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April 04, 2022

Introducing Playthings with Your Baby

At around 7.5-weeks-old I was carrying Penelope around the house when I noticed something - she had grabbed on to my shirt.  The next day, she was laying on the floor in our bathroom and grabbed our shower curtain. While these seem like little moments, it's actually a really big deal to me! Through this observation, I can see that Penelope is getting ready for more active work for her hands. 

And what is the work of the hands for a baby? Toys and playthings! See up until this point, Penelope's prepared work has been visual or auditory only. She's had her Montessori mobiles and black and white images or we listen to music (and all the other kids.) But I haven't specifically given her other toys/rattles/etc.

Brand new babies are born with a reflexive grip, called the palmer reflex. Their hand is not closing around items specifically of their own will. Sometimes the palmer reflex is mistaken for an intentional interest in holding onto playthings for early babies - I know I definitely have made this mistake in the past. But, we don't really know if they want to hold on to those items or not. Slowly over the months following birth, babies reflex will weaken and more intentional grasping will take over. 

One of the first signs for me, that some intentional grasping is happening is when babies, like Penelope, start grabbing things that aren't purposefully placed into their hand - especially cloth around them. 

Montessori Approach to Introducing Toys to Newborns

A Montessori approach to introducing toys to newborns often looks like this: a choice of 2 toys is held in front of a baby, they are given the opportunity to look at both. Whichever the baby looks at is then placed close to or in the baby's hand. The baby then reflexively grasps and explores the material. Often this could look like holding it for a few seconds (then often dropping) or might look like holding it in their hand without a lot of other exploration. 

I think this is a perfectly fine way to introduce playthings to a new baby. And, I personally find that I use this technique more and more as my babies gain control over their hands, and arms. However, for brand new babies, this isn't a technique I've been following anymore. I think it can sometimes lead adults to placing things in a baby's hands that they do not have the strength or desire to explore yet. Things can sometimes slip onto a baby's body or face, or are just a nuisance as a baby is trying to explore their body. Instead, with a newborn, I have found the RIE approach to be more inline with these early grasping days.

RIE© Approach to Introducing Toys to Newborns

The Montessori approach is not the only way to choose to introduce materials to a new baby. RIE, or Resources for Infant Educarers, is another pedagogy I hold close to my heart for babies. And, instead of placing materials in a baby's hands, RIE, places the materials in the infant's environment, then the baby is free to explore as they discover them. In my RIE training, I learned that tented fabric is often a great place to start for new babies. It's easy to grasp and safe to hold on to. Other materials can also be placed around the infant's environment to explore as they gain more control over their bodies. Downside here is that if baby doesn't find the material in their environment, they don't get that experience with it. 

With Penelope, this is the approach I have taken. I used a small play silk (but cotton cloths work great too) to make a small "tent" in her play area. Then I place them within her reach. If her hand finds the cloth, she may or may not interact with it. She may feel it, push it, grasp it, pull it - she has the freedom there to explore as much as she is able and interested. At this point I might also put a wooden ring, or soft ball near her as well but not place them directly into her hands. 

Again, I don't think one method significantly outweighs the other when it comes to newborns and playthings. But, I do think it helps to be mindful and respectful of how we are introducing toys.

Montessori and RIE ideas for introducing toys to newborn babies as they start to become more awake and aware of their environment.

This post is week 8 of my weekly Montessori baby series focusing on Penelope.

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