Play is a curious thing. Before I was a parent, I would have never thought someone waving his arms randomly or shaking an object would be considered play. But after almost a year of playing with my baby, I have a much broader definition these days.
Playing “with” newborns is a bit of a stretch. Most of our non-feeding or sleeping activities with Sprout were limited to shaking things at him while he laid on his back. When you don’t have the motor control to reach for an object, the options are limited. Despite that, we tried to be creative. Even though we knew he couldn’t understand us, we made up songs and stories. We’d imagine personalities for his stuffed animals and have them talk to him. We’d read him books, even when it was obvious he wasn’t paying attention. I’d dance with him, cradling him in my arms and swaying to our collection of children’s music. In those early days, finding different activities entertained me and kept me sane, helping me feel like more than just a source of food.
With Sprout developing more strength, especially in his neck and back, we were able to play in a much more physical manner. We love playing “flying baby,” whether under our arms or above our heads. When I’m lying on the ground, he lies on my stomach, our faces nearly touching as we roll from side to side. My dancing has become much more varied, carrying him on my hip, waltzing or shimmying across the room with an occassional dip thrown in. We get the best laughs out of these activities, a high-pitched giggle that sounds a little like a cartoon character.
As Sprout’s mental capacity has developed so has his sense of humor, as rudimentary as it is. He no longer laughs just because we’re laughing; we have to work for our audience! Peek a boo became much more fun once he gained object permanence. Finger games like I Am Thumbkin started to make a lot more sense once he understood the idea of conversations. Recognizing when something differed from normal opened up a whole range of possibilities. I’ve greatly expanded my silly expressions and frequently resort to putting ridiculous things on my head. I especially like putting his monster or shark hooded towel on my head and making chomping noises right before I take him out of the tub.
Along with his physical and mental capacities, his ability to be engaged and proactive in playing grew. His first mode of play – and still a favorite one – was shaking things. If he could pick it up, it was bound to go in his mouth or the air. He also considers banging things totally awesome, as is knocking down or taking apart things, like my block towers. Once he got used to crawling forward, he started chasing objects. Now, his favorite toys are anything that he can scurry after, from a pullback train to four different large balls (squishy with tags, hollow with a rattle ball, mini beach ball and a bouncy ball).
Lately, the biggest leap has been Sprout’s ability to understand the idea of playing with other people. The first time it started to sink in was when he was just on the edge on crawling. One day, I got down on my stomach and mimicked his motions. When he hit the floor, I hit the floor; when he babbled, I babbled. After a while, he realized that what he was doing and what I was doing were related. He looked very intently at me, and then smiled. As we went on, he laughed and then inexplicably became upset. Obviously, I stopped, but do wonder what was so upsetting. More recently, he’s decided to play the classic toddler game of Dropping Things on the Floor For Mommy and Daddy to Pick Up. What’s particularly funny is that he doesn’t even look at what he’s dropping, as if we won’t see him drop it if he doesn’t see him dropping it. But Chris and I aren’t willing participants, so that game has a pretty short lifespan.
But the advance that really excited me was when Sprout really followed “rules” of a game for the first time a few weeks ago. All three of us were sitting on our living room floor and Sprout was playing with his new mini beach ball. He handed the ball to me, which is rare in and of itself. He thinks feeding us is hilarious, but doesn’t usually share his toys. Seeing an opportunity, I handed the ball to Chris, who then handed it back to Sprout. Who, much to my surprise, handed it back to me! We went around in a circle for about 15 to 20 rounds. Finally, Sprout either got bored or distracted and bounced the ball somewhere else. But I never knew I could be so impressed by such a simple game.
While all of this is fun, I can’t wait until Sprout starts playing imaginatively. I want to hear his stories and songs and puppet shows and everything inside that marvelous little head of his.