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