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What Is Baby-Led Play?

June 17, 2024

Whether you practice it consciously or not, playtime with your little one falls into one of two categories: parent-led play and baby-led play. Parent-led play is exactly what it sounds like. It involves the parent (you) leading the play by guiding your baby through a learning experience. When infants are very young, they rely on parent-led play to learn about the world around them. For instance, a simple game of peek-a-boo can reinforce object permanence, teach them cause-and-effect, boost their language skills, and build their social and emotional skills. Since you’re used to leading play from the time your baby is born, it can become second nature to take the reins even when your little one is older and more mobile. Alternatively, baby-led play requires you to take a “sit back” approach to playtime and follow your baby’s lead. It means watching your little one, responding to what they do, and refraining from interfering.

Although both types of play have their merits, baby-led play is a great way to foster your little one’s creativity, independence, and confidence. That’s not to say you should never direct play; parent-led play helps your baby feel nurtured, engaged, and encouraged, and is also highly educational for your baby. It provides organization and a safe environment for learning, and teaches your child to follow instructions. However, since it’s easy to unintentionally lead playtime, making sure to purposefully practice baby-led play is beneficial for both you and your little one.

You can implement baby-led play sessions from the time your baby is very young—even before they can point or speak! Although they can’t put their thought processes into words, they demonstrate them through their simple actions, such as putting a toy in their mouth. Instead of bringing toys to your little one, you can follow their eye direction to see what they’re interested in. For instance, if they’re looking at a rattle, you can say, “This is your rattle!” as you bring it over to them. And, once it’s close enough to reach, you can wait and see if they grasp it or shake it. Rather than instructing them to shake it, let them interact with the toy on their own. It can be challenging to stifle the impulse to entertain or help because you naturally want to connect with your child, but if you sit back and let your little one engage with you on their terms, you’ll actually feel more in tune with them.

Things to Do

  • Narrating and describing your baby’s play, such as saying, “There goes the car over the bridge!” or “You are building a tall tower!”
  • Praising specific behaviors, such as saying, “You stacked those blocks so carefully!” instead of a generic “Good job!”
  • Imitating their play activities, such as saying “I’m going to build a tower, too!” when they begin to build one.
  • Repeating their words back to them to show you are listening.

Things to Avoid

  • Giving commands, such as saying, “Put the ball in the hole” or “Knock the blocks over!”
  • Directing playtime by suggesting ideas, such as saying, “Do you want to build a tower?”
  • Quizzing your baby, such as saying, “What does a cow say?” or “Where’s the ball?”
  • Interrupting to cheer when they are trying to complete a task.
  • Correcting them, such as saying, “The circle piece doesn’t go in the square hole” when they’re working on a simple puzzle.

Encouraging your baby to lead playtime requires patience, observation, and responsiveness on your part. Even the most well-meaning support (like a cheer or “you did it!” when they accomplish a task) can interrupt your baby’s process. Playtime is a rare opportunity for your baby to be a leader. They need your help in every other aspect of their life and are completely reliant on your care and guidance to thrive. But, when it comes to play, they have the power to initiate rather than imitate. When you trust them to do things their way, it boosts their confidence and self-worth. These foundational skills of perseverance, self-esteem, and problem-solving carry into toddlerhood, childhood, and even adulthood, and also teach you, the parent, what your little one is interested in and to not underestimate their capabilities.

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What Is Baby-Led Play?

About the Author: Alice

Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.

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