(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.