Play – the key to clever (and happy) babies!

We often hear the saying, ‘play is a child’s work’. And while you may think this applies to littlies who can walk and talk and initiate their own games, play is critically important for babies to develop and learn and to form strong bonds with the important people in their lives.

The benefits of baby play

Babies are born with a natural urge to learn and you can enhance their development very simply – through touch, movement and play, along with optimum nutrition and an appropriately stimulating environment that includes music, colour, things to touch, and normal household activity and conversation – with minimal expense or stress to either of you.

New research shows that the most critical factor in helping your baby’s brain development is loving, responsive interactions between you and your child: the loving interaction and sensory experience of your cuddles, touch, eye contact, movement, conversations that are all part of playing with your baby are hardwiring your little one’s immature brain for emotional and neurological development: as you touch and talk to your baby and share eye contact, you stimulate the development of connections between nerve cells in your baby’s brain that will form foundations for thinking, feeling and learning.  This means that as well as preparing your baby’s brain for academic learning, by simply ‘tuning in’ and enjoying your baby, you will also be supporting the development of structures that will help your child to respond sensitively to others and read social cues, to manage strong emotions such as anger, to be able to plan and make choices, so that as he grows, he will have the capacity for problem solving, self awareness, generosity, kindness and empathy, as well as curiosity, creativity and joy.

You are your child’s best toy

While neuroscience tells us that play is critical in helping babies’ brains to learn, you can relax and simply enjoy your baby without seeing play as an ‘academic exercise’ or becoming stressed that you might not be ‘doing it right’. According to Dr Jill Stamm, author of ‘Bright from the Start’ (Penguin, Viking), it’s not the play activity itself that causes learning, but the repetition that play encourages. Dr Stamm says, “play actually causes the brain’s energy to be used in a different way – because the pleasure it brings causes repetition, play reinforces healthy brain wiring.”

Studies show that with every interaction between you and your baby, you will both experience elevated levels of beta endorphins –the hormones of pleasure and reward -in your brains. This naturally enhances and encourages playfulness and responsive interactions with your baby. In other words, the more you interact with your baby, the happier you both feel, so the more you want to play and the more you will be helping your baby wire her tiny brain for learning!

How easy is that? You are your baby’s best toy, his best teacher and the rock of your baby’s world!

Playing with your baby

At first, playing with your baby will involve short periods of gentle interaction such as talking, rocking, eye contact and singing. It’s important to be respectful of your newborn’s short attention span and not overstimulate him. If he gets restless or turns away, it’s time to give your baby a break. As your littlie grows, it won’t be long before you will be encouraged by chuckles of glee as he begs for more vigorous play that involves bouncing, rolling and ‘peekaboo’ games. Of course, your little one’s increasing mobility and sense of exploration will mean child-proofing toys and play spaces.

Some games to try include:

Birth to 3 months

  • Hold baby on your lap facing you and, supporting her head as you gaze into her eyes, gently rock her from side to side as you talk or sing to her.
  • Hold baby in your arms and sing as you dance to music.
  • Gaze into your baby’s eyes and experiment with facial expressions as you talk – even a newborn will copy you as you poke your tongue out (this is a fun game for siblings).
  • Place baby on his back and gently wave a colourful scarf or ribbons across his line of vision (about 30 cms) as you talk or sing. Bring it close and lift it, wave it from side to side and gently stroke baby. This will help develop eye tracking skills as well as engaging your little one.
  • Carry your baby in a sling or soft carrier where he can enjoy the delights of movement, feel the textures of your clothing, your skin and hair as well as the security of your heartbeat, your voice and your familiar smell.

3 to 6 months

  • Show baby himself in a mirror –talk to him about the baby and Mummy or Daddy he can see. Let him lie on his tummy and watch himself in a mirror (this will encourage tummy play).
  • Blow on a pinwheel or blow bubbles and watch his visual tracking skills develop!
  • As he plays on his tummy, put some interesting toys just out of reach to encourage him to reach and develop strength for crawling. Plastic bottles half – filled with coloured water and small floating toys or tinsel and bells are a fun home-made option, but make sure lids are secure.
  • Hold baby under his armpits and ‘dance’ him from side to side as you chant ‘tick tock, tick tock’ –swing baby from side to side -, ‘I’m a little cuckoo clock, tick tock, tick tock’ –keep swinging side to side -, ‘now I’m striking one o’clock/ two o’clock’ and so on – lift baby up to the sky once for each strike of the clock).

Six to 12 months

  • Your baby will love noise makers like maracas, a xylophone or music shakers – make your own by putting beans into small jars or plastic bottles (secure lids).
  • Balls, bubbles (watch him crawl and try to catch the bubbles!) and bath toys are fun now (he will love filling and emptying).
  • Play clapping and tapping songs and bounce baby on your lap or legs as you sing.
  • Make a ‘touchy feely’ basket of safe objects of various textures to ‘rummage’ in (with supervision). Try a teaspoon, a bath plug, a pom pom, a pine cone, a soft brush, a sponge.
  • Make a cushion ‘mountain’ to crawl over- encourage his climbing skills(and coordination and balance) by playing ‘peekaboo’ or placing a favourite toy on top of the ‘mountain’.
  • A baby sized tunnel or some large cardboard boxes with open ends are fun to crawl through. Roll a ball through the tunnel and encourage baby to chase it.
  • Stacking toys will be fun, especially as baby knocks these over! Make your own with plastic cups, bowls and boxes of varying sizes.
  • Delegate one low cupboard as your baby’s space – rotate a few toys or safe household objects (unbreakable bowls, cups, spoons) and let him explore ‘his cupboard’.

For more suggestions and information to help your baby develop, Check out Pinky’s book Parenting By Heart and her recording package of interviews with child development professionals ‘The Secrets of Happy Babies -a blueprint for building better baby brains’