Open-ended materials…encourage children to play creatively and in depth. Neuroscience tells us that as children play this way, connections and pathways in the brain become activated and then solidify. [Source]
The best toys are simple objects that inspire exploration, discovery, imagination and, of course, play.
We all want the best for our children, starting from birth. And we want them to have the best toys to encourage their development.
But spending a fortune on toys and gadgets is not only unnecessary, it can hinder a child’s natural development, engagement, attention span and love of play.
There are many parenting and educational philosophies around that can help guide the decisions we make as parents. The three covered today, RIE, Montessori and Waldorf, offer overlapping ideas when it comes to babies and play: keep it simple; no need to spend a lot of money.
The best way to approach parenting and educational philosophies is to take the best of them, and what works for you, and leave what doesn’t. What follows are some ideas that have worked for us.
RIE Inspired Baby Play Ideas
RIE (Resources for Infant Educators) has been the most significant influence in shaping the way I parent. It is all about treating even the newest of infants with respect and allowing babies and children the freedom of independent play and development from birth.
One of the most important ideas that RIE offers the frugal parent is about what not to buy for your baby.
RIE encourages parents to allow babies to develop naturally, at their own pace, by giving babies plenty of space and time to move freely (aka independent play). As such, RIE recommends avoiding anything that can interfere with a baby’s natural movement or force babies into positions that they are not yet ready for: bouncers, Bumbos, walkers (the ones babies sit in), Jolly Jumpers and other such baby contraptions.
(I admit that I used a bouncer on occasion with both kids when I needed to because sometimes you have to balance ideals with the practicalities of reality.)
In the early weeks, babies don’t need any toys. The world is a new and fascinating place for babies.
Consider what they are experiencing for the first time: the way the leaves move outside the window when the wind blows and the contrast of colours: the green against the blue sky.
The way the lights and shadows play across the wall when a car drives by; the way the ceiling fan moves and the feeling of the breeze on the skin; the undulation of the curtains; the firmness of the floor beneath them; the sound of birds outside, the traffic, siblings playing; the sound water splashing in the shower…the world is infinitely interesting.
Babies don’t need the added distraction and over-stimulation of such things as electronic mobiles with flashing lights and sounds, especially young babies who are unable to move to escape them.
Later, a baby’s first toy will be their own hands. Then RIE suggests simple, open-ended objects that invite exploration and imagination, such as baby-safe household items, kitchen items, balls, cloth napkins, cars and push-toys, containers and jars. Inexpensive yet fun.
For more information on RIE, Janet Lansbury’s website is the best RIE resource on the web.
Montessori Inspired Baby Play
One of the great ideas Montessori has to offer frugal parents of babies is the sensory or treasure basket.
These are simply baskets or boxes in which you put a selection of everyday items from around the home and let baby explore freely as the fancy takes them.
Free toys, in other words.
Obviously, the items that you select need to be safe for baby and supervision is required.
Kitchen items always make a good choice. It’s amazing how intensely siblings will fight over who gets to play with the soup spoon! When creating treasure baskets, try to provide a variety of textures, shapes, colours and sounds for baby to explore.
These baskets can hold a baby and young toddler’s attention for ages. Even older children enjoy exploring the discovered treasures in these baskets. If you’re looking for 20 minutes of quiet to enjoy a cup of tea, put together one of these free treasure baskets.
For lots of ideas for putting together treasure baskets, check out The Imagination Tree blog.
Waldorf Inspired Baby Play
Nature and connecting with nature plays an important roll in the Waldorf school of thought.
There is nothing so calming for a cantankerous baby or toddler (or adult for that matter) as a walk outside. Even a foray into our damp, sunless courtyard will calm a little one. Studies agree that communing with nature is good for our mental, physical and spiritual health.
Many of the best toys come free from nature. Leaves, rocks, sticks (what young boy doesn’t like playing with sticks!), nuts, flowers, seedpods, shells. For young babies, natural objects offer a variety of textures, weights, tastes and shapes that plastic just can’t replicate.
And babies love playing with natural objects. Put a baby on a rug outside with a bunch of toys and watch them clamber over the toys to get the grass and sticks and rocks and mud.
For older kids, natural objects are great for open-ended imaginative play.
At nine months old, the stone pictured above is my daughter’s favourite toy. Maybe it’s the texture or maybe chewing on it is helping her cut her teeth. Or maybe it’s some other property that I don’t know. Either way, she comes back to that stone over and over during the day.
“…entertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or later on,… battery-operated toys) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained…” Magda Gerber
You don’t need to spend a fortune on toys to keep a baby occupied and to encourage learning and development. You already have a house full and a yard full of free ‘toys’ just waiting to be discovered, explored, shaken, banged, mouthed, dropped, emptied, filled, turned, scrunched, torn, thrown, understood and, later, transformed through imaginative play.
Melissa Goodwin is a writer and the creator of Frugal and Thriving who has a passion for living frugally and encouraging people to thrive on any budget. The blog is nine years old and is almost like her eldest baby. Prior to being a blogger and mum (but not a mummy blogger), she worked as an accountant doing other people’s budgets, books and tax.