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Discovering Play with a Grandchild


Tuesday 06 September 2016

The Power of Human Nature
I became a grandmother to Dónal almost a year ago. I’m obviously a mother (4 times over) and I’m an early childhood specialist with a particular interest in children’s play. I bring all that experience to being a grandmother – and yet what a learning journey grandparenting is all over again. Firstly, I’d forgotten what a life changing, all-consuming experience first parenthood is. Responding to baby’s needs and demands night and day is hard work. It is amazing though to see how nature equips parents to rise to the demands. Luckily for me I live closeby and I have been privy to watching nature at work. My grandchild’s parents are doing a remarkable job – mostly guided by nature, and with the help of multiple apps and more experienced friends.

Connecting through play
It strikes me once again that from the very beginning of life in the world, nature tells us to play. Right from the start, adults are playful with baby. We talk to baby in a playful voice, we exaggerate our tones, voices, faces and gestures – we add a thick layer of emotion, surprise, shock, distaste, pleasure – and we sing and rock and waltz – all to engage baby in the human dance of communication. It just happens naturally. Nature makes us want to connect in physical, mental and, most importantly, emotional ways. And when we do, we are rewarded by eye contact, smiles and attention, at baby’s discretion, of course – and we work hard to retain the connection as long as possible. We feel the incredible human satisfaction of being in touch. These are the moments when, as Stern says, the ‘felt me’ becomes the ‘felt we’. We feel attachment. And most wonderfully of all, we communicate love. Dónal learns that he brings both pleasure and joy, that he is the love of his parents’ lives and he loves passionately in return. Nobody can crack a smile on Donal’s face like his Mam and Dad.


Pretending our way to understanding the world
From the very beginning, we play the game of ‘pretend’. ‘Pretend I understand you and you understand me’, our conversation says. We chat and banter about all kinds of things. We imitate looks and sounds – we follow baby’s gaze – we comment on every cue, all in our efforts to create pretend conversation. And it works! Before long, we have shared rituals, routines and phrases that baby and parents recognise. We pretend our way into shared meaning.


There is so much to play with. Babies start with their bodies. Hands are all intriguing. Looking at them, bringing them together, reaching, lifting, manipulating them provides weeks and weeks of play. Equally the legs, the voice and the torso engross. Nature drives babies towards exercises and movements that allow them to coordinate the body and mind. I watched Donal turn over and turn over before rising on all fours and master movement. What a liberating achievement this is. He can now decide where he wants to go and what he wants to get. A great new world of play opens up – and movement itself becomes a whole new focus of interest. Opening and closing, sliding things forward and back, emptying, filling and scattering all intrigue. At 10 months, his favourite play things are the doors and pots of the pot cupboard, a squeaky gate he can move outside, the feeling of the breeze and ‘hide and go seek’.

Hide and go seek
Imagine that – within 10 months, he can play ‘hide and go seek’. Think about how sophisticated that is. He crawls away and I follow him. He enjoys the playfulness of it all and laughs. I duck in behind something and say ‘coocoo’. He looks around and comes to find me. And we beam into each other’s face. What does he know? He recognises the word ‘coocoo’. He knows I’m nearby although he can’t see me. He follows the sound and detects me. And off he goes again to repeat this game of ‘pretend you’re lost and I find you’. This is an exercise in mind reading too and most importantly in intersubjectivity or what Stern again describes as shared knowing – ‘I know that you know that I know’.

Give and Take
Yesterday, I detected a new game starting – it’s about giving and taking….. Imagine that! Nature has this amazing strategy that ordains that just by playing with such little routines as giving and taking, we can learn to separate self and other and at the same time learn to be co-operative, negotiating and generous human beings. There’s something very humbling about it all for me as an educator – a reminder that there are human processes afoot in everyday play with young children that are part of a very grand scheme and take time and what Aldo Fortunati calls just ‘being with’. I’m reminded that storing up banks of facts and figures and learning to sit still and stay within the lines can wait – we’re too busy in early childhood playing our way into personhood and community.

I’d love to hear about your experiences of connecting through play, please 

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