Play is a vital part of a baby’s physical, mental and social development. Parents often ask me ‘How can I play with my young baby?’ In order to recognise play opportunities, it’s important to know what your baby can do. Read on to discover my advice on how to encourage early play in your little one.
Play and the brain
During the first three years of life, the brain is growing rapidly and increasing in complexity. Brain development depends on baby’s everyday experiences.
Moving around and exploring. Seeing and touching objects. Hearing language and other sounds. Playing with toys and interacting with people. All of these help babies to develop their skills.
How do we recognise play in those early months of life?
By 3 months of age, babies are beginning to regulate their behaviour. Vision is developing rapidly and at around 2 to 3 months, a baby can focus on an object while reaching for it at the same time. However, young infants are not very good at grasping objects. Parents can help by having easy-to-grasp toys available e.g. rattles. When young babies are wakeful and content, give them visual and sensory stimulation by moving objects in front of them and encourage them to reach and grasp. By 4 to 5 months, babies are using shape, colour and texture to identify objects. Give your baby plenty of sensory opportunities to find out how the world looks and feels.
Babies tend to repeat actions that have an effect. When supported in water, infants kick and wave their arms around – learning that they can have an effect on the world.
Bath toys are great fun even for young babies. By 7 months, babies are becoming better at reaching for moving objects. Put a toy slightly out of reach and encourage your baby to stretch and move towards it.
Play can influence physical and cognitive development
By 12 months, babies are beginning to use their thumb and index finger to grasp even very tiny objects (the pincer grip). They’re also building towers with two cubes. This requires fine coordination skills. Coordination is also required for walking which changes an infant’s view of the world and influences cognitive development.
Babies’ actions influence their cognitive development. Repetition is important for learning and babies delight in games such as ‘peek-a-boo’ that use elements of surprise, fun (hiding the face and then saying boo!), and the face itself – babies love to look at faces! Playing peek-a-boo also occurs around the same time that babies realise that when something has moved out of sight, it has not disappeared entirely. This ability is referred to as ‘object permanence’ and develops gradually during early infancy.
Repetition often occurs during play with babies. Babies will copy familiar behaviours and by 12 months are also copying or imitating novel behaviours. Imitation is an important social learning skill and also a fun way for parents to interact with their babies. Parents can also imitate their babies!
Play is important for social development
Babies are influenced by their parents’ animation and facial expressions in face-to-face play. Between 7 and 12 months, infants learn to regulate their emotions by approaching and retreating from stimulation. Babies often approach a new toy and then retreat. Babies are sensitive to their parents’ emotions and will become more confident if their parents show them that they have nothing to fear.
Parents often find themselves talking to, laughing with and even copying their baby. These rhythmical interactions begin as early as 3 months or as soon as infants are able to regulate their behaviour. Even as a grandmother, I find that holding a baby stimulates a ‘singing nursery rhyme’ response that I’d forgotten I had! These types of social interactions are the precursors to play.
Playing with your baby is parental investment. Enjoy it!
Dr. Julie Coultas
Dr. Julie Coultas is an evolutionary social psychologist with a particular
interest in childhood social development and play. She is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. She has been the developmental expert for an international toy company for the past 10 years and has given talks on play, exploration and learning at Baby Shows at Olympia, London and NEC, Birmingham.
Julie has advised parents and parents-to-be on the developmental aspects of play. She has also worked on UK government education projects and Swedish Research Council cultural evolution projects. Her research and teaching focus on: social influence (conformity and cooperative behaviour), social learning (through stories and nursery rhymes), social development (including play), and the emotions and development. She is a freelance consultant providing advice to various organisations including the BBC, Eden Project and Public Relations Companies. She has appeared on a BBC2 programme and has given popular science talks at Baby Shows, Brighton Science Festival and Brighton’s Catalyst Club.
Julie has three grown-up children and seven grandchildren (soon to be eight!). When she’s not working or playing with her grandchildren she loves spending time in the Sussex countryside with her horse.