First Play

This article first appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine.

As a mothering coach I go into my clients’ homes to support parents to do their best job. There is so much to learn with little preparation. Frequently, moms and dads ask me how to play with the baby. Learning how to play is the single most important mindset and skill that you can acquire! You as a parent can be your child’s best toy as you offer love, interest, comfort, touch, mind and heart sharing, and time for exploration.

 Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute of Play, defines play as “spontaneous behavior that is pleasurable and has no clear cut goals or conforms to a stereotypical pattern.” All play is educational learning and is a human right and need of every child.

 Unfortunately, modern parents are stressed and overworked and do not make time for play as a priority, or sometimes dread the thought of playing with their children. Getting into its flow does energize you while benefiting your child’s developing brain and cognitive, social, physical and emotional learrning. Remember, that neuroscience reveals that development requires interaction with a parent or caregiver. It is usually the most rewarding time that you and your child can spend together. Importantly, it makes you as the parent aware of your child’s daily needs, feelings, conflicts, strengths and weaknesses which can be supported and repaired. Early play is also an indicator of your child’s unique talents and interests that require encouragement.

 What did you play as a child? school? Ball? Cars and trucks? Dolls? My daughter loved to play with blocks and, early on, was drawing house plans with crayons. She be came an architect. Your child’s interest are unique to him or her.

 Here is an approach to early play that works:

  •  Switch gears, breathe, stretch and let go of adult thoughts and your “to-do” list before interacting with your child.
  • Tune in to your child in the present moment. What is his body saying? Pay attention to actions and movements. Say out loud exactly what you observe. “I see that you are kicking and moving your fingers.”
  • Follow the child’s lead. First, match his rhythms, vocalizations and movements. Then you can offer little changes.
  • Play when the baby is alert and relaxed rather than on your schedule. Acknowledge his real feelings as OK.
  • Watch out for overstimulation. Your baby or toddler will turn away when overstimulated. Pause play until he gives his full attention back to you or the “peek a boo” game.
  • Engage in face-to-face play during informal. Look into each other’s eyes often and show how delighted you are. Interest often.
  • Get on your child’s level. Get no the floor for tummy time. You may need to do this in small doses at first.
  • Stress sensory and motor exploration. Allow time for repetition and mastery.

Often I discover that young children are overstimulated and home and school as they have too many toys or the wrong ones. For example, babies need to have the right size and weight rattles and manipulative toys. I prefer wooden rather than plastic toys and use colorful scarves.

 Babies and toddlers love music and need to creatively move and be moved. Don’t forget to stress the crawling stages. The idea is too play simply, but with endless variations on a theme. You can play peek a boo with hands, scarves, hats, or behind chairs. I always tell parents to change the timing of actions from fast to slow, to change the force from light touch to stronger force and change the space so that your child feels comfortable in both small and large spaces. Your child develops the movement behavior style by age seven that he will carry into adulthood. Early play needs to be free, explorative and constant.

 When you cultivate the spirit of free flowing play indoors or outdoors, you and your child can have fun anywhere and any time.

 Play offers the tie that binds.

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