, too, can grow and learn in this experience – we can learn to really look. And by learning to look at the child, by allowing ourselves to be challenged, we too can again experience what our child is experiencing every day: the challenge of discovering and learning something new. As our child is learning new skills, we are learning the skill of observation. And we can maybe begin to understand that the only way we can truly learn this new skill is by trial and error, by allowing ourselves to fail and allowing ourselves to sometimes take a step back into our comfort zone without anybody pushing us to keep going, by learning about our limits, and by learning how to push those limits by ourselves. The wonderful thing about this learning experience is that the child is a patient teacher.

One trick to the way of observing a child we are talking about here this is admitting to ourselves that more often than not we don’t know what he is working on (http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/07/the-infant-need-experts-dont-talk-about/), so it might be futile (or even sometimes disturbing) to offer our help or a solution. Is he reaching for that toy or is he stretching his arm? Is she trying to turn to her belly, or is she practicing rocking from back to side? Does he want to sit up, or is he working on the balance? Since there is no way we can know this, rather than help our child practicing whatever he is working on right now, let’s focus on practicing our own skill of sensitive observation.

Coming back to play and research the 3-6 month old children are busy with, some things we might expect are these:

Play as…

… movement

“Nothing is more revealing than movement” (Martha Graham)

The 3-6 month-olds are not mobile yet in that they do not crawl or walk (though whoever thinks that babies on their backs are immobile should look carefully). A lot of smaller movement happens around this age: turning from back to tummy (and sometime later, turning from tummy to back), working on the side-lying position, balancing on the side with the use of arms and legs.  You will see a lot of stretching and trying to understand how to change positions, and how to get back to the original position.

The amazing thing you will notice is that it is movement itself that is the motivation, not getting to a certain goal or reaching for something. This is the development of intrinsic, self-directed motivation that, if not interrupted, will serve your child for life. Playing with small, and later also bigger movements, is the challenge, this is the game for babies this age. Allowing the child to move freely helps him develop the awareness of his body, its position in space, but also at the same time allows him to regulate his own strength – he knows best when to stop, when to rest, when it’s been enough. Be sensitive to these signs, but don’t anticipate or guess them in advance. Observe your child’s “dialogue with gravity” (Anna Tardos) in action.

… experiment and discovery

“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self”  (D.W. Winnicott)

If we allow the child to freely experiment, we will see the amazing discoveries taking place all the time. This is the time, when the infant slowly begins to discover his hands. Mobiles hanging above his crib, or too many toys places around him might distract him from this important step in development. For now there is no need for too many objects – the body needs to be discovered first, before it can be used to play with toys. This is the time when babies get familiar with their bodies, they discover their arms and legs and experiment with what can be done with those.

You may see first the uncertain wave of the fist in front of their face, and the moment when the fist is in front of their eyes. ‘What is this?’ he seems to be saying. Soon after comes the discovery, that the arms are his and that he can influence how they move – this is very powerful and will occupy him for a while. Only after that is no longer a novelty will he engage more with the objects around. Surely, you need to know yourself first before you can get to know the things outside you 

… learning

So what does all of this have to do with play? We believe, following Teacher Tom, that play is life. That play, learning, discovery – can all be synonyms if we choose to see them that way. But if we want to see our children playing, we need to let them develop in their play, and let them develop the skills that will later help them play, work, live and create. Therefore, once we begin to understand that for our smallest children play is everything, we will be more likely to see it when it happens. Because surely, all parents want their child to play happily…

In these first months of playing with movement the child is beginning not only to learn how to move, but also learn how to learn. With mastering of each new movement he begins to learn how things can be mastered. This process has nothing to do with getting to certain milestones, but rather mastering each small movement to perfection to be able to later use it for other purposes. Like learning alphabet to be able to learn how to read, in a similar way the child is learning about balance (losing and gaining it), gravity, positions of his own body and how to effectively use the body to support him – all those seemingly small steps will later help him learn how to crawl, sit, walk, run and dance.

The more we let him experiment with his own learning, without guessing the next move and helping him get to it faster, the more confident he will be in his dance. But it’s not just that. Failing, falling, trying, playing with loss of balance and gaining it back, playing with his hands and feet to later understand they can be used for holding, catching, walking – all of these are pieces of a puzzle. All of this play he is doing now, will later prepare him for all of the learning that needs to be done along the way. In playing with movement he is learning about how to tackle a challenge, how to deal with failure, how to be proud of his own success. We will see all of this on his face if we choose to quietly observe, giving only as much support as necessary, rather than guiding him through the steps only to make his success ours.

Playing, working, experimenting, learning, discovering… you can see your child do all of this (and more) if you allow yourself to observe without interrupting. Try and let us know your thoughts. How is your baby playing? What is he working on in his play? What is she trying to discover?

We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

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