The importance of free play for babies & children

Reading time: 9 min

Fortunately, your baby doesn’t need to hit the gym or sign up for that chubby-cherub-to-buff-baby programme to make exercise a part of their day. All they need to do is what children do best – play! Your baby is “playing” and learning when it looks at its hands or kicks its feet. It’s experimenting and learning how its body works; how the world works. And even from early on, babies can begin to engage in inner-directed or free play.

Free to play

It’s not as strange as it may sound. All you have to do is provide a safe space with a few toys and objects where baby can move freely and explore. Outdoors is a nice option because it offers good sensory stimulation. Also, keep it simple. Exchange those fancy gadgets for good old-fashioned balls, spoons, cups, blocks, scarves and dolls – things that don’t do much but can be used in multiple, creative ways, and allow baby to be active in discovering and creating its own understanding of the world.

You also don’t have to show your baby what to do, so resist the urge to pick up the toys, move them closer or put them in baby’s hands. Just sit back quietly and let baby be. Watch to see what they’re interested in and what they want to do with the toys you’ve provided. Let baby figure it out. Why? Because showing baby “how to play” shortcuts their opportunity to explore, which in turn, limits their creativity. Remember, free play is about encouraging active learning, child-directed problem solving, and creative experimentation rather than doing it right.

What are some of the benefits of baby free play?

Studies have shown that babies and children who are allowed to direct their playtime develop strong cognitive skills and nurture their natural abilities to explore. This means:

  • They learn to occupy themselves and enjoy doing so.
  • They practise being a self-learner.
  • They develop more curiosity.
  • They become more innovative, imaginative and creative.
  • They develop more confidence.
  • They adjust better emotionally and socially.
  • They are better able to control impulsive actions. Free play changes the neurons in the prefrontal cortex, prepping the brain to regulate emotions.
  • They develop better problem-solving abilities.
  • They have a longer attention span and better focus.
  • They have higher intellectual competence. And let’s face it, no matter how laid-back some of us pretend to be, we all want our children to be smart.

I want to spend a bit more time on the next benefit because, well, I’m a chiropractor, and I can’t help myself.

When we give our babies a safe space to move freely, it helps to develop muscle strength and control. Unconstrained, self-directed movement allows babies to practise and perfect their physical skills which is important for gross motor development. Seems obvious, right? But, here’s the catch: allowing free movement means no cute, cuddly bouncy seats, swings, rockers, jumpers or walkers. It also means limiting time in car seats, strollers, and slings, all of which restrict our babies or do the activity for them.

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I know what you’re going to say: are you freakin’ kidding me? Do you know what I’m dealing with? I have a baby that’s clearly allergic to sleep and a toddler who thinks smearing spaghetti all over the walls is Art Nouveau. And you want me to get rid of the things my very survival depends on? Fat chance.

“… necessity truly is the mother of invention and without as much baby gear at your disposal, you’ll likely discover better ways to hold, entertain, and soothe your baby.”

I get it, I really do, I’ve got kids of my own, but there’s a good reason why. So, let’s start with explaining why they don’t do your baby much good because knowing why goes a long way in motivating change. Then, I’ll give you some tips on how to use them more responsibly when you feel there’s no other option.

4 reasons you should use baby gear in moderation

  • They promote incorrect posture

Babies are born with spines shaped like the letter C. As they begin to hold their heads up, the cervical lordosis (neck curve) starts to develop. Then, with tummy time and crawling, their lumbar lordosis (lower back curve) develops. Things like baby carriers, strollers, and loungers hinder the natural curves from forming by keeping baby in a C-shaped posture.

  • Muscles and joints are less stimulated

Studies have shown that infants who use baby gear on a consistent basis tend to score lower on infant motor development. While learning to sit, crawl, and stand, a baby needs to support its own weight against gravity. This helps to strengthen joints and muscles. Supportive devices, however, stop this from happening. Think about it; a baby will have a hard time developing the muscle strength needed to hold its head up if it doesn’t get much chance to deal with gravity.

  • They often force babies to weight bear before they are ready

Putting babies in a sitting device before they are ready to sit puts stress on the pelvis. Baby bouncers and walkers cause them to bear weight on their tiptoes instead of flat feet, and often their hip position in the saddle is not ideal. Also, excessive jumping puts stress on their legs and hips and has the potential to introduce micro-repetitive stress to the developing joints in their spines.

  • They can cause unequal muscle development on opposite sides

Infants often prefer a certain position or side. This preferred position could be the one they favoured in the womb. For example, baby may only like to lie on its right. Or, stresses during delivery may have resulted in some degree of faulty spinal joint movement and muscle spasm that make certain movements uncomfortable. Perhaps, baby only rolls or looks to one side or uses one arm more than the other. Whatever it may be, baby devices comfortably support baby in these misaligned positions, often for extended periods of time, causing some muscles to shorten and others to lengthen.

“… free play is about encouraging active learning, child-directed problem solving, and creative experimentation rather than doing it right.”

How can you use baby gear more responsibly?

  • You need to be aware of baby’s posture. Here are three things to look out for:
  1. Midline positioning of neck, body, and hips: Looking at your baby from the front, imagine a line running from the top of baby’s head to the middle of their nappy. You want to make sure that baby has a straight neck and spine.
  1. Alternating head position: You want to encourage baby to look left and right. If baby continuously lies with its head to one side, it may result in a flat spot and one-sided neck tightness.
  1. Keep chin away from chest and shoulders: Picture a baby asleep in a car seat with its head flopping to the chest or off to one side and you’ll understand what I mean. This not only contributes to faulty posture and neck spasm but can compromise the airway.

If you notice significant asymmetries between left or right or preferred positions that aren’t getting better, it may be best to seek help from a chiropractor or a physiotherapist.

  • Limit the time baby spends in baby gear. 

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  1. No one’s denying that a bouncy seat can be a lifesaver when you’ve forgotten the macaroni and cheese burning in the oven. There is nothing inherently bad about them, but they become a problem when you see them as your go-to for play, sleep and soothing instead of a last resort. Try restricting the time that your little one spends in baby holding devices to no more than 15 minutes at a time.
  2. Of course, you always use a car seat when your little one rides in the car even if that’s running around with you for your endless errands or a long road trip. No car seat, no ride. But, hey, if baby happens to spend more than that on a certain day, don’t be hard yourself, just reduce the time the next few days.

4 tips on how to reduce the time baby spends in these devices

  • Leave the car seat in the car. Rather carry or “wear” your baby when you arrive at your destination. And once your child can sit, let them sit in the trolley.
  • Choose a stroller that allows baby to lie flat instead of using the car seat carrier as the seat.
  • Put a blanket and toys on the floor in key areas of the house where you routinely need to be hands-free.
  • Don’t buy every contraption on display at the baby store. This pretty much follows the same principle as: if you don’t have chocolate in the house, you won’t eat it. Remember, you can always go out and buy a swing or bouncy seat if you feel like you desperately need one. But necessity truly is the mother of invention and without as much baby gear at your disposal, you’ll likely discover better ways to hold, entertain, and soothe your baby.

The takeaway

In an ideal world, the only baby gadget you’d put your baby into is a car seat when travelling in the car. Your baby would spend all its awake time with full freedom of movement while supper cooks itself. But we live in the real world. And, between you and me, I’ve dabbled with some baby gear myself. That said, I’m not saying never use those baby gadgets, but as with all good things in life, you do need to practise moderation.

There to lend a hand,

Dr Tony

This article was written for BabyYumYum by our partner chiropractor, Dr Tony Karpelowsky.

Also read:

Childbirth & what this means for your baby’s spine
7 benefits of block play