Are we doing enough? Are we doing the right things? Are we harming our children? Oh, the damaging questions the parenting advice industry thrusts upon us. Since this marathon three part blog post has all been about balance, about knowing when to intervene andwhen to step back, sometimes it helps to take a look at what children really need. For a lot of parents, that question often becomes one of “stimulation” or “enrichment.”
So what about stimulation for young children? What do they need? Will they be “behind”? What are they learning? Books? Educational toys? Screentime? Classes? Playgroups? Outings? Learning colors? Letters? Whew.
What infants need more than anything is emotional responsivity. Everything else is incidental. The stimulation that is most important and relevant to them is your face, looking back at them, interacting and responding. The toy industry knows it, and you know it via their marketing. “Babies like to look at faces” and “babies like visual contrast”…and so baby toys have faces and visual contrast. They don’t need those toys. Just your face, your responsiveness, and the natural shapes and shadows and contrast of the world around them.
Of course, books are wonderful. Always. At every age. Let them explore them at their own pace. Don’t insist on reading beginning to end. Let them interrupt–the interaction is the goal, not the story. If you read with young children, they associate books with love–that is the primary lesson, not the content or the conventions of the book. That will come later. The interaction is the thing.
The whole world and everything in it is new to infants and toddlers. Stimulation is everywhere, in everything. Every place they go, every person they see, every toy they encounter, the way the sun shines differently in the window at different times of day, the way that leaves cast shadows on the floor, the funny sound of the dog munching on its squeaky plaything, the brisk cold air that wafts in from the open door when their parent leans out to grab the mail, the smells of their parents’ meals, their mom’s morning coffee, the fresh smell of rain when they’re out for a walk, a first snow, the feel of water pouring over face in a bath, colors, shapes, listening to adults talk, hearing another baby cry. They need the space and the time to explore the world in their unique way and pace–to look at what they choose to look at. Even a newborn baby can turn their head from side to side and move their eyes so that they can direct their gaze at whatever they choose. They do not need our help to find things to hold their visual interest–they are naturally curious explorers, constantly gathering information about the world around them.
One of the things that we, as adults, often do with young babies is hold or place something in front of a baby’s face–we might shake a rattle, put a baby under a “baby gym” with all of its hanging shapes and faces, hold up a toy so that they can look at it. We “direct” their attention from the earliest days. It’s a natural inclination, but again, entirely unnecessary, and in premobility days, particularly challenging, as they cannot remove the visual stimulation if it becomes overwhelming to them. There is much to be learned and appreciated by following their gaze and noticing what they notice, and even commenting on it you wish: “You’re looking at the leaves blowing. They make shadows.”
In my classes and workshops, I often use an analogy to speak to the issue of respect and holding up or shaking toys for babies. Again, I remind you that the entire world is new to infants and toddlers. They are taking it in–all of it–in every waking moment. Think about it like this:
All of your life, you have dreamed of going to Italy, walking casually down the streets of Rome, riding through the canals of Venice, taking in the gorgeous colors and architecture of Naples. There is art and color and smells and food and architecture and language and people and water and music and culture all around you every minute. Lucky you, you have a few weeks to take it all in, but even then it couldn’t possibly be enough time to take it all in. You collapse into your bed each night, overwhelmed with all you have seen, trying to take it in so that it becomes part of you, so you will remember it, so you will not forget that painting or that pasta dish or that conversation with a child on the street. On one of your days there, you head out in the morning to discover the sights, sounds, and smells of a new day. As you walk out of the hotel and throughout the day, people continuously appear who shake noisemakers directly in front of your face, blocking your view. People shout at you, trying to pull your attention to one particular thing after the next. The interruptions go on throughout the day. Somehow, you have no power to remove or stop the things that are dangling in front of your face, blocking your view. You stop into a museum, and you encounter a painting that moves you deeply. You can’t tear yourself away, and you feel like you just want to sit on the bench in front of that painting for an hour…and then after lunch, you find that you want to come back and gaze at it again…it has captured you. The person you are with pulls on your arm after two or three minutes, saying (verbally or nonverbally), “Okay, you’ve seen that painting, let’s go see something else…come on, let’s go.” How do you feel? Do you want to swat them away so that you can be free to take in what you want to see, what you came to see, in your own way and time? Do you want to tell your traveling companion to move on and see what they want to see, and you are going to sit and gaze at this life-changing painting for as long as you want to? Do you want to look at what you want, for as long as you want, in any direction you want, stopping when you want?
How do you feel as you read this? How does it make you feel, in your body? And most importantly, why do you imagine that a baby, taking in the entire world with all of its colors and smells and beauty and movement and edges and faces, would feel any differently?
It is the ultimate in respect to allow a baby to look at what they wish for as long as they wish…and when they can reach out and swat and then grab things, to allow that to happen at its own speed as well. Think about Italy. It is the same for your child.
And beyond everything being new, there’s a clincher. A big clincher.
Children, especially in the first two years of life, change and grow so fast. Every time they undergo any sort of change–in the earliest days it might be a change in vision, then a realization that their hands belong to them, a change in grasp or mobility, a change in horizontal or vertical position, a neurodevelopmental shift that allows them to remember that objects are there even when they are out of their sight, rapid increases in receptive and then expressive language–everything they have already encountered is new again:
Another month or so, and it is an object that moves when a foot or a hand swats it, perhaps by accident. What is that blue and purple thing and how is it moving?
Yet another month or two, and this is something a hand can grasp. When the hand moves, this object moves too. It doesn’t make noise, but it moves across a field of vision. It can be explored with the senses–it is easy to hold, it is easy to release, it is smooth, it is several colors, it is high contrast visually.
And so it continues…in time, it is something to throw, something to roll, something to kick, something to put in other containers, something to put other things inside, something that is light rather than heavy, a tool that engages adults and other children because it can be rolled or thrown and they respond in kind, something that sinks in water, something that has the name “ball”, that has colors that have the names “pink,” “purple”, “blue”, something that has properties that are the same as some other balls, and different from other balls, allowing the beginnings of comparing and sorting, it is so large for a time, and then, from a standing position, it’s so very small.
This is just a start. This is just one toy. A simple ball, a toy that basically does nothing. It doesn’t talk, it doesn’t make sound, it doesn’t do anything on its own. It’s just a web of colored plastic. A simple toy. A toy that is miraculously new every month or two, over and over again. Multiply at will–how many toys does your child have? How many other objects exist in your home, community, or daily life that you would not call toys, but that your child sees and interacts with? How could a child possibly get more stimulation than this? How could the world possibly be boring, when everything is constantly new?
Try to allow yourself the luxury of imagining that stimulation is overrated. I know it’s out of step with our culture, in which parents compare children’s developmental progress in playgroups or over coffee, and go home worrying that that child can do “x” and their child cannot. Try to let go of this.
Try to recognize and acknowledge the times and spaces in your own life that are not full of stimulation. If you meditate (in any fashion), what have you gotten from that experience? If you have any other sort of mindfulness practice, what is it like to have that space, just to think, just to be with yourself and take things in.
Magazine articles abound that remind us of the importance of being able to be quiet with ourselves, and what that ability says about our emotional health. We go on vacation to lie on the beach with nothing to do. We take classes to practice “doing nothing.” We regale our friends with the insights that came to us while lying flat on our backs in yoga class with our eyes closed, just focusing on our breathing.
There is much to be said for quiet, independent time, free of external stimulation. The same advantages exist for your child–yes, even as infants. It is often what we wish for our older children–that they could sit and find something to do or to think about without always having to “be entertained”, either by us or by electronics. Early childhood is the time to offer them that gift.
So how to proceed?
If you have an infant—a child under 9 or 10 months old, you’re golden. Yes, they need and want time close to you. Start small. Believe in them. Have confidence. Allow yourself the scary thought that while you are surely indispensable to your child, you are not indispensible every moment of the day. Lie them down on a mat or a blanket on the floor, with nothing hanging over them and without you giving them anything to play with or shaking something for them or holding something up for them look at. Give them a chance to occupy themselves in a quiet space with simple toys. If they are only old enough to look at what is around them, let that be enough. If they can do it for 30 seconds and then they want to be picked up, let that be okay. Try it for a little longer tomorrow. If they surprise you and they can do it for an hour, let it happen. Exude calm confidence in their ability to engage with their world on their own terms. This is valuable stuff. They can do it. You can do it.
If you have an older infant or young toddler, try the same thing. Sit nearby, and for brief periods, do your own thing. Respond to their initiations, but try not to initiate. Allow them to get a bit frustrated (if it happens)–talk them through it by naming it, acknowledging it, letting them know you’re there with them and that you’re confident they can handle it. Read a magazine, try to not be “in charge” of their play. It lasts however long it lasts. Exude confidence. When they can do this on a regular basis for five or ten minutes or a half hour at a time, tell them that you’re going to go to the bathroom and you’ll be right back…and then do it–and come back when you said you would. Yes, even if they cry. Remember, crying is not trauma. If they cry, when you return, acknowledge that that was hard that you were gone, and sit back down and join them–offer a hug if you want.
If you have an older toddler or a preschooler, and you have directed a lot of their play and managed most of their emotions for them prior to this time, just “trying it out” likely won’t work so well. The process will likely involve limit-setting, which is a whole ‘nother subject. At this point, they have adapted to the patterns and expectations that you have established to date. If they cannot play alone or are demanding of you and your time, remember that it is a simple adaptation and response to the patterns that have been in place. Changing patterns is a slow process, and with preschoolers, it is often met with resistance. Continue to have calm confidence in them and in yourself. Seek support for respectful limit setting strategies if you need it…it’s something that’s hard for everyone, no shame in getting that support, especially when it will pay off in the long run. They surely seek out more stimulation, but if provided with sufficient open ended materials and the opportunity to get a little bit “bored”, they will find something to do. Avoid toys that “do” something, if possible…because once they have “done what they do”, they are no longer interesting. Avoid “character” toys, when possible, as they restrict play to a certain script or role, and when that has been played out, the play is often over. Open-ended materials, art materials, materials from the natural world, sensory materials, old magazines, books, empty books and paper so they can make their own books, building materials, messy things (outside or in a space that can get messy.) Allow them to become frustrated a bit if necessary. If they have been given time when younger to direct their only play, this stage will be easier. But even if it isn’t easy, it’s possible. If they are accustomed to you planning, there will be testing of your limits. Stay calm. Stay confident. Boredom is where creativity is born.
For older children, all that is required is to observe and notice and have conversations and stay related…and then make sure that materials and resources are available that are in line with what they are interested in and passionate about. What do they talk about? What are their questions? What do they like to do with friends? Electronics (video games, computer/tablet games), art materials, building materials, graph paper, sewing, old appliances to take apart, leave books lying around on whatever subjects interest them….build on their interests, following their lead and their “gaze”, just as you did when they were very small.
Our minds–and our children’s minds–are capable of creating all the stimulation anyone could ever want. Don’t worry about their learning and their minds. Everything that Einstein created came from within himself, from the creative machinations of his mind…not from “things” (not even legos!) The great painters paint not only what they see in the world, but what they see in their minds. So much of our thinking and learning world and space is internal. Allow space for that garden to thrive. Above all, trust your children to tend it–they are capable and creative thinkers, with capacity far beyond any “activities” we could dream up or supplies or toys that we could buy. Go get yourself a cup of tea, sit back, and watch them bloom. It’s an amazing show.