On Independent Play and the Origins of “I’M BORED”

Bored-KidsThis morning, I’m musing (I do that), mostly as a result of a juxtaposition between two posts on the respectful parenting group that I run on facebook.  One of the posts was a very simple question, asking parents if and how and why they actively play with their children (great question!)  The other post was an article–albeit one that has a couple of failings, but important nonetheless–that I shared from the New York Times about the epidemic of overscheduling children.  The discussion that ensued threw me into a very familiar place of conjecture (okay, also kind of a rant)–something that I think (and angst) about all the time.  And what better place to have a conjecture-rant than on one’s blog?

So here’s my wondering.

I wonder how many parents understand or appreciate or even consider the link between the way in which we interact with infants and toddlers (but especially infants) and the behaviors that we see significantly later (i.e. at age 5 or 7 or 10). I think about this a lot, because I believe strongly that they are intricately and powerfully linked.

When our children are small babies, a great many of us spend a lot of time shaking things in front of them, showing them things, setting them up under mobiles so they have something to look at, propping them in bumbo chairs so they can “see the world”, putting them in playgyms or exersaucers so that they “have something to do” or “something to keep them busy.”   We argue that one of the great strengths of baby carriers is that the baby can “see the world” and can experience all the things that we see and experience.  We pass them around, we play with their hands and feet, we sing songs.  We almost never just let them quietly “lie there” and look around.

(Don’t get me wrong–interacting with babies is a GOOD thing.  No two ways about it.  Keep doing it.  Keep interacting.) 

When they are a little bit older babies, we throng en masse (at least that’s what happens where i live) to “mommy and me” classes, lavishing praise on the classes that are chock full of stimulation (games, songs, fingerplays, parachute play, bouncing, rolling, etc). We look askance at and balk at paying for quiet parent-infant classes in which there are no “activities”, saying “But what do they DO?” and “If I’m going to pay for a class, I want her to learn something!” We take our babies to baby yoga, baby art, baby music, baby gym.  We get on discussion groups online and ask other parents “what fun things are there to do this weekend with an 8 month old?”

(Once again, don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with classes as a way for parents and babies to enjoy their time together.  Or outings.  Outings are great.  Absolutely.  Take them to baby gym and let them crawl around.  It’s terrific that you’re spending engaged enjoyable time with your babies. Really)


As you might have guessed by now (or surely by now if you are a regular reader of this blog), many of the concepts and ideas and philosophies that I discuss require you to hold more than possibility or truth in mind at the same time.  In this era of sensationalized media, political polarization, and frequent “dumbing down” of complex issues, a lot of us fall far too easily into black and white thinking, a stance that says “if it’s not good, it must be bad.”  If I like Bernie, I must hate Hillary.  If I advocate for bike lanes, I must hate cars.  Those who are in favor of gun control think that all guns should be taken away.  If sugar is bad, we must avoid it entirely.

Or for a couple of examples much closer to home:

Those who always say that “breast is best” are criticizing (or oppressing) those of us who have been unable to or chose not to breast feed.  I’m sorry.  No.  No, they’re not.  Two things can be true.  It can be the healthiest choice for a baby (barring medical contraindications) and an important thing to encouragemore than we have at many points in the past AND it can be perfectly fine and healthy to formula feed, guilt-free.  Both things can be true.

The same thing goes for babywearing–a hot topic that always induces fiery controversy when RIE folks and AP folks get together.  “RIE sees babywearing as objectifying and disconnected”  “What?  Babywearing is critical to a baby’s well-being and is the ultimate connection!”  Result?  “I don’t want anything to do with those people–they’re completely off.”  Nope.  Only if you’re a person for whom things must be “either/or”.  Both things can be true.  Babywearing can be emotionally disconnected. The term can be unconsciously objectifying.  Babies do need our presence.  Physical touch can be regulating.  Some people overdo or misunderstand the “independent play” thing.  More than one thing can be true.

Now, I know I may sound a little condescending here.  “Of course,” you say, “I’m perfectly well aware that two things can be true at the same time.”  I’m glad. I would expect that that would be the case. However, my experience has taught me that for many of us, it’s simply not true–we have been lulled into polarization, sometimes without even noticing it.  We take strong perspectives, we become blindly devoted to a stance, we have trouble listening (really listening, not just tolerating) to others whose perspectives differ.  It’s a real thing.  I’m not making it up.  If the “holding in mind two conflicting ideas” comes naturally to you already, that’s great. I’m sure you won’t take offense at a simple reminder–we all need that now and again, especially in this culture that urges us to do otherwise.  If you recognize a bit of yourself in what I have said–maybe you do sometimes get too rigid about your positions, I know that’s certainly true for me–then…consider it the same simple reminder.

What I’m trying to say is that this particular blog, this place you have landed, demands that of you.  This is not an either/or place.  This is not a place of dogma.  It is a place of passion for certain perspectives and philosophies–don’t mistake passion for dogma.  We can talk here about the wisdom of avoiding overstimulation for babies and the benefits of a “slow” and quiet life with an infant or toddler without it being a condemnation of ever holding up a toy in front of a child or taking them to a fun class where you both enjoy yourself.  Both can be true.  Reading this blog demands that you hold more than one thing in mind at a time.  It seems like fair warning to give you in advance.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

When our infants become toddlers, it only grows.  We look for sports programs, we search on Pinterest for activities to set up for them, ask friends and neighbors for resources for gymnastics classes and art classes.  We start using iPads and iPhones, sometimes because they’re “so engaging” or “to keep them busy in the grocery store.”  We rarely let a day go by when we don’t try to think of something fun for them to do or somewhere fun to take them.  (Remember…remember….two things can be true…..)

And then.   And THEN.   (Yup, this is where the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.) And then our children become preschoolers. Or school age.  And we say to one another (and sometimes to them) “They’re [You’re] almost four years old!  They [You] should be able to play by yourself for 20 minutes while I make dinner!” Or we say “He constantly wants me to play with him, and tells me what role I have to be and what I have to do and how to use the materials–it makes me crazy!”


And again, I say:  Hmm.

The years between birth and three are a time of massive hard wiring.  Brain connections are being built at lightning speed, at a pace never again seen in the course of a lifetime.  Patterns are being set down, some of which will persist for a lifetime.  We know this is true–we have ample evidence from attachment research, to name only one example.  Attachment is a construct that forms in the first 12-15 months of life (no, not typically after that time.) In that period of time, attachment theory proposes that we develop something called an “internal working model” which sets the stage for how easy or difficult it is to trust others, how much we feel that our actions and input matter, and how we expect others to treat us in relationships.  Yes.  In the first 12-15 months After that time, that internal working model is highly stable (meaning it doesn’t change much or easily).  It doesn’t mean we cannot develop adaptations. It doesn’t mean we can’t develop positive relationships if we didn’t have them in infancy.  Of course we can.  Our brains are amazing. Attachment is not deterministic.  But the model will still exist and have its influence in relationships and in affect (feelings) regulation.  (remember, remember)

Note:  If these ideas about attachment and working models are of great interest to you, here’s a little light reading (not) that I highly recommend.

This sort of “laying down of roads” neurologically happens in countless ways in the earliest days and months of life–some of which we know about, some of which we don’t really know about, some of which we can gather from a long history of anecdotal evidence.  So.   When we teach our children in their earliest days that life is about entertainment, stimulation, and adults-as-entertainers-and-problem-solvers, they will be wired to expect entertainment, stimulation, and adults-as-entertainers-and-problem-solvers.  In its simplest form, t’s really an A+B=C kind of thing.

Even in the absence of other compelling arguments, this is part of why I am such a fan of the work of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler.  They understood, they held, and they did not back down from the idea that what happens in infancy–even in early infancy–matters.  They understood that strong, self-confident, self-aware, intrinsically motivated children and adults arise out of infants that are encouraged to explore at their own pace, with their own capabilities, and by their own initiative–not starting in toddlerhood, but starting in the earliest days of infancy, when the “roads are being laid down.” There is almost no premise with which I agree more passionately–details be damned.

We can laugh it off.  We can call it “overthinking.” We can say “this is what my baby loves”.  We can wait.  We have that choice.  I’m simply sharing my experience in working with children of all ages and their families for almost 40 years now.  At some point, I’d be willing to wager that you’re going to be frustrated that your child won’t show initiative–whether it’s cleaning something up without being asked, to taking on a difficult school project, to taking risks to try new things, to getting themselves up off the couch and finding something to do without pestering you.   I’m not a betting woman, and I’d put money on it. You see, it’s our choice.  We can see the relationship now, when they’re young, or we can wait.  We can prime them to need to be entertained now, and we can address how to wean them off of the need for constant or external stimulation later.  We can learn how to tolerate (in ourselves) some distress on our children’s part when they are very small (because distress is a part of frustration which is a part of growth), or we can learn how to tolerate the distress that our children exhibit–often through their behavior–when we try, in good faith, to wean them off a dependency on being “entertained” in later childhood. There will be distress at either end.  We get to choose.

My wish might surprise you.  My wish is not that we all refrain from entertaining our babies or attending any classes.  You see, that would be approaching dogma (see sidebar above).  My wish is only for two things:  your serious consideration of sufficient low stimulation, child-directed “downtime”(if you have a baby) and your reflection on potential connection between the behaviors that trouble you and the patterns that were laid down in their earliest days (if you have an older child)–which, unfortunately, might mean our taking a bit more responsibility than we might like.

Remember.  It’s never too late. The notion of “critical periods” (if you don’t do it then, it won’t happen), once popular in child development, have largely died out as a result of what we know about the amazing plasticity of our brains.  At the same time, in the world of brain development, for some things, the longer we wait to intervene, the more complicated and difficult the task of changing a “habit” is.  Not impossible.  More complicated and difficult.  Think of it like the difference between being raised bilingual from birth and learning a second language to a point of fluency starting in middle school.  Not impossible.  Much harder.

If there were one contribution that I could make to the world of parenting and child development, it would be this:  What we do early matters.  It’s not a “sentence.”  It’s never “too late.”  If we didn’t do it, there’s no cause for despair or self-flagellation or guilt.  Maybe we’ll have another chance.  Maybe we have a friend or relative who is expecting or who has a tiny baby.  Maybe we have a new insight on the process of shifting these habits or patterns in middle childhood or later, one that will help us to remain consistent and calm.  Maybe we’re in the position to consider which sorts of gifts we want to buy for a co-worker with a new baby.  Maybe we’re fortunate enough to be considered a helpful resource to other parents, and we can share what we know.  There are so many maybes, and so many opportunities.

We get to choose.

4 thoughts on “On Independent Play and the Origins of “I’M BORED”

  1. Good article but could you give some examples of downtime for a baby and a toddler? It seems anything a toddler does can be stimulating even going for a walk or reading a book.

    • The goal is not to avoid stimulation–being awake and having our eyes open and hearing sounds is stimulating. To me, “downtime” for a baby is a blanket on the floor, with few simple open-ended toys (none of which make noise or “do things”), and a parent sitting nearby but not necessarily actively engaging. That could happen outside as well. Downtime for a toddler would be similar, but is heavily dependent on the individual child…what do they feel most relaxed doing? What seems to “ground” them? That’s different for every child. For some children, it’s looking a books. For some, it’s playing with little animals or legos. For some, it’s being in nature without structure or expectations or activities. For some, it’s playing with clay or water. Whatever calms them, with no expectations.

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