Lots of families I have worked with want to know…
What kind of stimulation do babies need from us?
When is the right time to narrate play or play with a child?
How can I make sure my baby is learning the right things?
Most children, especially infants, get far more stimulation than they need, and we should instead focus on how to make their life less stimulating. As long as they are provided with a good environment and a secure attachment relationship, getting babies to play is easy. It happens on its own.
Every child needs a safe environment to explore, where they can play without worrying about too many limits. You can read my article about setting up a safe play space to get you started.
Provide Play Objects
The type of toys you offer will vary depending on the age of the child. A newborn does not need toys since their play is focused on learning to move body parts intentionally. A toddler, on the other hand, thrives on a diverse collection of more complicated toys. I have lots of great toy suggestions right over here.
Choose a Peaceful Time
Free play can only happen when your baby’s other needs for food, sleep, cuddling, diapering, etc. are met, so take care of those things first. Those routines take up most of a newborn's time, so play periods can be quite short (5-20 minutes). As children get older and spend more time awake, opportunities for play will naturally increase. Three hours is not uncommon for older toddlers, although they may need to spend a lot of that time outside where they can move their bodies.
Choose a Child-Initiated Position
Put your child down in the play area in a position they can get into and out of themselves, so they will feel free to move. Movement is a huge part of play! For infants, that position is usually on their back.
This is the fun part! Babies don’t need constant interaction from adults to enjoy play, although they can become so used to it that it may seem like they do. All you really need to do is observe. In this case, observing means giving the child your full attention without making any demands that the child pay attention to you. Magda Gerber called this “wants nothing time.” There will be times in your day when you can’t give your child 100% of your attention; you need to cook, check emails, and answer the phone. That is inevitable and normal, but this should not be that time. One of the most powerful gifts you can give to your child is to arrange your days so you can give them some of this special time where you are focused entirely on them, even if it’s just 5 minutes. This focus can be nothing more than quiet observation.
Observing your child’s play without intervening sends an important message: “What you are doing is so valuable, I see no reason to change it. You are inherently valuable and interesting. I am here if you need me.”
Respond to Cues
Observation during free play doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to sit there like a rock for 20 minutes while your child has all the fun stacking blocks! There will be many times when you will share in your child’s wonder and joy. Your child will let you know when to do that, usually through eye contact or by talking to you.
When you see these cues, you know it’s a good time to say what you see without interrupting the child’s agenda. What you say or do should be reflective of what the child is experiencing: “You stacked the blocks. You worked so hard!” or “You are trying to pull the cups apart. It’s very difficult! You sound frustrated.”
Your child may also give you cues that say, “I’m done!” If it seems difficult for a child to focus on playing, it may be time to take care of some eating, sleeping, diapering, or cuddling needs. They can return to play once they are refreshed.
Once you have become used to the idea that your child can play independently, you will be free to sit back and marvel at the attention span they have even for simple objects!