Our boys and their toys

Recently in a parent‘s consultation we were told that Leander was reluctant to take the Montessori materials off the shelves and they asked what he was interested in playing with at home. We said: “Toy cars.“ But those are not allowed in The Children‘s House. They are not part of the Montessori Concept. In fact: They had toy cars and cards accordingly so the kids could match the cars with the cards. But all the boys did was play with the cars, not the material as it was meant to be. So they took the cars away. They also took the little London bus that served as a moneybox for which they had provided little buttons in a basket to put inside the moneybox. But as you may guess – the boys only played with the bus as a bus, not a moneybox. 

A mom on twitter recently asked: “My son (2,5) has been obsessed with sea animals for months now. He can name them all and is extremely interested. Should I leave him or should I help him take interest in something else, because it has been going on for so long now. And how can I do that?“

What is our fear when we try and move the focus of our child‘s play to something else? That he could miss out on something important? And if so – what?

There is so much to learn when you are a child that we as parents often feel the need to fill our kid‘s brain with information. Constantly. And who can blame us? As soon as we become parents we ourselves are filled with information and offered all sorts of classes and groups to attend that encourage and foster all sorts of life-important areas such as music, creativity, language, science. You name it. Parent-infant classes as Emmi Pikler or Magda Gerber ( http://www.rie.org/classes/parent-infant ) offered are questioned because the children are not given any input, no songs are sung and no activities lead. What is the point if the child is not learning anything?

What we might miss out on from the very beginning is trust. Trust in our own children, that they have it all and are able and most importantly willing to learn. Maria Montessori said: “A child cannot NOT learn.“ Whatever a child does – he is learning. It‘s just not always obvious to us adults who seem to know everything but in fact quite often – seem to know nothing. This trust is taken from us during those first days, weeks and months when we start focusing on children‘s play and age appropriate toys. Every packaging of a toy has a big bubble blown up that states what this toy is encouraging. May it be “just“ creativity or even logical and scientific thinking. And it is hard not to look at it and choose just simple play objects. In the end – everyone has it. And is amazed. So there must be something to it, right? Right?

Another reason why parents are so worried their children might miss out if not being offered early learning opportunities in all sorts of ways, is our own background. If we feel we haven‘t achieved everything we quickly project those expectations on our own children. So they at least do better in writing, spelling, math, playing an instrument or whatever. And how can this be achieved other than by attending a class that offers it all?

If you have terrible childhood memories because you had a hard time understanding math you might know how that feels. The need to offer numbers, puzzles and counting games at the earliest possibility. And in the end – if it does not help it won‘t harm either, right? Well, we’re not sure. Some experts, who have been working on the concept of play, might disagree. As long as we don‘t understand play as it really is and what it really offers to our children, we might harm them in taking those important hours from them by doing something that “has a point“. Because “The importance of play is, that it has no point.“ ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-childrens-play-is-being-sneakily-redefined/2011/11/15/gIQAMNjdPN_blog.html )

We might not harm them directly by offering them charts with letters to be able to read at an early age. But we harm them by not leaving them enough time and room to explore on their own. To engage with something they are interested in. And maybe even learn to read, write and count in the process – who knows? But how much more fun would it be, if this whole learning was done on their terms, while playing with their beloved cars, sea animals or tea sets?

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Fred Rogers)

And therefore we have happily been watching our boys play with cars. But not just that. We have been trying to discover what they are actually learning by “just playing”. Because of course, just like all of the other parents out there, we are curious about what they do when they “just play”. So, is there any learning going on? Even without the special materials, and all the educational toys? We don’t know for sure, but here are some of our ideas of what might be going on. These are not based on Parten’s or Piaget’s categories, they are purely our ways of understanding what our children are doing when they… well, play

Movement – large and small

We have already talked a lot about how important movement is in development of play, and how much of movement is really play. When just playing with cars? Well, there is the pushing and pulling that can get discovered, practised, and practised again – what surfaces and slopes are better for which one? What happens when you pull the truck downhill?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there are the fine, small movements, which we probably barely even think about now that we just have them all in our toolbox – opening and closing tiny doors, and putting little people (or, in A’s case – allspice) inside, taking them out, making sure they are sitting upright and that they all fit – these are all extremely precise movements of hand and fingers. Have a look at how your child is trying to manipulate something small – it really is fascinating!

Language

Car parts. Different types of cars. Different types of vehicles in general. What they do. What kinds of people drive them? What are they wearing? What do these people do? This could go on for a long while… Here we also have a unique opportunity to join in and answer all the questions – starting with pointing and a questioning look on a face of a very young baby, up to probably much much later and all the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

The only thing we have been very careful of is not to have an agenda. If they ask what color the car is, we try and answer ‘yellow’ – not have them guess, or try and make them remember. We believe the trust the boys put in us by asking us to tell them names of things in the world needs to be respected for what it is, rather than unnecessarily tested.

Serious science

Playing with cars has been a source of some serious scientific discoveries for our boys. These are just some of them:

  • Hypothesis: Some cars, when pushed, go faster than others. Tested for the van versus the truck. Will it also be true for other cars? Which ones?
  • Hypothesis: Some cars are much bigger/ heavier/ longer than others. Tested. True, with different answers for different combinations.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars will fit into other cars. Tested for some, true for some.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars break when thrown on the floor. Tested for one. Enough proof obtained. Not willing to test on others.

And of course there are the many categories that they have been using to organize the cars – by size, speed, length, color… These discoveries are particularly engrossing; it takes hours to figure out just the right way, and is as fascinating to watch as any Discovery channel documentary. These categories, discovered on cars, sea animals, tea sets, so early on, help all of us understand life later on without going crazy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therapeutic play

A. became scared of flying, especially take off and landing, once he turned 2 and had to be in his own seat. On our return from a first trip like that, he dug out a plane tucked neatly among his many cars. He was practising taking off and landing for a couple of days. He put his plane in the air (on the windowsill), then took one of his cars (that’s right, cars!) in his hand and proceeded to explain to the car: “You are bigger now, you will have your own seat on the plane. You can hold my hand.” I watched quietly as this play continued for another few days. We were due to take another flight in a week or so. It was much better.

 

(Also have a look here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/the-power-of-play-therapy-and-4-ways-to-encourage-it/)

 

Fantasy play: cars aren’t always cars, you see…

… sometimes they are potatoes, when you need to go shopping and fill your bag with them; sometimes they are chopped veggies that will taste so nice for dinner tonight; sometimes they are people, or animals. They really are what you want them to be. Just like acorns can be coffee, once you put them in a cup, or a turtle can be a table when you put a cup on top of it.

Which is why it’s ok that our boys don’t have all the toys in the world – they really only need the ones they have. If they did have all those toys, would it be half the fun?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh and just maybe – social stuff?

Kind of funny, but it is also quite amazing. A. has two tractors, but only one little cart that goes on the back of the wooden tractors. I have just found out recently that the two tractors share the cart.

A. usually explains to one of the tractors that the other will now borrow the cart, but that later it will be back. Not quite what is happening on the playground yet.

 

 

So does it matter that they have been playing mostly with cars for… well, quite a while now? We’re not too worried about that, to be honest.

It doesn’t matter what you play with, but what and how you think and feel as you play. You can play intelligently with a doll […] and you can thoughtlessly read books. (Janusz Korczak)

It doesn’t matter if our boys are playing with cars, sea animals, or tea sets. What matters is how they think and feel as they play. And to let them develop in this thinking and feeling as they play, to let them discover the creative possibilities and scientific facts, we are choosing to give them the freedom to choose what they want to play with, how they want to do it, and the time and space for their explorations.

What about your children – do they have their favorite toys, or play objects? What are they? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Learning to live

In their play, babies 6-12 months acquire a range of skills we know are necessary for them later on in life. A range of movements is one of them, but there are other, less obvious skills our babies are working on – ones that might have a huge impact on how they deal with different tasks later on, things that might impact not only the way they play, but the way they socialize, work, discover, and deal with failure. We have observed two amazing things our boys are mastering when they play – how to struggle, and how to self-regulate. Both of these are vital, and both come along as part and parcel of free play.

Play as struggle

Observe your baby’s hard work and the constant practice of arm- and leg coordination to move around. He will try and get on hands and knees. He will swing back and forth. He will fall down. Most likely – he will not like this. He will face struggle. And frustration. YOU will face struggle and frustration too. Because you know how it could work. You could jump in and try and help. But you can’t teach him. And so you will have to learn to sit on your hands and watch. Watch your child struggle, and watch yourself struggle as well – notice that it is not only his journey, but also yours. Both together and separately, you are learning how to struggle. Each of you on a level that is suitable for your own stage of development.

Our first impulse might be to pick the baby up and hold him. Comfort him. Maybe walk him around a little. Feed him. Anything that will make him happy. Alternatively we could give him a chance to practice a bit more. To try a little harder. How? By sitting nearby saying: „You are really upset because you want to move forward.“ Well. Both ways the baby will eventually learn to move around. No matter how and when, right? Right?

Right. But what do I tell my child when I pick him up as soon as he struggles?

“You are struggling. You can’t achieve what you are trying to and that frustrates you. I don’t think you can do it right now so stay here with me and focus on something else.” You might not choose those words and surely this isn‘t the message you want to send. But this might be what your child is hearing in you helping him out of his dilemma too early.

Instead you can trust your child to handle not just the struggle, but also the frustration. To be able to deal with it. You also give yourself the chance to endure those moments. In the end they are not just part of the process of the gross motor development. They are part of a person’s life. The earlier we learn that anger and frustration are ok and not “bad” (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/my-feelings-are-real-or-day-all-hell.html) the earlier we will learn to handle and overcome them. Some of us, adults, are still working on that – and that’s ok. Maybe this is our chance to learn along with our children, that age-appropriate struggle and frustration are part of the journey?

And yes – in the end – all children will move around one day. Some earlier. Some later. They may be struggling with their journey, and we as parents are also learning not only to let them struggle sometimes – this is our learning experience as well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pick them up and teach them about the world? Without all the struggle?

And some might enjoy a long stretch on their back in their play area. In fact when you carefully observe you will find out that children tend to go back and play while lying on their back. Because that is their safe place; their comfort place. They feel safe and secure in that position (if they have experienced the first months on their backs as relaxing and enjoyable). So when learning a new ability that takes times and effort it is important to rest. To take breaks and relax. Children are capable of doing so much more than we do. They naturally don‘t do more than is needed. Heinrich Jacoby actually said that children are appropriate. By that he meant – economical. They would not use any more muscles to sit or crawl than needed. IF they had the chance to develop all those milestones themselves. In their own time. At their own pace.

Play as self-regulation

Letting our children play as they want to, how long they want to, and letting them be the leader, we will soon notice that children know when to stop. They quickly learn when they have had enough and need a break, and you might see them going back to their most comfortable position, stopping the action for a moment. It might be tempting to step in and offer something to do right then – instead try to stop and observe. We are living in a world where we are constantly on the move, we have long since lost touch with the regulation nature offers us (who goes to bed when it gets dark?), but we still have the chance to listen to our own bodies. Our children know when they need time to recharge, let them do it. They need it to be able to go on. Here is another thing we might learn from babies – self-regulation.

Observing their play over a long period of time you will find that there are different phases. One of them is called the relaxing phase – where they relax from what they have just done. This can be rolling onto their back watching the shadows on the walls after practicing crawling for a while. This could also mean running around the table like crazy after having solved a puzzle (in older children obviously).

So when we see our crawling baby lie on their back, our walking baby crawl – that‘s ok. More than that – it is important. It shows that they still have abilities most of us adults have lost over the years.

What are the skills you think your baby is learning in their free play? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

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/

(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.

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

Playing through the first 3 months

We love to play. In fact, this website is our playground – one of the many we have. And since play is something we both love and care about, we decided to approach it methodically (doesn’t that sound fun? ;). This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts about play at different ages and stages of development. We will kick off, originally, with infants 0-3 months and then move on to older babies and toddlers. We would love for you to join in, with your ideas of play, your memories of your own play and that of your children. We are no play experts – we can merely recap for you what we think, and what we have observed so far !

Let us know if you like what you’re reading.

Playing through the first three months (or – what is this ‘play’ everyone keeps talking about?)

When we hear the word play, the first connotation of this word are children. In fact, play is what is suddenly everywhere when you have a child – playthings, playgrounds, playgroups. Suddenly it all becomes to be about play. But what is play really? What does a newborn need to play? And how do infants play?

What is this ‘play’ thing?

Tons of images come to mind when we think about play. Children playing in the sand, making mud pies; role-playing; pretend-play… With all of this in mind, it is very hard to talk about infants playing. If we conceptualize play as a form of specific activity, it is difficult to imagine a 1-, 2- or 3-month old baby playing. After all, what kinds of activities do infants engage in? We want our babies to play, we want to see them play, but do we know what to look for?

Essentially, we all want to understand the world. And more than the world even, ‚we are the species that needs and wants to understand who we are’ (Anne Lamott). We want to understand ourselves and our loved ones and be a part of their world. So when it comes to infants playing – we want them to play, but we also want and need to understand their play, and so also perhaps participate, encourage. We want to do all those things that will make us a part of their world, and them a part of ours. But this understanding of how we see our infants play needs a bit of shift, in our humble opinion. We need to let our infants play and to be able to comfortably do that, we need to know how to understand play. If we see play as an activity, we will usually need to ensure that infants engage in an activity that we validate as play. We may feel the need to ‚entertain’, to make our babies giggle, make sure they are having fun. We may stimulate. And in doing so, we may not allow their own play to develop. But why?

Maybe it would be easier for us to see infants at play if we reframed how we understand play? What if, instead of thinking about play as some kind of activity, a game, or ‘having fun’, we tried to think of play not in terms of its content but its mode. What if we saw play as ‘an approach to action, not a form of activity’ (Jerome Bruner)? It might be more similar to the way we think about ‘playing with ideas’ – it is a way we discover, explore and engage with the world around.

Putting it this way, we are no longer confined by the belief that we need to help our babies play, but rather we are free to observe how they play. And yet, we can begin to grasp what playing is for them. How they play. What if we started conceptualizing play in terms of exploration, engagement, discovery? Because surely, even at later stages of life, this is what play is essentially about. Only at these later stages it also has a form (or content) that is more familiar to us, that we can relate to, that is more to do with the world around us and with what we know. With mud-pies and role-playing. But during those early months it seems to be about mode, and content might only come into play later on… If we define play as an approach to action, an engagement in something with an open mind, ready to explore and discover and open to possibilities, chances are we will see our infants playing practically all the time. And we will be enchanted. We might even join in…

Free play

Emmi Pikler said that play is a child’s inner need just as movement is. It’s an inner drive. A must. No healthy and cared for newborn would just lie on his back not moving, not looking around or not “playing” at all.

Dust particles, shadows, a moving curtain, the sunlight on the wall, flying arms and legs – which only later will be discovered as their own – it’s all part of a baby’s play. And this is the key. If we allow that, if we sit aside instead of “in front” we can observe the “origin of free play” as Emmi Pikler called it. Because that’s what it is. The play with their hands – opening and closing them, moving them into eyesight and out again, touching one hand with the other – is the actual preparation for the play with objects. In the same way the infant will then later grab a toy and move it above his eyes, let it fall, pick it up and give it from one hand into another. This is why this early form of play is so important and why every child should be allowed enough time a day to play that way. It sounds so simple, but it’s not.

One big rule of free play is that it has no rules. The child is leading and following his own ideas. But above that hovers one greater rule – Don’t interrupt! And this is a wonderful rule, a chance actually, because that way you can learn to read your baby. You will get to know his ways of playing, what he enjoys, what interests him. Isn’t that how we learn most about a person?

What can we expect?

Infants from birth to three months are only getting used to the world around them. Everything is new, and so, in a way, the possibilities for discovery are endless. If we allow for uninterrupted self-initiated play we will quickly learn what our child likes to engage in, what interests him most, what kind of character he has. The biggest part of their play is usually discovery of their own body – you will notice the movement, the fascination with their own arms and legs. Imagine how amazing it must feel to discover that you have control over your own body! The development and refinement of senses is also a constant stimulus for exploration. Voices, sounds, faces, details on the wall, a moving branch outside the window – all of it can become an endless point of focus for a newborn. It is a magical sight to see an infant engrossed in an activity. It’s possible. But we need to provide the time and space for it to happen.

Allowing all of this to inspire our child will also allow us to see the world through their eyes – a truly powerful gift, especially on a day when we forgot how wonderfully exciting everything around us is.

Once we realize the amount of physical, cognitive and emotional development babies do in the first year, the need for us to provide external stimulus fades away. Do they really need more to play with than what they already have?

When and how does play happen?

Modern motherhood begins with all sorts of appointments. Doctor’s check ups for the baby and the mother, postnatal gym classes to which the babies are invited, breastfeeding classes, playgroups and not to mention restaurants and coffee houses because modern moms don’t sit at home all day anymore. This is great, we can and should go out and we are not suggesting you should lock yourself in. What we are suggesting though is just be aware of how much time in between all those appointments, feeding sessions, diaper changes and naps a baby has to play happily and self-initiated. Play, just like anything else we fully engage in, takes time. If we believe that play is a creative process of discovery we need to allow it to happen. (a wonderful talk on creativity – where he mentions time twice! – by John Cleese can be found here: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/12/john-cleese-on-creativity-1991/. The fascinating thing is – babies tend to do all these things kind of naturally!)

Free play is only possible if the child is rested, fed and all his needs are met. It’s not something they “just do in between”, especially not, when we would love them to (e.g. when waiting for an appointment, in the restaurant, in the car etc). Quite often parents say: “He will not play on is own for only a minute.” This is the moment we should stop and think about our day, our routine, our expectations. This does not mean that it’s our “fault”, if the child is not able to play independently. It just gives us a straw to pull on. Again think about it as a creative process – imagine writing an article, solving a problem or coming up with a good idea in those ten minutes you have between cooking and doing the laundry…

Another point is that we should still be present. When thinking of free play we often have the picture of a little baby playing happily while mommy is cooking dinner in the kitchen. While these moments do happen, we should not expect that but rather sit down and observe the child. Especially in the beginning babies just want us “there”. And this is the fine line between being there, being present, listening to him and playing for him, entertaining him, leading his play. This is what Magda Gerber refers to as ‚wants nothing quality time’. I don’t want anything from you. Just to be here, get to know who you are and watch you play.

Parenthood is a great opportunity to throw the TV out (at least for a while, if not forever). Because watching your baby, observing his play and allowing yourself to get engaged in his world can be such excitement and entertainment that no TV show can compete with.

What is your idea of play? What were the most grasping and eye opening moments for you during those early months? Join our playground! Play with us!

More reading…

„The Origins of Free Play“ by Éva Kálló and Györgyi Balog (published by the Pikler Institute Berlin)

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/09/the-myth-of-baby-boredom/

http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/life-itself.html