Free Play vs. Planned Activities: Which is Better?
When you get right down to it, many parents have their eye on one target: making sure their kids are smart. And if I gave them a minute by minute schedule for the first six months of life they’d take me up on it. But come on, we are talking about infants here. How much planning can you do?
On the other hand, there’s so much talk about the infant and toddler years as the most critical period for learning in a child’s life. The popular discussion of the research on brain development seems to suggest a now or never pressure to exercise the most important “inside muscle”– the BRAIN.
So what’s the right formula for the parent spending time with baby? Here are three suggestions:
- Do the best you can with what you’ve got. Your baby loves you, trusts you, and has made you THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD. Yes, that’s a big load on your shoulders but all the everyday things you do for and with your baby count toward preparing him or her for the future. In fact, much of the current research suggests that developing the life skills part of brain makes for becoming a good learner, and a good person; not reciting your ABC’s or counting to 20 like a drill sergeant in the military. You might use a few toys to help move the experience along, but money to spend is less important than the quality of experience baby has with you.
- Apprehend the moment. In Ellen Galinsky’s book, Mind in the Making, she reminds parents to “do what you do every day, but in a different way.” What this means is to talk and use positive conversations with your baby so they realize the importance of communication. Praise their efforts, so they will be motivated to work hard (you can hold the ball! That’s Good). Help them observe and make connections (this sink is where we bathe, look, your rubber duck is in the water) so they look for connections all around them as they grow older. Using the moment is way more important than scheduling a baby yoga class because you’ve got a schedule.
- Use your daily routine to its best advantage. I strongly encourage parents to develop a daily routine. Sure, the routine will change as baby gets bigger and older, but it’s not going to change drastically every day. If you can flow with the routine, you will know when your baby is awake, and that’s when you are going to do things together. It’s time for a walk (and conversation) or if you’ve got laundry to fold it’s time to find something you and baby can do side by side while observing your work. Or it’s bath or meal time. Is this planned or free play? It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s talking to baby, setting a positive example, and providing playful experiences that will have incremental impacts for a lifetime.