If we take the time to watch a baby, we can see how they occupy themselves: they look around with big eyes, perhaps stopping here and there to focus on a particular object. If they see another person, they look into their face and imitate their facial expression. If they are bigger, they grab at their surroundings with their tiny hands in order to explore and to feel. At some point, too, their food is guided to their mouth, fingered, smelled, tasted. All that and much more is play to the child.
Playing is the only thing with which the baby is occupied, because they get to know the world through play. They test out their abilities and gradually expand upon them by playing. This is why a baby does not have to learn to play: they bring play, curiosity and a spirit of adventure with them from the very start. The nature of play differs according to the temperament of each child and their interests are also influenced by their environment, but the child’s very personal fields of interest also govern the way they play.
As parents, therefore, we do not have to teach our children to play. Our major task is to avoid disturbing or sidetracking babies and children when they are playing, and to allow the child to investigate: children should be allowed to discover their toys for themselves and to test out their functions. They do this by touching them with their hands and mouth to check out their properties. We should not demonstrate the functions of a toy or explain a well-designed toy, we should instead be able to trust the child to learn independently.
If children have the chance to explore a toy themselves, they can employ all their senses in the process and learn holistically. In addition, they gain crucial experience by taking action for themselves: they are delighted to be able to do things and work them out for themselves, and endorphins are released into the body when they have positive experiences. These consolidate freshly learned knowledge and allow children to approach new challenges positively. Children can apply themselves freely to new tasks from the very beginning and benefit from this in the long-term if they are simply allowed to play and explore according to their own needs from when they are babies. We adults can simply define the scope of the play at the start, i.e. the choice of materials and toys, thus giving babies the opportunity to gain a wide variety of sensory impressions from the play materials.
This is an article by our guest writer Susanne Mierau. She is a mother of three children, trained educationalist (specialising in infant pedagogics), family counsellor and the editor of online parenting magazine geborgen-wachsen.de, as well as author of guides on the topic of living with babies and small children.