Parents are baby’s first and favourite playmates. Babies’ playful experiences begin when mum and dad talk, sing, smile or coo to them. Baby will hold eye contact for a time and show interest.
When baby plays with dad or mum, they’re learning that they’re loved and important. Play strengthens their relationship, and this will help them have loving relationships with other people as they grow. Babies who play often with their parents are more likely to build confidence and become enthusiastic learners.
Playing alone while parents are close by
Babies also need time to play on their own while mum or dad is close by. This helps them develop imagination, problem-solving skills, and make new discoveries in a different way to when they play with their parents and whānau.
Parents can read baby’s signs during play, look at what interests them and follow their lead. Babies further develop their imagination and problem-solving skills when they can choose their play.
Babies learn through all their senses. Their eyes, mouth, nose, ears and hands are their tools for play. As they grow, they’ll also use more of their body to play, explore and discover. They begin batting at toys accidentally. As they do this over and over again, their brain connections become stronger and their movements become more intentional. They reach for toys and begin to grasp. As hand–eye co-ordination improves, babies bring toys to their mouth to explore and learn about them. They begin to pass toys from one hand to the other.
Safe play for baby
Babies don’t know what’s safe, so parents need to check that baby has safe play spaces and toys. Out of curiosity, baby will pick up anything they can reach. It’s helpful for both parents and baby when parents move things out of reach if they’re not safe (or if they don’t want baby to play with them).
Sometimes babies need a break from play or talking with a parent. They may turn away, close their eyes, arch their back, cry, yawn or fall asleep. When parents see these signs, they can stop the play for a while. After some calm time or comforting, baby may be ready to play again.
Very young babies can only play for a very short time before it becomes too much for them. As they grow, they’re able to play for longer before signalling that they need a break.
Babies love to do things and hear things over and over again. They love to copy and will try to imitate mum and dad’s sounds or games. These are all loving and playful experiences that are very important for healthy brain growth. Everyday routines can also be playful experiences. Parents can smile at baby, sing, talk, and play little games during bath time or nappy changes.
By 9 months old, babies usually understand cause-and-effect. They’re learning that they can make something happen. This is when they push a button on a toy to make something pop up, or they drop a ball to watch it bounce.
Sometimes baby will repeatedly drop things for mum or dad to pick up. While this can be tiring for parents, baby is learning from it, and needs to do it over and over again to understand what’s happening.
Around this age, they also develop memory skills that help them understand that things are still there, even when they can’t be seen. This is called ‘object permanence’. Baby will begin to look for hidden toys, and may become upset when mum or dad leaves the room.
Keep it simple
Babies are like little scientists, using their curiosity to make new discoveries — and they don’t need expensive toys to do this. Simple toys that baby can do different things with, and toys with different textures and shapes are good for learning — squishy toys like soft balls, and hard toys like blocks that baby can bang together or build with.
Safe household objects can provide hours of fun and learning too:
- containers of water
- pots and spoons
- sand trays.
Books are good for playing with as well as reading. Baby can start with ‘bath’ (vinyl) books, board books and lift-the-flap books.
Play helps babies learn how things work, how to use their bodies, learn new skills and how to solve problems.
- Parents are baby’s first and favourite playmates.
- Babies need safe toys and safe play areas.
- Babies learn more when they can choose their play and parents follow their lead.
- Babies need some calm time when they get overwhelmed during play.
- Everyday routines can easily become playful experiences.
The ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ sections in the SKIP Whakatipu booklets give parents simple neuroscience information to support them with their parenting:
- Te Pihinga 1, page 33 — learning through play
- Te Pihinga 2, pages 8 and 9 — curiosity and exploration
- Te Pihinga 3, page 8 — using all the senses
- Te Kōhuri 3, page 8 — play is wiring up connections
- Brainwave Trust: Learning is child’s play
- California Childcare Health Program: Building baby’s intelligence — Why infant stimulation is so important
- North Dakota State University: What young children learn through play
- Treasures: The power of play
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa