The Best Infant Toy

Gracie watching her hands.

The instant I saw Moon raise her hands to slowly turn and watch them, I bolted for the camera. A vision of a black and white photograph for her baby book was all I could hope for at the moment. The caption, “A first toy” or something along those lines.  “A toy, you say?” Well, perhaps not in the conventional sense, but a toy is essentially an object used for play, and that’s exactly what she does with her hands.

In this regard, infants’ hands are outstanding playthings for two reasons:

1. Hands are SAFE!  No need for a “BPA-free” label here. Put the choking tube away!

2. Hands are OPEN-ENDED and move in an infinite number of ways, which makes them such a fascinating study for a young mind.

Hands: Justifiable Toys

Around the third or fourth month of life, many infants suddenly become aware of their hands. Moments of self-discovery are happenstance at first, but will in time become intentional explorations of self. At four months, Moon often raises her hands, opening and shutting her palms and observing their every move.

How my daughters learn in their early years is as important to me as what they learn. Concepts related to academic knowledge, including numeracy and literacy, are topics guaranteed to be covered in classrooms. I, however, do not expect promises from their future teachers that other vital skills my children will need to be successful in school will be nurtured.

Will their interest in learning itself be maintained over the years? I sure hope so, but what can I do to help make sure that their learning continues, and not becoming a task that they will dread in the years to come. Will they keep trying to solve problems when they hit a figurative wall? Will they know how to concentrate despite classroom distractions?

What Are the Processes by Which the Child is Learning?
Focus and intrinsic motivation need not be taught by adults. Verbal reminders to “pay attention” or rewarding  behaviors to sustain engagement in an activity are ways many adults work to help their children learn in later years, after their natural motivation to learn has been dampened. Infants are naturally inclined to hone in on one activity at a time and are self-motivated in everything they do. For us to be truly effective and deliberate parents and caregivers, we can try our best to protect and preserve these traits in infants and put aside the adult agenda with regards to children’s play.

Lessons Learned by Playing with Hands
In the publication titled “The Bulletin,” Dr. Emmi Pikler describes the observation of hands and hand movement as one of several physical developments that constitute natural motor development.  Aside from the mouth, the hands and feet are, after all, the primary means by which children learn about their world.

As a teacher, I watched many children take notice of their hands when given the time and space to do so. While I knew that respecting an infant’s interests in her hands and not distracting her by offering her another object was supporting her focus, I was occasionally challenged to explain how my choice to watch the child rather than dangle a toy in front of him or her was in the child’s immediate best interest; that is, my choice to do nothing was actually a choice to do something really important.

Helping your infant learn focus and stay motivated by deciding to do nothing in this instance may feel counter-intuitive at first, but with practice you’ll find that your child’s ability to maintain focus and play on her own will strengthen. Watching Moon play with her hands has deepened my appreciation for her blossoming personality. In these moments, I get a glimpse into who she is becoming by the choices she makes, Will she look at her hands, or will she prefer to gaze at the lemon tree outside our window? Either way, she is learning about the world around her based on what is of interest to her, and I am protecting her intrinsic motivation.

To that end I say, let them play! What do you think? Are your babies getting enough time to play with objects of their own choosing?

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