Staring at ceiling fans might be considered a national pastime. Just imagine the number of babies that find themselves lying on their backs looking with wonder at the shapes above them! You might laugh but looking at interesting things is the first self-directed play a child can do. And making the effort to recognize your baby’s interests will have profound effects on your baby’s childhood as well as your parenthood.
Imagine you newborn playing in the zone, or “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” His body appears to be comfortable. His eyes are looking in the direction of the ceiling fan. The fan is off and the shapes of the blades are beautiful - curving on themselves, symmetrically placed near their neighbors. Over time his eyes become stronger, the familiar shapes sharpen. There is a quantity of those things that is constant but their position changes from day to day.
Your baby girl has found her hands. She looks at them, tastes them, wiggles them around. Then she discovers the true power of her hands - she can hold things. She holds a rattle, hits herself in the nose with it, and, eventually, becomes an expert understanding her hands. She knows how many hands and fingers she has and how they move. She learns how to use her hands to reach, grab, transfer from one hand to the other. She learns length of her arms, dimensions of toys including weight, circumference, and texture. Playing with her hands opens a whole new way of being in the world.
Your toddler is sitting with a bowl. He experiments with putting things in the bowl and taking them out. There are sounds that emerge from the clanking together of bowl and toy. Different toys make different sounds. Different toys fit into the bucket in different orientations. While he plays he begins to understand shape, size, and quantity. He offers a toy to you and accepts it back from you. Playing with the the bowl then becomes a social event and your son’s place in the world becomes a little bigger.
Your baby girl has grown into a preschooler. She revisits her hands as toys using them to show numbers. Her thumb and pointing finger make two, she tells you. A little while later she says that her pointer finger and her middle finger also make two. More fingers rise to make two threes and all of a sudden she is doing addition and multiplication.
None of these scenarios is particularly unique. Many parents and caregivers can probably imagine their own child doing (or having done) each of these things. What is important is that adults recognize the playfulness of newborns, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers and learn to value it.
One of my favorite quotes about early childhood play is,
“To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it.” - Janet Lansbury
which brings me to the benefits of play for young children. The benefits of play for children are very similar to the benefits of play for adults. Years of research, parenting and otherwise attending to how young people develop has resulted in a vast amount of information about play. Play supports:
- Physical Development including fine motor skills (using their fingers), gross motor skills (using arms and legs), coordinating the left and right sides of the body, and building healthy exercise habits.,3,5
- Mental Development including creativity, language acquisition, and cognition.,3,5,6
- Emotional Development including sense of self, confidence, and resilience.,,5
- Social Development including skills for sharing, negotiating, and conflict resolution.3,,
Taken altogether a child who is developing physical, mental, emotional and social abilities means that he or she is learning life skills. It is nothing short of amazing. This important work our children do when they play is building the foundation for who they will be as big kids and as adults. They are becoming themselves. And it is the right of childhood.1,3,5
So how does parenthood interlace with childhood? For me, the best thing about recognizing and valuing independent child’s play is that it frees up time for me to do the chores of adults life. If I step away from my child and allow him or her to play, I can do things for myself, by myself. And I can know that my child is getting valuable learning opportunities. Patricia Nourot said this:
“If I get to pick what I want to do, then it’s play…if someone else tells me that I have to do it, then it’s work.”
It is the epitome for guiding us as we venture forth into the world of play because it applies to your role as a parent/caregiver as much as it applies to our children.
Imagine that you are chopping carrots for dinner. You are wondering what substitution you can make for oregano since you are all out. It is small but playful act and you are fully engrossed in what you are doing in the kitchen. Then your toddler comes along, pulling at your leg, to offer you a toy spoon to “help.” The interruption is not ideal - your train of thought is derailed and you are, for lack of a better term, robbed of your opportunity to enjoy this daily chore.
Now your toddler is sitting quietly with toy food - a bowl of two-piece vegetables held together by velcro. She is pulling the vegetables apart and putting them on the floor. Then you come by and sit down and start talking. You offer the toy knife for your child to pretend cut the vegetables. You put them all back together for her and tell her to do it, too.
In parenting an independent playful child, I struggle with interruption the most. I want to sit and play with these delightful young people. I want to be part of the play. I want to add value to the experience. But when I insert myself without an invitation I am interrupting the child’s train of thought. I am suggesting that I know better. I am making the play about me and what I can offer. Child’s play is about children. It is about their discovery, their ideas, their bodies, and their joys. Not mine.
Instead of interrupting, I practice waiting. I wait for the baby’s gaze to come to me. I wait for my toddler friend to offer me a toy in her outstretched hand. I wait for my preschooler to ask for my help. Not only am I supporting healthy development, I am helping to establish a culture of patience. If I don’t interrupt my child, then my child will learn to not interrupt me!
What is more? By not interrupting I am able to observe more. I watch my children move between unoccupied play to solitary play to cooperative play and back. I watch them learn. I recognize what interests my children and I brainstorm what other related toys, books and experiences might excite them. Then I am able to choose wisely what resources I make available - from quality toys to beautiful books.
Your baby can be the smartest baby on the block. But your role will not be to sit with flashcards or drill them with numbers. Your work will be on yourself. You will have to learn to see value in your child’s play, perhaps recognizing foundations of science, math, language, and art at the playground. You will have to learn patience, watching your child work to build a stack of blocks without jumping in to do it for them. You will have to learn humility, refraining from interrupting your child with your ideas before he or she can form their own thoughts.
In what follows I will share what I see and invite you to discover how amazing your little learner can be. I see our babies doing physics, toddlers doing math, and preschoolers engineering. And I believe that Lady Bird Johnson was right when she said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”