What does play look like for a newborn?



(Photo via Donnie Ray Jones, Flickr Creative Commons)

Recently during a Facetime chat with baby J. and his abuelos, grandfather, noticing J.’s play space, remarked, “¿Qué? ¿No le compráis juguetes? (Don’t you guys buy him any toys?)

Con E., siempre la teníais en la taca taca, o con un juguete colgado en el cochecito. (With E., you guys always had her in the baby walker, or with a bunch of toys hanging in her stroller.)

So, what’s changed for us the second time around?

Thanks to Magda Gerber’s philosophy of respectful infant care, as well as the work of play advocates like psychologist Peter Gray, preschool teacher and blogger Teacher Tom, child delopment professor David Elkind, and RIE associates/bloggers Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury (among others!), I have come to understand what play really is and why it’s important for children of all ages, including a newborn.

Wait, what?


Yes, from the day they enter the world!

So, what does play look like for a newborn? And, what is a parent’s role?

First, the definition of play.

Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Free to Learn, sums up play this way:

“…Play is not neatly defined in terms of some single identifying characteristic. Rather, it is defined in terms of a confluence of several characteristics. People before me who have studied and written about play have, among them, described quite a few such characteristics; but they can all be boiled down, I think, to the following five: (1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.” (Source)

So, what play actually looks like will differ from one individual to the next.

For me, it’s drinking a glass of wine and reading for hours on end, by myself.

For my husband, D., it’s playing tennis with friends.

For my daughter, E., it’s marching around her room with her imaginary friends, Edu and Cowich. Other times, it’s lying in her crib after a nap and alternating between singing, recounting Arthur stories, and babbling.


(Photo via Q Family, Flickr Creative Commons)

For baby J., at four months, it’s studying his fist (sometimes up to an hour at a time!) and staring at the leaves changing color at the park. Other times, play for him means lifting up his legs, over and over and over again (as he gets ready to turn onto this stomach). While at other times, he plays by babbling and cooing and gurgling.

If you’re skeptical that staring and looking and watching and noticing and observing are examples of play, remember this: play is self-chosen, self-directed, imaginative, and involves an alert and active frame of mind (see above).

So, while staring at your fist for an hour might bore you to tears, for a newborn learning how his body works for the first time, this might provide hours of entertainment.

(Similarly, I’d rather clean toilets than play tennis! Ha!)

Consider the notion of “blue-sky speculation,” as put forth by Alison Gopnik, psychologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley:

“A recent article in the New York Times,Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think,” by Alison Gopnik stresses the importance of ‘blue-sky speculation,’ an opportunity to “imagine different ways the world might be.” A baby self-directing his activities in a safe place can begin to develop his own view of life. Time alone allows a child to commune with his inner-directed thoughts. He has the chance to absorb every interesting detail in his environment with all of his senses. He is fully in tune with himself; he is at peace.” (Source)


(Photo via Donnie Ray Jones, Flickr Creative Commons)

What role do we parents have, then, regarding our newborn’s play?

In the words of Magda Gerber:

“Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs, and leave them alone.” 

Provide: Our job as parents is not to entertain our children, or in other words, play with them. Rather, it is to “take care of their needs.” Feed them, clothe them, bathe them, love them. And, provide a place where they can engage in the type of play that they choose.

  • Months 0-3: An intimate, cozy, and safe space. A Moses basket, or bassinet, or pack and play are perfect. Anything larger can be overwhelming to a newborn. But, isn’t the pack and play where they sleep? Yes, the same space where they sleep is just right since their awake time is so short. This way, when they tire from playing, they can drift peacefully into sleep.
  • Months 4+: When a baby can remain awake for longer periods of time, consider a slightly larger space where she can practice rolling over and scooting around. If the weather is warm enough, leave her feet bare since feet provide a baby with lots of tactile feedback about her surroundings. Similarly, once a baby can roll over to her stomach (on her own) and has control of her head, a hard wood floor also provides lots of real-time feedback about her space and her body’s ability to manipulate it.

Acknowledge that play is a choice: “take the mobile off the bed.”

When we place a mobile, or mirror, or anything else over and in front of a baby’s face, we are essentially forcing her to stare directly at a toy that we’ve chosen for her. On the other hand, RIE recognizes and respects a child’s choice in play and discourages the use of mobiles. (Side note: a baby’s bed should be free of stimulation so that it encourages rest and sleep.)

Instead, place one or two simple toys next to the baby, so that he can chose to turn his head towards or away from the object. (I use this black and white book.) Or, better yet, put nothing next to your newborn, and allow him to gaze at his surroundings (after all, the best toys aren’t toys): the light coming in through the windows, the shadows on the walls, their own fist. Babies, new to the world, are fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells around them. They’re also curious about how their body works. So, give them time on their backs, the most natural position for them, so that they can explore their body and how it moves.

Honor their time playing: “leave them alone.” No, this doesn’t imply neglect. Rather, it’s a reminder to get out of the way, to not interfere in a baby’s play. To view their choice of play, including staring at their fist for an hour, as enough.

No, as perfect.

How does your baby spend his/her time playing? I’d love to hear from you!

4 thoughts on “What does play look like for a newborn?

  1. Pingback: MY “sleep training” story | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  2. Pingback: Sportscasting – the language of parenting | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

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