I know that you advocate allowing babies to develop on their own, at their own pace, but I have a question about play. Wouldn't it be better for me to play with my two-month-old daughter, Anita, and show her how to use the toys we have chosen for her rather than just to wait for her to notice them? Won't she become bored? Doesn't she need some help in learning how to get the full benefit from the wonderful educational toys available for infants now? How can an infant learn to play if the adults around her don't play with her and show her how to play? Concerned Parent
Many people believe that what we do not teach, children do not learn. If however, you develop the art and skill of observing your baby, you will see that each and every experience day in and day out is a learning experience for her.
Anita senses differences of feelings: hunger or satiation, pain or comfort, sleepiness, drowsiness or wakefulness. Things (her hands, for instance) move in and out of her vision, her mouth finds a hand and sucks on it, a particular voice and face (yours) becomes more familiar and brings relief. All these are most meaningful and useful pieces of learning for a baby.
Babies may learn several things through one action. The sensation of finding her thumb can be called eye-hand-mouth coordination and also considered the forerunner of play. When Anita looks at an object, reaches for it, and eventually grasps and moves it, she manipulates, she interacts with the world and makes things happen. Again this is the beginning of play.
As we observe infants, it almost looks as if they are working rather than playing; they are fully involved, absorbed in what they are doing. If we continue to watch the play of a growing child, we can witness that, while playing, children work through conflicts with objects, other children, and adults. Play provides an outlet for curiosity, information about the physical world, a safe way to deal with anxiety and social relationships. In the long run, play serves children's inner needs, hopes, and aspirations.
Children accomplish mastery by endless repetitions, continuing the same activity over and over again, long after the adults nearby have lost interest. When Anita repeats an action many, many times, she is not bored. Rather she is learning thoroughly about that action, making it a part of herself and her world. When she has learned it to her own satisfaction, she will move on to a new activity.
Contrary to grown-ups' expectations, children usually do not get overly frustrated by struggles involved during play. When a toy gets caught, or a ball rolls away, they may even enjoy the situation, and certainly learn from it—if an adult does not solve the problem for them. To a degree, the child's response to potential frustrations is dictated by the adult's reaction. Even a very young child will look around to check out the adult's reaction when one of these puzzling, unexpected events occurs. A calm, observant comment, such as "Oh, the ball rolled away," will allow Anita to retain her role as initiator in her play, and to choose how to handle the situation.
I hope I have convinced you of the importance and benefits of play. But your question was whether and how to teach your baby how to play.
Don't worry and don't teach. Free play is inner-directed and self-initiated.
What Anita does need is a safe environment in which she can freely move around as her growing motor skills will let her. For now, a play pen will do. Just before she starts rolling and crawling, you must child-proof a room and use a gate to prevent her from going into unsafe territory. (Parents often react negatively when I suggest using gates in the home to create boundaries for their infants. But how much better it is, in my opinion, to create a truly safe place for Anita, with a secure gate to divide it from the rest of the house, than to keep her safe by either strapping her into a swing, infant seat, etc., or constantly following her around restraining her from household hazards.)
Within her safe space, place a few simple objects near enough for her to be able to reach.
As a first toy I recommend a scarf about 18 inches square, made of strong, colorful cotton. (Silk or nylon is dangerous, as is a scarf too small, because babies like to stuff them in their mouths.) Hold the scarf in the middle and place it to make a peak. This will provide an interesting visual target. The reason I prefer the scarf over the famous mobiles is that when Anita is ready she will be able to grasp and manipulate this material in endless ways, always having new sights and feelings: pulling it over, then off, her face; chewing on it, lying on it, not being able to pull it out from under her own body; or later, tugging it back and forth with another infant.
You can find many good toys in your kitchen such as plastic cups, containers, baskets, colanders etc. Buy a few whiffle balls (plastic balls with holes in them). Babies love to put their fingers into the holes and move them around. Also buy many other balls of different sizes. Beach balls should be inflated to different consistencies; when they are very soft, babies can grasp and manipulate them easily.
When you buy toys, choose safe, simple and easily washable ones. I dislike toys labeled "educational," especially for the first year of life. I also dislike toys (such as wind-up or battery-operated items) which entertain a passive child, and prepare a future television watcher.
Simple objects that Anita can manipulate in any way she chooses, not needing adult help or supervision, are the best toys and learning tools.
So do not teach Anita how to play, but teach her the "house rules." If you are available when help is needed, show genuine interest and joy while watching her play, Anita will play, enjoy it and learn from it. Magda
©Magda Gerber, Originally published in Educaring Vol VI No 3 Summer 1985
"Don't worry and don't teach. Free play is inner-directed and self-initiated."
Photo Credits: David Vigliotti, MMP and Little Learners Lodge