I’ll never forget sitting with a neighbour’s little boy when I was about seven years old and being berated for not talking to him while he was engrossed in trying to put Duplo bricks together. “Talk to him!” his mother shouted to me from upstairs.
Of course, talking with young children is important, but this toddler wasn’t looking to connect in that moment; he was busy trying to master a skill and me talking to him was an interruption – not to mention completely inauthentic, as I was simply saying something because I was told to!
It wasn’t until I discovered RIE® that I fully grasped how sacred it is when a child is engaged and focused, and how important it is that we step back during play, rather than interrupt them. Like my neighbour, it’s easy to be concerned that we’re not stimulating children enough, and that they won’t develop and grow properly (or fast enough!)
These concerns have shaped so much of what is on offer for babies. Go online or turn on the TV and you’ll see adverts for toys that do this and classes that do that. The problem is that most of these things fulfil a need in the adult, rather than the child, and perpetuate myths about how children learn and grow that aren’t helpful for caregivers.
So, what are these myths – and what DO babies need in order to develop?
Myth #1 – babies need to attend classes
Classes for babies and toddlers have become increasingly popular over the past few years. Do a quick internet search and no doubt you’ll find a wealth of classes in your local area for activities such as swimming, music and singing, sensory play…to name but a few!
Sure, these groups and classes do have something to offer; they can provide caregivers with a social network and support system that they may otherwise struggle to access, and as a parent myself I know how valuable this can be! The problem with them is that they perpetuate a culture of fear amongst parents; fear of the child not learning enough/fast enough/developing correctly, of not experiencing a broad enough range of experiences, of getting ‘left behind’.
The thing is, attending classes and groups is not the best way to promote development and learning.
Organised activities are great for older children who are able to choose to attend because they want to explore a genuine interest. But young children benefit way more from unstructured, self-initiated, uninterrupted play – outside, preferably!
Myth #2 – babies need to do ‘sensory play’
This is a trend that has become especially popular in group care settings, and while it sounds great, in reality it appeals more to parents and the culture of fear than babies.
It’s not that babies don’t need sensory experience – quite the opposite! Rather, it’s that babies get these experiences from everyday life, especially if given time and space to play outside.
Having a bath, a nappy change, a feed, a meal, exploring a range of open ended objects, watching trees dance in the wind, feeling the breeze on their face…all of these are sensory experiences. In fact, for babies and toddlers, very little that they do isn’t a sensory experience, simply because of the way that they engage with the world.
Myth #3 – babies need educational toys
By educational, I mean active, busy toys which are designed to be used in a certain way to teach a particular skill.
These aren’t necessary, and they are also very limiting.
Play objects which are passive – which don’t do anything unless the child does something with them – are far more valuable, because they encourage the child to be active, to think creatively, and to investigate and explore. Active, busy toys, in contrast, encourage children to be passive.
Everyday objects make great play things for babies. Things such as metal eggcups, colanders, wooden bowls, silk scarves, silicone coasters – to name but a few – offer a range of textures, temperatures, weights, shapes and sizes. They can be manipulated in many different ways, according to the child’s interest.
Myth #4 – babies need to be entertained
They don’t. They really don’t.
Babies need us to love them. To feed them. To make sure they get enough sleep. To provide them with a safe yet challenging play environment.
They don’t need us to show them how to play, or to teach them how to do things through play. What they do need is a safe space, room to move around, some simple gross motor equipment and a small number of open ended objects.
Caregiving activities, on the other hand, are ideal times for babies to learn from adults, if the adult gives their full attention, goes slowly, talks about what they’re doing and allows the baby to participate. After these activities are done, it’s okay to step back and let babies work out what to do and how.
Myth #5 – babies need to do as much as possible, as fast as possible
One of the most shared quotes from Magda Gerber, founder of RIE®, is “Earlier is not better.” Short and sweet, this sentiment forms the basis of a readiness model of child development which we follow at Nurture.
There is no benefit to doing things sooner. What is to be gained by knowing your colours at eighteen months, or the alphabet at three? Development is not a race, and you can’t rush it – and often the most valuable things that babies and toddlers learn are not the things that are easily seen or measured.
It is far better to do things fully. To master something at a deep level, so that it is truly embedded. And the only way to ensure that this happens is to allow children to do things when they are ready, and to spend as long as they need working up to and practising what they’re learning, without our interruption – however well-intentioned it might be.
We forget as adults that every mundane detail of the world is new and stimulating to an infant – every shape, contrast, and sound, even the slightest movement is fascinating. Life is a playground. So infants are “playing” when they look around, listen, feel and smell the air, when they have the freedom to reach, grasp, twist their bodies, and think….think….think.
For a comprehensive guide to play objects for babies at every stage of development see