(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)