Fostering Self-Directed Play: ten tips to help pre-schoolers entertain themselves

After my last post on Nurturing Independence and Imagination: a Dance of Freedom and Reconnection Lucinda asks:

I don’t know how much of it is personality and how much is a reflection of my mothering, but from the get-go, I feel that my son has required a lot of attention and input and has a more difficult time playing on his own. It’s definitely been improving since he turned 2, but now that he is nearly 3, I still find that he requires almost-constant participation from me in all of his play (the rare exception being reading books, he will disappear and read books to himself for 20min at a time). Whether it be an art project or imaginary play or legos, he loses interest or just doesn’t want to do it unless I too am fully engaged. Any thoughts/tips on this? I don’t mind being his constant play companion, but sometimes I do have other needs and I do want to foster his independence.”

Dear Lucinda,

This is so clearly the question of a caring, involved and engaged mama… Thank you for sharing of yourself in this way, too. We all have times when we need to be able to get on with things and we hope our kid will not want to ‘help’ with absolutely everything all the time… And, yes, I do think personality – a kid’s nature – plays into it, for sure. Some kids are more dreamy and are off creating their own worlds, seemingly from the get-go. Others need a little more help. However, I will say, that all the RIE/low intervention parented kids I personally know tend to play well by themselves for long chunks of time, and though I haven’t seen any research on this personally, it does seems to be the experience of all those teaching and practicing these approaches, too. So it would appear ‘nurture’ has a fair chance of at least expanding most kids’ attention spans and helping them play and concentrate on something, on their own, for longer.

Here’s the thing, though, I am not perfect. I am still learning myself. And I am not an expert. I am a mom who likes reading and thinking and watching her kid and her friends’ kids at play. And I am willing to share what I have learned so far. Use only what resonates with you and serves your family.

Our aim here, then, is to help your child gain confidence in following and sticking with their own play impulses. To kick-start them into this new habit of sustaining independent play, you might need to put some extra energy into the system for a limited period of time (probably a few months – although it will get easier as you go). Of course, in the long run, the goal is to have them play by themselves more and more but to start with you can do things that will help them build the confidence and skill to play on their own and that will take some commitment from you. But you will be re-paid in both renewed closeness and increased focus and attention span.

Here are some of the ways we can support our kids to do that:

  1. Let your child pick the activity – he leads, you follow. Right now he is (clearly) not ready to just be left and for you to assume he can sustain the game on his own, so in this transition period you are going to do subtle things that encourage him to sustain an activity that he has started. But that is key. You mention art and crafts and legos… I am wondering, whose idea is it to play with those, usually? Was it yours or his? Adult-led activities will often need adults to carry them, too. So, your job to start with will be to observe him (as I am sure you already do) and follow him. Set a time, perhaps half an hour a day, in which you will intensively follow his lead in play. Anything he wants to play, you do it and once he has started it, you stay with him, pouring your enthusiasm into everything he does (not praise – we know that is not helpful – but genuine, heart-felt joy at the minutia of what he is coming up with, expressed through facial expressions and non-verbal cues as well as some choice, intrinsic-motivation-building words :)

    A Play Break

    A Play Break (Photo credit: emerille)

  2. Once he gets into something don’t interrupt. It is VERY easy for us adults to do. In fact, I see it all the time: a child finally gets into a groove and is doing something on their own for a minute and immediately an adult will step in with ways to ‘improve’ or replace what they are interested in: ‘look at that plane in the sky’, ‘why don’t you do this with that sand castle’, ‘why don’t you play with this, instead, it looks more fun’ – and hey presto you have pulled them off their simple but absorbing agenda and onto yours… Really, we need to make this a rule for all times, even outside this intensive half-hour, we have to learn to respect what they’re interested in by not interrupting to show (or worse still teach) him something ‘more interesting’. We all do it… and we could all benefit from doing it LESS. There are exceptions of course but your job, during this boot-camp phase is to REALLY, really tune into what turns him on, right now and follow that. Again you are helping strengthen his confidence in his inner compass. He knows what he wants to play, what he wants to explore – you are now showing him that you see that and think what is interesting to him is worth being interested in.  :)
  3. So,  in play, we enter our kids’ world – show him you ‘see’ this world he is imagining for and with you and that you believe in it. Wait to be invited in and take your cue from him as to what role he wants you to play in his game of choice.
  4. When in it, describe his world from his point of view. These are two really important points: first follow their gaze and actions to see what is important to them on a moment by moment basis – what is really interesting them in this toy/activity? Try and put yourself in their shoes and see it from their point of view. Secondly, put it into words. This ‘shared focus’ where you are talking about what they are thinking is huge. In a sense you are helping him build an inner dialogue about what he is doing (a practice he can continue without you, once you have helped him strengthen this muscle).
  5. Keep the environment simple. Waldorf educators have long been observing that the fewer toys you have the longer your kid will play with each one, by and large. If you find you have always a lot of toys about, consider starting a toy rotation where you remove and store some/most of the toys and leave out only the most current ones. If you pick ones he is not really into at the moment and remove those, he may not even notice or care but I bet he will be super excited to see some of them come back!
  6. Allow him to bow out of an activity whenever he wants to. Yes, sometimes he will flit from one activity to the next. That is okay. What you are primarily trying to develop is not long periods of playing the same thing… what you are trying to develop, really, is their ability to connect with their own desires and follow those freely, for as long as possible. Once that muscle is strengthened they can go for hours on end – but it comes from being natural and following their heart (even when it is acting like a summer-drunk butterfly).
  7. But likewise, allow him to stay with something for as long as he wants to (don’t judge it as too long in one game/song/pattern). Of course if you need to eat or if it is bedtime or the like, you need to interrupt. If so, do it sensitively, empathically as you would with any adult deeply engaged in something they love: give them fair notice (say a one-minute warning?), allow them to stop at a moment which is a natural pause, if possible, let them bring something of that play into the next phase of their day, if appropriate (e.g. let them bring a stuffed toy into the car… or a car into the bedroom) – and do let them negotiate appropriately around any of those (a courtesy you would also undoubtedly afford a grown-up)
  8. Switch off the TV (and the radio) – this is incredibly important. TV saps focus, it is constantly competing for our attention and often gets it. Background TV is the worst (especially for kids under about 2 – as they find it hard to distinguish background from foreground noise and it all becomes one big mish-mash of sensory overload). At least for that intensive half-hour where you are following his play-cues, switch off all background noise (well, not airplanes and traffic… but whatever you can) :p  More on the effect of TV on kids here. 
  9. Create emotional safety and freedom of (full) expression. This is SUPER important. Play is like a barometer for kids’ internal wellbeing. With my 2.5 year old I see that when she is stressed she ‘needs me’ practically all the time. When she is really relaxed and at ease within herself she plays independently for the longest periods. I observe that after a real, cathartic cry or rage is when she is at her most relaxed. It is like she has totally unburdened herself, she has emptied herself of all that emotional junk and now she is really FREE to play. You can learn more about that here, for example (with Hand in Hand Parenting – one of the leading lights in this understanding of how play and emotional expression reflect off each other and bring real learning and healing for children). I have also blogged about it here.
  10. Expect this process to take time and know that it may get ‘worse’ before it gets better, in other words, yes, you are going to have to invest time in going deeper into their world, for now but, you know, that might just become the high point of your day. And in the long-run you’ll be giving him skills that set him for a childhood, a life of knowing and following the rhythm of his own drum – giving him independence, creativity, self-regulation

But here is the thing, in many ways, you are re-training yourself – more than him. Most of us have developed habits which, though well meaning, actually do not serve our ultimate aims (of fostering kids who joyfully engage in self-directed play, for example). So, in a way this ‘boot camp’ is for you – so that if you have any of the habits that interrupt or weaken his play instincts, you can now ‘unlearn’ them.

As good as my kid is at entertaining herself, for her age… as soon as I do something interesting (in her eyes) she will abandon what she is doing to come and ‘help’ me. Doing the cooking is classic in this regard – and that is also a good thing (though the stuff of another post, no doubt). So, yeah, even trying our best, we will unwittingly interrupt them.

Plus, all kids go through phases in this regard, right? And still, even on a good day, as I have said before, my kid and my interactions are very much like a dance of independence and reconnection. She will play a little, then check in and gently demand interaction or ask to breastfeed… and then she is off again.

Boy playing with bubble wrap

Boy playing with bubble wrap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a sense helping a child to become confident with self-direct play is much like helping them develop a healthy relationship with food. They need to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. You as a parent can get out of the way and help them recognise their own inner drives, in this case hunger and satiety, as well as build on their healthy appetites. Now, translate that to play. Let them recognise their own drives and desires when it comes to play, to trust them and follow them, to start what they want to start and stop when they are done with that game. It takes time and patience for them to really believe that they can lead in play – and that you trust them to create the best fun themselves.

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Finally, if you are in the mood for more reading, do check out one of the internet’s gurus on self-directed play, Janet Landsbury who rocks and has written about toddlers, here, for example:

But she has many great articles and she comes from this philosophy that has also inspired me so much: Magda Gerber’s RIE.

There are also lots of other awesome links sprinkled throughout the text. Enjoy those at your leisure.

Thank you again for reading and do come back with me with any more questions and I will help in whichever way I can (an invitation that goes out also to anyone reading this). With love, joy and thanks for sticking with me through such a long post,

Gauri

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Twenty easy-peasy tips for supporting language development

Happy Children Playing Kids

Happy Children Playing Kids (Photo credit: epSos.de)

When Nica was only a baby, I was nervous about not knowing how to talk to her to help her develop language. Does that sound odd? I don’t know where I got that from, honestly. Lots of people will say ‘oh, they’ll learn sooner or later, one way or another, just from being around people talking’… While that is true, I have also found, from all the research I did to allay those initial first-time-mom nerves, that there are attitudes, approaches and techniques that some parents develop naturally (while others may need to learn them) that can make a difference to how much and how fast children learn language. Each child is unique and even applying this ‘program’ equally to all children would not of course ensure they were all speaking in full sentences by the age of one… but it is about maximising their potential for acquiring new language.

Afterall, not all households are equal in the way that children are exposed to language. For example…

  • Is there continual background noise from TV or radio or long periods of silence in which to explore making sounds? Do adults mostly talk to each other over the child or do they involve the child and talk directly to them?
  • And if they are talking directly to the child are they asking incessant, ‘testing’ questions or are they putting words to what he sees?
  • For that matter, are they trying to shift the kids onto their adult view point or are they entering the child’s world and speaking about what the child sees from their eye-level and about what is interesting to them?
  • Do grown-ups get down and talk to children eye-to-eye or shout at them from across the room and then get mad if the kid doesn’t immediately follow their ‘order’?
  • Is there one language in the household or two (or more) and how much do they overlap by?
  • Is the baby treated like a package to be moved here or there or are they treated with respect and like they understand so much, from day one?…

Yes, there are many, many variables which means there are things that work better and things that are less helpful when it comes to a child picking up language.

As I say, I was nervous, so I read a lot (that is what I do, when I feel adrift). So, now, I want to share with you all some of the things I learned on that journey of how to tune in and help our children develop their language skills to the best of their ability and in their own time – without ever pushing, testing or putting any pressure on them to know any more than they feel enthused to learn for themselves. We are very much following their lead, here, but doing it from an informed point of view, rather than just hoping for the best.

Here are my top tips for talking to the zero to two year old set:

  1. Turn off the TV. Even if you are a hard-core tele-addict (which honestly I can empathise with), try and turn off the TV even if for only 30 minutes a day – but more is better. Babies are unable to distinguish background from foreground sound. Any background noise seriously messes up their chances of focussing on the sounds coming out of your mouth… or the toy they are banging on, or even the sounds they themselves are uttering. They need to be able to really pick apart which sounds they are creating, what is doing what, which sound is coming from whose mouth etc. This helps them build their first understanding of cause and effect as well as help them begin to build associations between words and objects or people. The more clearly they can hear you, the faster they can begin to learn. So, give it a go: turn off the TV, especially before your kids are two.
  2. Carve out half an hour a day of one-to-one time with each child:  You are dedicating this half an hour a day to connect and communicate with your child – is this not what being a parent is all about? The idea is that you let them lead the exploration and play, completely, in this time. And, of course, make sure there is no background noise or interruptions. It can feel hard, to begin with, to just ‘be’, with no props, just you watching and following your kid’s lead in play but the pay-off is immense in terms of closeness, understanding and language development. Ideally you are aiming for half an hour per day with each child – if you can’t do that, do as close to that as you can: 15 minutes with each child/a day or 30 minutes with one kid one day, 30 minutes with another the next. The important thing is that you have one-to-one time where all the language is for them. Here is my first post on this practice and the research that led to it.
  3. Create shared focus: apart from the no TV rule, this is the single most important tip I ever received about supporting emerging language skills: talk about what they are interested in, at the time they are interested in it. Children are far more likely to remember a word if it is about something they are focussed on – this is proven. In the case of babies (and this applies to toddlers, too, really) the best way to create shared focus is for you to jump onto their wavelength. Don’t try and pull them to yours (“look at that birdie”; “play with this toy, this way”), all the time. Try and use this as time to get to know your child and what fascinates them and holds their attention. And then speak about what they are engaged with, or in other words…
  4. ‘Sportscast’. Narrate (from the child’s view point) what they are seeing, touching, smelling, hitting, etc. – especially for that half-hour a day but also at other opportune moments in the day. This is a version of what Magda Gerber, author and founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), calls ‘sportscasting’. It works wonders not only for helping children interface with the world but later, as they grow older, with other children, too, even averting and disarming all manner of childish spats. But at the tender ages when language is first developing (say between 9 and 15 months) the primary purpose of narrating a child’s activities back to them, in my view, is to give them words for that which they are experiencing. And, as I said above, children learn the most when it is something they are actively engaged in (rather than something we want to teach them). It is amazing how much a child’s first words can reveal to us about what their priorities are. My kid’s first signs (which came before spoken words) were all about things which she loved, like ducks, ceiling fans and lights – hah!
  5. Scaffold: my mum, the language teacher, tells me this is a term coined by Vygotsky. If I understand it correctly, it is basically a fancy word for continuing to speak to your kid about one level ahead of where they are at, if that makes sense. You provide the ‘scaffolding’ for them to learn at their own pace. You don’t speak to them in long, rushed, complicated sentences that are way above their ‘pay grade’; nor do you speak about stuff that is not in the room and expect them to understand (not when they are babies, at least); you also don’t need to teach them with flash cards… nor, to go to the other extreme, do you need to either talk down to them or, worse still, talk to them like Elmo or like you yourself are a toddler who doesn’t quite grasp grammar yet (‘daddy take ba-ba’?!). Talk to babies in real sentences with real words but…
  6. Keep it simple. Make sure to enunciate and speak clearly. Not all the time, in some uber-self-conscious kind of a way. They need to hear natural speech flow with its inflections, emphasis, tone, etc… but when you are speaking directly to them, it can be helpful to think of babies almost like little foreigners to whom you do the respect of speaking with easy, ‘beginner’ words, with clarity and enthusiasm. But mix it up and pop some more advanced words in there every now and again – they may surprise you and repeat a five syllable word right back at you.
  7. Have fun. Nothing squelches learning faster than being ‘taught’ or worse still, being ‘corrected’. That just presses us back into our emotional shells where we want to hide until we know we will be safe rather than humiliated or made to feel small. So for the sake of your child’s learning but also for the health of your relationship and, perhaps more importantly, just for your own enjoyment as a family, keep it light, joyful and playful.
  8. Learn and share basic sign languageI have blogged much about this before, but essentially, babies are able to communicate using their hands months before they are able to do so with sound. This is because it only takes a few muscles to shape your hand into a sign whereas speaking involves coordinating your breathing, your vocal chords, your mouth shape, your tongue position – all together. It is no wonder it takes a while to master. Children as young as six months can make their first signs. It gives you a real window of insight into a child’s mind, what they notice, what they are interested in but most importantly it gives them an avenue to begin to express to you all that is inside them, from basic needs like ‘milk’ or ‘potty’ to their wonder of the world (‘cat’!!). Research has also shown that babies who are taught to sign actually benefit from a lasting boost to not only their language skills but also their IQ so that at “8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.”
  9. Be responsive: when your baby coos, coo back; when they ga-ga, ga-ga right back at them. This is the first lesson in communication: that we listen and respond, that we take turns, that we talk to each other – this is all valuable information that babies use as foundation for learning how to talk.
  10. Be positive. As they get older and start to use real words, make sure to notice and emphasise what they are getting right. In fact, it is a helpful rule of thumb to respond to most attempts at labelling something by saying ‘Yes‘. They say ‘bid’ you say ‘yes, it is a bird’. This helps build their confidence that, first and foremost, you did understand what they were trying to communicate. Then any ‘correction’ is easier to receive, too, right and kind of seamless. I call it ‘auto-correct’:
  11. Aut0-correct. If they make a mistake no need to make a big song and dance about it, afterall they are only little and, frankly, doing an AMAZING job at picking up language from scratch at an alarming rate, I am sure. So instead of saying ‘no, it is not a do-d0, it is a dog, can you say DOG?’, try simply repeating back to the child what they said but using ‘auto-correct’ (like a kind of auto-tune but for words – lol). They say ‘it is a do-do’, you say, ‘yes, it is a dog’ (correction made and heard. No fuss.)
  12. Practice expansion. ‘Expansion’ in this context, is when you gently, lovingly, seamlessly expand on what your child has just said – this is a part of scaffolding, really. You repeat what they said back to them but add onto it, for example they say ‘ball’ you say, “Yes, it is a red ball” – you expanded on what they said emphasising one word addition to what they said. As they get older and bolder you can get fancy with this but the basics of ‘expansion’ is just about agreeing and adding to what they are saying in very small increments so that they are anchored in a word they do know and can add another one on, in the right place, with your help.
  13. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If there is a new object or word you are noticing they are interested in, repeat it in different contexts. ‘Ah, you see the crane. It is a big crane, isn’t it? Shall we go take a closer look at that blue crane?’, etc…
  14. Make sound effects: kids adore them. A love of language and communication starts often with a love of sounds, of exchanging them backward and forward between mama and baby (or papa or granny or… and baby). It doesn’t need to be about words, animal sounds, the car vrooooooming by, the prellllllllll sound you make when you pick baby up and the ‘ping’ of the toaster popping (repeated by daddy for fun) can all become little ‘word games’ that delight your little listener.
  15. Read or recite lots of fun little nursery rhymes – kids enjoy them and the ability to recognise and create rhymes is an important milestone in a child’s language development that shows how they are grasping and manipulating sounds. Kids especially like the ones with accompanying actions like ‘pat-a-cake’ or ‘ring around the roses’.
  16. Read simple books with lots of repetition to build word-familiarity. (but don’t worry, they’ll make sure you really get the ‘repetition’ part of this tip.)
  17. Sing – singing is another fun way to practice new words, often with rhyming, too. And because of the rhythm, it can make it easier to memorise.
  18. Tell stories. I am a huge fan of story telling for kids. The little ones especially like stories about themselves, either real or imagined (as long as they are the protagonists). Auto-biographical stories like this actually help integrate the right and the left hemispheres of the brain as well as to provide narrative for events of emotional significance in a child’s life. The book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson really goes into the power of story telling as a technique not only for locking-in vocabulary but also for developing memory (exercising it like a muscle, really) – as well as for processing and integrating difficult or emotional events (such as a car accident, for example – although I feel that is food for another post). I also LOVE this post by Jennifer of Hybrid Rasta Mama on the power of story telling for young children. I am convinced our daily ritual of a bedtime story has really helped my daughter remember words for the things and people she sees each day in a way she would not otherwise do.
  19. Get down to their level, engage in eye contact and let them read your lips: this is such a simple tip and yet it can yield great benefits. And it is all about respect, too – you are showing them you care and respect them enough to make the effort to come to where they are and look them in the eye while you talk to them. Who doesn’t feel appreciated when they are engaged with, fully? Plus kids can learn a lot from simply mimicking the shapes you make with your mouth as you talk.
  20. Listen. When a kid talks, pay attention. If possible, ‘listen with your eyes’ as we say in our family. Demonstrate that you are really engaged in what they are saying by focussing on them with all your energy for a moment (even if to say, ‘I need to give the cooking my full attention right now, but you are really important to me and I want to hear what you have to say, so as soon as I am done here, it will be your turn and I will give you my full attention’)…
Put it together and what do you get? An awareness and enjoyment of language exploration with your kid, that is non-stop, along with half an hour a day of dedicated one-on-one connection and communication time, free of distractions, that is all about following your child’s lead and talking about the things (toys, animals, movements) that catch their eye and that are interesting to them. You really learn a lot about your child doing this and as a result both of you feel more and more in tune. It is also proven to boost not only their language skills but their IQ, too – in the long run. Why not give this approach a try?
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See also

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Please note: I am neither a childcare professional nor a speech therapist. I am a mom and the above is my opinion only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you suspect your child has any language delays you should speak to your doctor or seek the help of a specialist that can help your child overcome any potential or actual issues.

With love,

~Gauri

Watch me and learn, mama: a ‘less is more’ approach to supporting optimum child development.

Crawling

Image by courosa via Flickr

Magda Gerber’s Resources for Infant Educators (RIE) is an approach to childcare which I find very similar to my own: watch and learn from your kids, let them take the lead and show you what they are interested in. Plus that is proven to be how kid’s learn best.

Here is an amazing little introduction to the RIE philosophy, if you have not heard of it before:

I first came across RIE kind of by accident. A new momma I had just met invited me to a play date at a group near where we live. She never turned up – yep, she stood me up! And it turns out this group was just starting out and Anya and I were the only ones there – hah. That probably sounds better than it was, one-to-one attention from the group facilitator. In actual fact this is the kind of group where you don’t say much you mostly watch what the kids are up to, what new tricks they are learning, what takes their interest, what habits they have picked up (good or bad), etc. Parents ask questions and you get to benefit from the answers to all the questions, not just your own… but all that doesn’t work so well when you are the only parent in the group. Oh, well. We stayed anyway and then we came for a few more sessions and slowly fell in love with this quiet way of looking at babies’ ways. It turns out we did rather well out of the whole incident, really.

I find this approach to childcare refreshing. It is so organic and natural, somehow. It is based on trust: trust that your kid knows what to do, what skill to practice, that their instincts will drive their will to learn – no adult or gadget intervention needed. I am very much of this belief. I have been amazed over and over by the fact that Anya just knows what to concentrate on next. First babies wave their arms and legs about, then they learn to twist and finally turn. This is basically baby-pilates – as they build their core strength ready to crawl. Crawling in turn builds co-ordination (essential for the brain and for walking). You see them pulling themselves up, practicing squats to strengthen their leg muscles. It is like the DNA encoded its very own fitness trainer into a baby’s brain. Then, when they are ready, they walk and they become more and more obsessed with stairs – the next frontier.

RIE sees and respects this. It gives parents the confidence to trust this process by quietly observing and supporting the baby’s own pace of development. It was a RIE instructor who first suggested to me that I should stop sitting Anya up until she was able to get in and out of this position unaided – because by just ‘artificially’ sitting her up (which she could do, unsupported) she was not lying on the floor, working those core muscles, reaching for things and really getting ready to crawl. If you remember Anya started crawling literally days after I started lying her on her back again – like she just needed that extra little bit of practice to get going.

And it turns out I am not the only one who is into this kind of back-to-basics approach, a whole load of celebrities are, too (who knew?):

RIE is also all about fewer toys and toys that have unlimited possibilities. It was from RIE that we borrowed our ‘toys that aren’t toys’ philosophy – i.e. we started to give Anya bowls and spoons and cloths to play with and those keep her entertained for hours, often.

Magda Gerber’s also urged us to keep our praise natural and minimal: do not get the kid hooked on praise rather than the process of what they are doing. You want them to want to do what they are doing for its own sake, to do it even when you are not looking – not to only do things which please you, for the attention. This is powerful stuff which has repercussions over the person’s life – and super interesting, maybe I’ll post more about another time (if I can find the praise studies, which are so interesting).

At its core, as I see it, RIE is about self-directed learning and exploration. It is a gentle way that puts kids at the centre of their own lives from the start. It nurtures curiosity, self-reliance and determination by simply letting them be, freely, naturally who they are and who they want to be.

Don’t push the milestone river

Shiny and colored objects usually attract Infa...

Image via Wikipedia

Have you heard of Magda Gerber? Neither had I. She came to my attention through a ‘Discover Your Baby’ group I occasionally drop-in on. Her philosophy in childcare seems to sit comfortably alongside many of Steiner’s insights. She is, above all, insistent that we listen to and respect our children as full human beings already, now. She says that if we enfold them in our love they will unfold in their own time and so her teaching gently reminds us not to try and mold our children or push them to learn and grow at a fast pace that suits our ‘parent egos’ more than our child’s developing sense of wonder.

Rather, Magda Gerber (in no way related to the Gerber baby food company) urges us to sit back and observe our children’s natural development (especially aged zero to two, I believe). She says parenting and childcare are being overriden by a ‘faster, more, better’ culture that clutters our children with excess attention, toys and general interference. In contrast, “she urged parents to observe their babies and wait for their cues, never rushing them into sitting, walking, eating, or talking before they signal their readiness to do so.”

This totally resonates with my inner feeling. With eating we very much followed Nica’s cues and waited for her to signal to us that she was ready to start eating and I feel confident that was the right thing for her. With walking, likewise, I have a very relaxed attitude predicated on the fact that I have long been sold on the benefits of crawling for brain development, co-ordination and building core-strength (of the torso). However it was at one of these ‘Discover Your Baby’ classes that I was shown a blind-spot of mine.

Just like so many parents are in a hurry to see their kids walk and put them in walkers, bouncers and other upright devices (most of which are not only not beneficial but arguably even detrimental to children’s overall wellbeing) modern parents often seem in a hurry to see their kids sit upright, too. Okay, I never bought or even experimented with putting Nica in a Bumbo. I thought they were very silly and pointless – even though others seem to get super excited by them. But I did get very enthusiastic when Nica started to be able to stay seated if I placed her there, upright. And at that point, I started sitting her up and leaving her like that because it was cute, because it gave her access to play with toys in a new way, because it gave me a break from having to hover over her when she was rolling everywhere. There was a downside. She would often crash backwards onto her head. Thankfully we have nice, plush carpet and I quickly learned to put a big pillow behind her when I sat her up…

Well… the Magda Gerber inspired ‘Discover Your Baby’ instructor set me straight. I mentioned to her Nica wasn’t crawling yet (this was at about 7.5 months). She asked if Nica spent much time lying on her back (and belly) or if she spent most of her time sitting up. I said I was sitting her up. She then asked if Nica was able to get from her belly to a seated position and back down again by herself or if I had to sit her up and put her back down? I answered (rather sheepishly, by then) that I sat her up, usually between my legs, because she couldn’t keep herself up indefinitely, yet. ‘Ahh’ she said… According to this philosophy you shouldn’t ‘artificially’ sit your kid up (even if she is able to hold herself there) until she is able to sit up for herself and that the fact that she wasn’t crawling was probably related. While Nica was spending all this time sitting up, she wasn’t practicing leg movements (waving her legs from side to side, etc) that exercise her belly and back muscles getting her ready and strong for crawling. ‘Oh…’ I said.

I took Nica home and immediately started putting her on her back and belly and letting her roll and move around on that plane again. Within two or three days Nica started to belly crawl. Aha!…

It definitely feels related and not coincidental – I saw Nica really practice reaching and pre-crawling for those few days. I guess she was ready and just needed that extra stretching and work-out time.

Generally this approach is reminding me to slow down, to look, listen and feel: look and listen to Nica and her cues; feel what is instinctive and intuitive to me. Breathe.

While I am generally quite laid-back and trusting of Nica’s unfolding into the person she is with her unique talents, temperament and passions, I realise that my parenting approach can still do with re-balancing. I get into my little parenting projects, like signing, and though with everything I do with Nica my aim is to be child-led (where possible), a reminder to see what is there is always timely.