Play is one of the most important things our children can do. In her book, Rest, Play, Grow Dr. Deborah McNamara describes play as, "the birthplace of personhood- it is how the self is born psychologically. Play isn't about putting information into a child but drawing out a child's ideas, intentions, aspirations, preferences, wants, and wishes. Play allows children to express themselves, despite their lack of words and understanding."
I struggled with play in the beginning because I felt that I needed to make the fun and play happen. The more I read and researched, I realized that play should be child led. It is not up to us the parents to create the play, but rather we must create an open environment in which play can happen naturally. In order for play to be true play, Dr. McNamara states it needs to be three things.
She states it must be:
Not work - this means there are no set or desired outcomes. The child is simply playing because they are enjoying the moment. As much as we want to say, "Wow, good job!" it is important for us to have no opinion about play. Play is simply play. It is not good or bad.
Not for real- this means there are no consequences or judgement about play. Many times children may act out things happening in their real life in play. We don't need to interpret this or try to decipher what is happening.
Expressive and exploratory- this means the child is actively engaged in play and is playing how they want.
While it is important for us as the parents to play and connect with our children, it is also important that we provide time for independent play. This is when we step back, and let our little one play on their own. Independent play is so very important because it lets our child take center stage and take control. They aren't looking for guidance from us, but rather they are guiding the play by using their imagination and exploring their world in their own way. It's important to note that young children won't be able to do long spurts of independent play. They may have 3- 4 minutes of independent play and then come back to us for their connection cup to be filled. As a child gets older, this time will lengthen. For reference, Lilah is 19 months and will sometimes play independently for 10 minutes (MAX) but it is normally closer to 5 minutes. When I am with her in her play space, I let her guide the play and I only participate if she has invited me to play with her or asked for help. So this would look like me sitting next to her and simply watching her play. If she then makes eye contact or speaks to me, I will join. I make sure to never judge her play. I will ask her if she is having fun or what it felt like to do something by herself. This puts the emphasis back on the experience and process rather than the outcome.
I want to expand a little bit about the "Not for work" aspect of play. We have a toy subscription that send toys every two months. When we first got the toys, Lilah wouldn't play with the toys how the subscription said she "should." It used to stress me out so much. Once I realized that the toys were for HER, and she should play with them however she wanted, all the stress went away. As parents, we need to realize that it's not up to us to determine play and it's not up to us to have an opinion on what is fun and what isn't. Instead, we just need to step back and let our little one have fun however they want. When introducing a toy we can show them how to use it but it is up to them to use it how they want.
Play can be so many things. It can be running around outside, exploring rocks, playing with dirt, playing with toys, playing with real life objects, acting things out, moving the body, coloring, painting, etc. Anything in which our little one takes the lead and expresses themselves how they want.
I have created a list below of some of our favorite toys. Most of them are open ended. Open ended toys are our favorite because they can be played with in multiple ways. There is no right way to play with them. They allow the child to play how they want to play and use their imagination.
I would like to note that there is nothing wrong with your child if they aren't interested in playing with a specific toy. Just as we all have unique needs and desires, so do our babies. Some babies love to focus, some love to move, some love to do a little bit of both. When choosing toys, tune into your little one, what do they seem to like? Are they currently interested in fitting things in holes? Are they interested in taking things out of other things? Are they in a phase where they are working on using their fine motor skills or are they working more on gross motor skills?
It is so important to tune into them and provide experiences and opportunities that cater to their interests and desires.
Below is a list of our favorite toys so far (6-19 months).
I started at 6 months, because before this age, a safe space to roam the floor is really all a baby needs. Obviously you can include lots of snuggles, some contrasting images, lots of reading, etc, but most of this will be with you. The toys I am listing below are for when baby is ready to really start exploring on their own.
This ball is great for all ages. It's great for sensory as well as rolling and throwing later on! Balls are such simple yet amazing toys for our little ones because they can be played with in SO many different ways.
6 months +
Stacking rings are great for all ages because they can be played with in so many ways. They can simply be mouthed, they can be taken off, and then as baby grows they can begin stacking them.
6 months +
I love Melissa & Doug chunky puzzles. They are great because the pieces can simply be used for tummy time and then as baby gets older they can start playing with them in many different ways. At 18 months Lilah started placing the pieces in the correct spots on the actual puzzle but this will vary by age.
8 months +
We LOVE all Tender Leaf toys. I especially love this sensory puzzle because it has different textures behind each animal but also because the wood is amazing quality and can be chewed on by younger babies. As they grow they can then begin to use the puzzle.
6 months +
Music is so fun and exciting for little ones. Just having exposure to the different sounds and instruments is so stimulating and fun for them. I love the quality of this music set and all of the different instruments.
6 months +
These are BY FAR Lilah's favorite toy. I wish we would have gotten them sooner. They are perfect for lifting, stacking, kicking, building walls and knocking them down. They provide so many opportunities for play and exploration.
16 months +
Another amazing toy from Tender Leaf. Babies LOVE opening and closing things. This creates a challenging way for them to open and close AND find surprises. At 19 months, Lilah just really became interested opening locks.
I have only listed a few toys, but the concepts behind each toy can be found in SO many different toys. My biggest advice for toys is to tune into your little one and provide options that are interesting to them. If they don't like a toy right away, thats normal and OK. Provide it at a later time to see if it interests them then.
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