Playing with Baby

Interview with PlayHooray

As National Play Day arrives on 3rd August, and many parents look to enjoy even more quality time with their little ones during the summer holidays, we wanted to understand the importance of play and how to find inspiration for those fun times.

So who better to speak to than Claire Russell, an early years expert, author, mum of two (and one on the way) and founder of PlayHooray! If you’re not familiar with PlayHooray, it’s a global phenomenon endorsed by world-leading children’s brands such as Lego, Cocomelon, BBC Bitesize and Mother & Baby. It teaches the value of creating space for play through helpful playPROMPTS, play products, handbooks, courses, and an online community.

With that in mind, we thought we’d put some of our own play related prompts to Claire to see what advice she has for new and experienced parents.

Watch the interview or read the full transcript below...

IB: Claire, are we right in thinking you quit your day job as a primary school teacher to create a better work/life balance for you and your first born, which is when the idea for PlayHooray came about?

Claire: Yes, pretty much. It wasn’t the plan to finish teaching and to start a business. I think a lot of people presume that being a teacher is a great job to have with a young family, and it used to be, however it’s changed a lot now. A friend of mine said to me recently, being a primary school teacher, she realised that she would never be able to do the drop off and pick up her own children because she’s obviously tied to her commitments at school.

For me, at the time we were living in Bristol (we’re now in Nottingham) and we’d just had our first beautiful baby, who was my world, and when it came to going back to work, I just didn’t feel ready for it. The school I was working in, they were very keen for teachers to come back full-time so I thought, I’ll just have a little bit longer at home with my baby, always planning on going back to teaching.

I loved being at home with Mason but having no friends or family nearby, I did find that the day at home with my baby was lovely but it was really long and quite lonely at times. I started PlayHooray because it was something to keep me stimulated. It was giving me purpose to my day. I started play to keep Mason busy as a baby but also he never slept so I was exhausted. I found myself setting up activities to keep him busy so that I could just sit and have that 5 minutes to have a cup of tea and watch him play. I started sharing this online and it just grew and snowballed from there. If I knew what I was letting myself in for, I don’t think I’d have been brave enough!

For many of us mums, when it comes to entertaining baby for the first time and stimulating their senses, I guess we feel a bit out of our depth. Where do we start in those early days?

I think those early days are really hard. As I always say to parents, there’s no certain age to start playing. I think people feel like they need to be doing things straight away and actually, the best thing you can do with your baby is cuddle them and have that skin to skin time. Chat with them; sing to them – they just want you at the beginning, which can be quite all-consuming.

It then gets to the point after maybe two or three months that they need a bit more stimulation and I always say, it’s when you as a parent feel ready to play as well, because there’s enough going on getting through the day, it’s ridiculous! So there will be times that you find you’ve got a bit of time and you might want to use that time to play with your baby, and the beauty of play is that, not only are you stimulating them and their development, it’s also great stimulation for you too and it can get really exciting when it comes to thinking up new ideas and stuff. This is where I sort of buzz! I just love that play can really support a child’s development, particularly in those early stages.

What I would say in those early stages is keep it simple – and this is for babies and toddlers. It’s all about supporting those very early skills. Just think about their five main senses and keep them alert by giving them things to do. The lovely black and white images are so good for baby as their eyes are developing and they’re able to focus better, they can be very calming for baby too. You’ll see all of these beautiful monochrome patterns and products out there on the market. From muslin cloths, flash cards and books – they look really cool and fashionable but actually there’s a lot of science behind them and, as I say, they’re great for baby’s eye development. Having just a few pieces like that and getting in the habit of setting up just a little something for them to play with however, not putting too much pressure on yourself that you need to be setting up something new every day. Repetition for us parents can sometimes feel a bit boring and I do get messages from parents to say, “I feel like my baby is getting bored of what we’re doing” and I always reassure them and say, actually they’re not. That repetition is really good for babies as not only are they practicing those skills, they’re embedding them and they will get better and grow confidence with that.

Even something like reading with your baby from a young age, even from the day they’re born – okay, they may not be focusing on the pictures but they’re listening to your voice and if you hold them really close they can hear the vibrations. It’s a lovely way of bonding and getting them to know you and it helps fill your day, particularly on those days that you have no plans and you’re wondering what to do. Having just a couple of tricks up your sleeve can really make a difference!

You mention repetition being good for babies and toddlers, does that mean that you don’t have to go out and buy lots of things to entertain baby?

Before you have a baby, you get the list of things to pack in the hospital bag and all of the things you need to buy for the baby – the feeding, the cleaning and everything else. I think play almost gets forgotten about because you don’t quite realise and it’s just not on the agenda to begin with but then when baby arrives and you find yourself at home with them, you start to think about what to do with them and wonder how you’re going to keep them busy. It’s really easy to feel the pressure to go out and buy all the baby toys in the shops. It was only when I had a baby I discovered how expensive toys were for children.

So, what I try to do is show parents that actually, more often than not, we have things in our house that can be used safely with our babies to stimulate them. You know how we always hear Grandma talk about the pots and pans and the wooden boxes – it’s true! That’s all they want – that simple stuff.

Don’t feel pressured to go out and buy lots of toys. There are toy libraries where you can hire and borrow toys and books for a short period of time, which is great as you can change things over regularly.

There are a couple of items you might want to invest in and again, not for a lot of money – you can pick these up in the bargain shops… but they’re the kind of things that you’ll be able to reuse. One of my favourites are sensory scarves which are lovely, light and soft. You can play with them in a variety of different ways to stimulate your baby and if you do ever go to any baby classes, you’ll see them being used there. You’re talking a couple of pounds for four or five of them and they’ll play with them right through to toddlerhood and pre-school, using them to dance with and all sorts. Another couple of my favourites are balls and stacking cups – again, even after the baby stage, they’ll be able to play with them in many different ways.

There might be a couple of bigger things that you want to invest in or maybe put on your baby wish list. So when family and friends are asking, what do you want? What do you need? They’re the kind of thing you can suggest.

Other than that, you’ve got loads of things around the house. You can use the cardboard tubes from toilet and kitchen rolls to whisper down to your baby. Mirrors; reflective things – objects like this can be used to stimulate baby and keep you stimulated as well.

I think all of the above advice will be music to everyone’s ears, especially at the moment with money being so tight. When it comes to signing up to baby classes and things, which often parents can feel the pressure to do, what would be your advice on those?

I love baby classes and now the range of classes is amazing. Baby classes are fantastic and you can get a wide range of them – from private classes to classes that run in children’s centres for just a couple of pounds. I remember going to some of these when Mason, my youngest, was a baby – they’d just take him for me while I got my stuff sorted and make me a cup of tea and a biscuit! You don’t need to be spending a lot of money on classes.

There are loads of benefits for you taking your baby to classes. Not only are they great for stimulating your baby, they’re great for picking up new ideas and tricks for those days at home. I think it’s really important for us as parents too to socialise and classes give us a good excuse to get out of the house to meet other parents and hear other people who are in a similar situation to you.

On the flip side, don’t be putting pressure on yourself to attend a class in the morning and a class in the afternoon, as it could cause you stress to get ready and out of the door for a set time. It’s about finding what works for you. Maybe try a few classes – you definitely don’t need to be doing all of them!

I think the socialising element is important but so is not getting stressed out, so it’s about finding the right balance. Getting out of the house can be hard enough and some days, you just won’t feel up to it so if you don’t, don’t give yourself a hard time. Wipe the slate clean and have a day at home – babies still love that!

School’s obviously out for summer next week which will mean baby classes and pre-school are too for a few months anyway. For parents who are dreading the school holidays, simply because they’re stuck for things to do with little ones or are worried about the costs of endless days out, what would you say to them?

Firstly, virtual classes are still accessible so make sure to check those out – there are some really good ones out there. Even programmes like The Baby Club and The Toddler Club on CBeebies – they are great. They not only give you ideas, they give you that five minute breather.

Leo, my 22 month old, will dance around as he’s got to know the songs. They’re actually learning so much from programmes like this because they’re written so well. The ones I just mentioned on CBeebies they’re written by experts and there are lots of really high quality ones on YouTube too. Definitely take advantage of those in the summer holidays and outside of term-time.

You might get ideas from the programme and then carry that on at home yourself!

What I try and do when regular things are closed for the holidays is make sure we leave the house in the morning. When you can, finding an excuse to get outside can be a game changer. I’m very aware that on some days, that’s the last thing you want to do but quite often I find just getting some fresh air is like pressing that reset button. Even if it’s raining – get zipped up and get the cover on the pram. You don’t have to go far – just a walk down the lane or to post a letter it can recharge you, especially when energy levels are low.

Another thing I find, particularly in the afternoons, after lunch and they’re maybe not napping anymore – you’ve got a long time until dinner time and it just feels like the clock’s going backwards… I always use water play at that point. We go in the bath and we’ll have a bath mid-afternoon because one, I’ve got more energy – if we do it after dinner, I’m exhausted, they’re tired and it’s too stressful. Whereas mid-afternoon, it kills a bit of time and they can be in the bath for longer. Splashing around and playing – it’s a real energiser is water play. So don’t feel like you always have to do bath time in the evening.

Play is a brilliant tool. We don’t play every day but there are times when I think, I’ve got half an hour before dinner time, what are we gonna do? It’s nice knowing that we can pull a few things out – a tube, a pompom and it keeps my toddler entertained whilst I cook dinner and stops him climbing my legs!

Yesterday, my toddler showed interest in the clothes pegs and played with those for a while so it shows, play doesn’t have to look like something off Pinterest. It can be very basic!

Just having walks, fresh air and water play up your sleeve can be a game changer.

And how about pleasing different ages? Am I right in thinking you have a seven year old and an almost two year old? How do you keep them both entertained?

If you have an older child, particularly in the summer holidays, it can be brilliant to theme a day. This is something we’ve always done. We’ll start the day with a lovely children’s book and snuggle then more often than not, the book will inspire our play.

I always remember when Mason was much younger, we were playing with Play-doh inside and a butterfly came in. He was fascinated by it so we spent the rest of the day making butterflies; painting them; looking for them outside and watching clips of them on YouTube. Sometimes those little sparks can really inspire the rest of your day.

We were once watching Peppa Pig and they were making paper aeroplanes so we then spent time outside making and flying our own. So just anything that captures your little one’s imagination – take hold of that and go with it!

One of the best things you can do is just watch your child. Watch what they’re fascinated by and expand on that.

I had a mum message me the other day and say, “All my toddler wants to do is knock stuff over” and I was like, well first of all, you’re not the only one. I’ve got a 22 month old that does that. But, when they’re knocking stuff over, I want you to really watch them. Is he enjoying building with the blocks to then knock them over and see how they fall? Does he only like knocking over blocks or everything? Really focus in and watch because the more you pinpoint what it is they’re fascinated by, it can really help you set up other things. Do more of that! What else could you use? Toilet rolls, paper cups, empty cereal boxes. Go with what they’re interested in and do it in lots of different ways.

I have a 7 year old and 22 month old but quite often, they’ll play alongside each other to their own ability. My eldest is much better is at constructing a tower, getting things to balance but he understands that for my youngest, the satisfaction comes in knocking it down. They laugh and think it’s hilarious!

So if you have more than one child, it’s about finding something that sparks both of them that is open-ended like construction, water play or sensory play and play alongside each other at their own level.

If there’s a big age gap, its not until later on in life that children are able to play together – teamwork and sharing are quite advanced skills. For younger children, it’s all about survival of the fittest – it’s all about me and my world and that’s just how humans develop. It’s only as we get older that they’re able to empathise with others and how to work together, things like that.

For anyone planning a trip away with little ones this Summer, what are your top tips on keeping little ones amused? From the journey to when you get there… how much do you actually need to pack?

This is all I’m getting asked at the moment. First of all, don’t panic! More often than not, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. As always, having tricks up your sleeve can be a game changer.

Don’t give them all of the toys. You want to stretch them out to keep them going. Be strategic with what you pack. Try to pack just a few items. Ideally you want a little bag of things which can be played with in a variety of ways. Some of my favourites are things like sticky notes, washy tape, a dice for older ones, stickers – things like that are really great for making up your own games. Things like washy tape are great, even for babies, on the plane you could stick a few strips down and strip it off – they’ll think it’s hilarious. Or sticky notes – they can grab them, pull them off. For older children, you could maybe write numbers on them, make car parking tickets with them – they’re very versatile, rather than taking puzzles and things.

I’d then also pack some drawing materials, whether it’s a colouring book and chunky crayons - I don’t know if you’ve seen those lovely water pads? They have water in a pen and when you paint, it reveals the colour without making a mess - maybe new things that they’ve never played with before or little sets of toys that they’ve not played with for a long time. Cars, people, animals or dinosaurs – pack those away because you can play different games and they can pretend with them.

Be very tactical with the snacks you pack. Something like an apple will take longer to eat than a packet of crisps or a biscuit. I always make sure we have screens charged – I use screen time, it’s another tool. Have their favourite programmes downloaded along with some new ones.

Also, a big scarf or pashmina is great. For younger ones, it’s a great way of darkening the space to make them nap better. You could make dens in the hotel room and also it can be a bit cold on the plane so you can use it to wrap them.

Also, we do also have some PlayHooray activity cards for young children. I created those as a mum trying to keep a little one entertained. They are particularly good for entertaining in a confined space like a car or a plane – they prompt you with things to look for; silly games to play, things you can do with the cards – hiding them, balancing them

Finally, for anyone who would love to discover more play inspiration and ways to nurture their child’s development, where can they find out more?

In lockdown I published a book and an app as well. We’ve got loads on the PlayHooray website – from blogs to e-books and tutorials, as well as on our Instagram page @play.hooray. And do DM me – that’s’ where I spend most of my time, chatting to parents!

I think one of the main things to say is that I trained to be a primary school teacher for many years, I’ve taught for many years and then became a mum and I think we presume, because we were all children once, we would find playing with our children easy but it’s just not the case. I get many messages from parents who are almost embarrassed to say, I find it really hard to play, I don’t know what to do today. That’s okay – you’re definitely not the only one. If you need support with that, there are some brilliant resources. Pinterest, Instagram – there are lots of places you can go now and get lots of lovely ideas. Children’s centres are an amazing resource if you have one close by – they often offer things like messy play classes for when you’re not in the mood for making the mess at home.

I always liken play to cooking. For me, I can open a bag of stuff and I can make an activity. I can open a full fridge and not be able to put a meal together. I overthink it! So we all have our own skills and there are lots of people like me; teachers and experts that can help you.

Amazing, thank you Claire!

For further play inspiration, make sure to visit and give Claire a follow on Instagram @play.hooray

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