Baby Play: What Does Learning Look Like? Being an Observer

Yeah yeah, babies play! With rattles and blocks; and pots with loud lids, and maybe Daddy’s glasses. Well… is there more? What are they really doing? What does authentic, baby-led play look like? What happens when we direct less and observe more?

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Babies are fascinating Players! They’re scientists and explorers from the start. Do we need to teach babies how to play? How to learn?

Many would say yes, it’s our job to teach them how, our responsibility to make sure they’re “learning” and that their activities are “educational.”

Yes, it’s a cat toy. Or, it was. What will the baby learn about tunnels and tracks and things that roll?

Yes, it’s a cat toy. Or, it was! (There’s a green ball inside it.) What will the baby learn about tunnels and tracks and things that roll?

I say not necessarily. Babies are expert “learners” already! They come that way. Learning is required for survival. When given time to respond and explore, typically-developing babies can’t not learn.

Our role? To provide loving presence, interaction, availability, and support. To provide an appropriate environment–maybe a play area, maybe outside, maybe the scenes of your everyday life. Yes, to sing, dance, and converse! To make creative options available—but not to continuously stimulate.

Enjoy this tour of playing babies! Notice in these pics how play is not a different activity than learning, or even functioning. It’s all the same thing!

Peekaboo! Or is it really that simple?

Peekaboo! Or is it really that simple?

He saw a space and was curious. His brain “measured” the size of the space (can I fit?) and the distance, and he set out on the adventure. He got through—and confirmed his test of perception!  This is the same baby that, a few months ago, was investigating the cat-toy-tunnel (above). Only now the investigation is on a different scale, and he’s the one “inside.” Perhaps he will build trains; or have an easy time learning the subway; or be really good at devising creative ways through obstacles in his life when he’s 30.

He saw a space and was curious. His brain “measured” the size of the space (can I fit?) and the distance, and he set out on the adventure. He got through—and confirmed his test of perception!
This is the same baby that, a few months ago, was investigating the cat-toy-tunnel (above). Only now the investigation is on a different scale, and he’s the one “inside.” Perhaps he will build trains; or have an easy time learning the subway; or be really good at devising creative ways through obstacles in his life when he’s 30.

Sometimes, when we’re quiet enough, babies “read” to us! Listen for her vocalizations, even if she’s not saying words you recognize.

Sometimes, when we’re quiet enough, babies “read” to us! Listen for her vocalizations, even if she’s not saying words you recognize.

If we wait, will this 3 month old work it out?

If we wait, will this 3 month old work it out?

I’d wait for him, myself—he looks pretty serious about his business. “Play” or “work”? “Effort” in what sense? Innocent play or intense mission?

I’d wait for him, myself—he looks pretty serious about his business. “Play” or “work”? “Effort” in what sense? Innocent play or intense mission?

He is determined, concentrating. Is play always happy? Are effort and work only for grown ups? Sometimes play just “is.” In our society, we’ve separated work and play: 5 days for work, 2 for otherwise; we spend our lives working, and then in retirement we play. What if the two were objective, interwoven, natural parts of daily life, no matter our age? What if we kept on playing for the rest of our lives?!

He is determined, concentrating. Is play always happy? Are effort and work only for grown ups? Sometimes play just “is.” In our society, we’ve separated work and play: 5 days for work, 2 for otherwise; we spend our lives working, and then in retirement we play. What if the two were objective, interwoven, natural parts of daily life, no matter our age? What if we kept on playing for the rest of our lives?!

Both play and functional movement (in this case, rolling) grow out of motivation, desire, attention, and intention. Can we even separate “play” from “function” in this case?

Both play and functional movement (in this case, rolling) grow out of motivation, desire, attention, and intention. Can we even separate “play” from “function” in this case?

Just playing… And… This is also a significant developmental pattern of movement, with her weight shifted to one side, one knee bent, and the “free” arm reaching/grasping. It’s “play,” but it’s also preparation for belly crawling!

Just playing… And… This is also a significant developmental pattern of movement, with her weight shifted to one side, one knee bent, and the “free” arm reaching/grasping. It’s “play,” but it’s also preparation for belly crawling!

This baby had just reached for a toy but didn't get it. Notice your urge--would you have gotten it for her? We can see her thinking about it. Perhaps she's problem-solving. The next thing she did was reach again for the toy!

This baby had just reached for a toy but didn’t get it. Notice your urge–would you have gotten it for her? We can see her thinking about it. Perhaps she’s problem-solving. The next thing she did was try again!

He’s learning to walk! Actually, he’s doing the exact same investigation process he’s done all his life while playing—motivation, curiosity, sensing what’s possible, and making attempts. Only now the reflexes are different, and we’ll end up celebrating what is commonly called a “milestone.” He was not taught to play, he just did that naturally by himself. This baby also was not taught to walk, he found it completely on his own; and here he goes! Play = function!

He’s learning to walk! Actually, he’s doing the exact same investigation process he’s done all his life while playing—motivation, curiosity, sensing what’s possible, and making attempts. Only now the reflexes are different, and we’ll end up celebrating what is commonly called a “milestone.” He was not taught to play, he just did that naturally by himself. This baby also was not taught to walk, he found it on his own; and here he goes! Play = function!

How To Foster This Beautiful Baby-led Learning?

TTtogether2, 5mopr sm enh high-medI invite you to be an Observer. Discover—with joy and wonder (sounds cliche, but I’m serious!)—the intense, amazing, curious, and brilliant little natural explorer that you know is already is your baby!

Tips for “active” observing:

  • First, watch for signs of engagement. Before calling his name or rattling a toy to catch his attention, notice: is he already interested in something? Is he already looking, listening, planning, or doing? If so, he is learning something! Hold off for a moment and see what he does. You may find he has a longer attention span than you realized!
Take her perspective. If we were looking at her from above her, we might have called her name to engage her, not realizing she was enjoying such a spectacular scene!

Take Baby’s perspective. If we were looking at her from above her, we might have called her name to engage her, not realizing she was enjoying such a spectacular scene!

  • Interact fully when Baby initiates it . . . 
  • . . . but allow Baby to turn away when he’s ready. If he disengages, pauses, or looks away from you, his brain is likely processing something. Give him this space. He’ll probably turn back to you on his own or get interested in something else.
  • Follow Baby’s lead. When you put him down, let him decide where to go and what to play with.
  • Let Baby set the pace and choose when he’s done or not.
  • Provide non-battery toys and objects he can manipulate himself, like balls, bowls, measuring cups, rattles, and other easy-to-handle toys.

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  • “Good job!!” less; celebrate along with Baby more (“Yes, I saw you crawl under the table and get that ball!”). Or, simply observe, say nothing, and witness pure discovery!
  • Trust that the level-in-space Baby can get to on his own is just right for him. What can he do on his own when he’s not propped up higher than he can get by himself (like in sitting or standing)?
  • Get down there with him! Observing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re passive. He knows you’re there. He may look at you or come to you at some point, and you can share in his delight!
Might as well get down there and do what he’s doing! The world looks different from down here. Did you know that when you’re belly-crawling age, the grass is about 1/3 of your height?

Might as well get down there and do what he’s doing! The world looks different from down here. Did you know that when you’re belly-crawling age, the grass is as tall as 1/3 of yourself?

Of course there are times when you may want to initiate a song, game, or interaction. Be sure to also build some observing-with-presence into your daily life with Baby.

Why This is Important NOW

“Educational” videos for babies, flash cards, discomfort in tummy time, pressure to achieve and look “normal,” and popular images of “good parenting”: these are just a few factors parents and caregivers face. But these factors can limit babies’ innate abilities to be movement-literate, learn on their own motivation, be at ease in their environment, and fully process what’s going on around them.

Enjoy your youngest scientist!

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Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Aware Parenting Instructor, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and has trained as a Feldenkrais® Practitioner.

© Eliza Parker 2014, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my writing in your blog or materials, please ask permission.)

 

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2 responses to “Baby Play: What Does Learning Look Like? Being an Observer

  1. Fantastic presentation of this material! Thank you so much for offering this to all of us who interact with our world’s babies. Pass this on!!!!

    -Betsy D. Occupational Therapist, Rolfer

  2. This is such a great post and covers so many if the tips I give patents as a speech and language therapist. Babies are amazing if we sit back and watch them!

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