One of the wonderful opportunities given to new parents is the chance to play with their babies and to observe them while they play alone. A baby's
play has a serious purpose. During play, your baby develops his physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills. Play is also critical to the formation of his identity and personality. But by its nature, play is voluntary and spontaneous, not imposed by you as a parent. You can make suggestions about play, but often your child will invite you to play. Play gives you and baby an opportunity to get to know and grow with each other.
How play develops
From birth your baby has the potential to explore and find out about the world through her body and her senses. Play starts shortly after birth with the stimulation of your babys senses during those first brief periods of bright-eyed, quiet alertness when your baby is very responsive to sights, sounds, and movement.
Research shows that babies are more interested in the human face than any other object. Babies are also especially attracted to the sound of the human voice. Most of all, a baby recognizes and responds in a special way to his mother's voice. So, in the beginning, you are more fascinating to your baby than any toy.
Entertaining play can begin with face-to-face interactions. A baby loves to look at your face and will respond even more to your exaggerated facial expressions: a big smile, wide eyes, an open mouth, frowns, yawns, or dancing lip movements. You can mimic your baby's expressions back to him, and soon he will imitate your expressions. Mirroring and exaggerating your baby's expressions will make you both smile, and the exchange helps develop your baby's awareness of himself as a separate entity.
The sound of your voice talking, singing, or cooing as you make entertaining faces will delight your baby even more. He will eventually respond with smiles, wriggles of delight, squeaks, squeals, coos and other sounds of his own. A mother can instinctively use her voice and facial movements as instruments to strike a variety of notes and make playful, rhythmic music for her baby. By stimulating the senses of sight and sound at the same time, she ensures the baby will be more actively engaged and learn more than if only one sense is stimulated. So vocalizing, touching, and smiling together provide a richer experience for you and your baby.
Stimulate the senses
Although you are the star performer at the centre of your baby's world, there are many ways to engage his senses. The senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell are the first windows through which your baby gets to know his environment and the most important people in it. By encouraging the development of his senses, you stimulate his cognitive or intellectual growth.
You can create a lively environment for your baby with stimulating sights and sounds. Babies are attracted to strongly contrasting patterns, like checkerboards and stripes, and designs that are bold and bright. Decorate your baby's room with this in mind when you are selecting wallpaper, quilts, and playthings.
Take your cues from your baby about how much stimulation is right for his particular temperament. When he's had enough, he'll look away or turn his head. If a baby is overstimulated, he may cry.
By the second and third month, your baby's hands start to open up and you can begin to play. By the third or fourth month, she will begin to make random swipes at objects placed within her reach and to grasp rattles and other toys. Toys like rattles, which make sounds as they move, help your baby make the connection between what her hands are doing and what her eyes are seeing. She will also play with her hands, watch what they're doing, and begin to realize that they belong to her.
As her hands and eyes start working together, she'll gradually be able to reach with some accuracy for objects and to explore objects with her hands and mouth more purposefully. By the fifth or six month, your baby will be able to transfer toys from hand to hand, play with blocks, and manipulate objects.
As your baby gradually uncurls, learns to lift her head, and begins to use her legs and arms more freely at two or three months, she will discover the joys of physical play. Lay your baby on her back on a mat so she can kick. Put an object to one side of her to encourage her to start rolling over.
Your baby may also begin at three months to lift her tummy off the ground, to push with her feet and fingers, to squirm, to wriggle, or move around. Put an enticing toy just beyond her reach and she may struggle to move toward the object.
At about four months, help your baby learn to sit up by pulling her gently to a sitting position and propping her up in a stroller or adaptable chair or infant seat. This gives her an expanded view of the world and builds the muscles necessary for sitting up and balancing without assistance, which she may be able to do by six months. You can help her to learn better balance by placing toys in front of her so that she reaches for the toys and develops her trunk muscles. When a baby can sit alone, she becomes more adept at playing alone.
When your baby seems ready, pull her to a standing position in her crib or playpen, or on your lap. A baby loves to stand on your lap and bounce, which develops her leg muscles so that she will eventually be able to pull herself up and stand by herself
Social and emotional development
The early face-to-face playing is the model for your baby's future interactions and relationships with other people. You and your baby will gradually learn how to play and to just be with each other. If play is loving and fun, your baby learns the shared feelings of joy, curiosity, thrills, fright, surprise, and delight that are the stuff of friendship and love. Play is a wonderful outlet for expressing and releasing positive, joyful feelings as well as negative ones, like fear or anxiety.
As your baby achieves developmental milestones such as smiling, swiping or swatting, grasping and sitting, provide him with positive reinforcement hugs, cheers, claps, and other forms of encouragement. Learning and development are stimulated by positive gestures, and this will build your baby's self-esteem and self-confidence.
Although it is through your baby's play that you can measure your child's development, take care not to use playing as a test of progress. Your baby will sense the pressure and will pick up the message if you're not satisfied. This kind of exchange undercuts his self-esteem and may inhibit or stifle his development. If you give your baby encouragement and the room to grow, he will develop emotionally and socially in his individual way.
The connection between playing and learning
By reaching for a toy, a baby is developing the specific skill of hand-eye coordination. And when he is successful, he gains confidence, which is a vital foundation for developing other skills. One of the greatest benefits of play for a baby is that he learns how to be an effective learner and to enjoy learning, which provide the foundation necessary for continuing to learn.
Play is a great confidence-builder because an infant enjoys the results so much. In play, a child develops a sense that he can do things and make things happen. Studies show that the more children play, the more they Iearn, as researchers have found through developmental tests. So play helps to build a positive self-concept and enhances self-esteem.
Play helps a child develop the skills that are essential in thinking, in problem-solving, in developing language skills, and in acquiring the skills of
social interaction. Play can enhance creativity, as well as concentration and attention. It allows the child to learn and develop mastery of his body.
Parents as playmates
As a parent, you might initiate play. You can also be the model for different play activities, so that your infant learns by imitating you. Join in when your child is playing, or simply observe and supervise so that the infant is in charge. Let your infant take the lead whenever he can, and you follow. Be ready to quit when your child is ready. The child plays as long as he's learning or having fun and then he ends it. Follow his wishes. The best play of all occurs when you and your baby respond in turn to each other.
The parent may facilitate a child's play, taking a more or less active role when appropriate. But even when you are simply observing, make comments or encouraging sounds to let your baby know that you enjoy what he's doing.
Games babies love
Games teach your baby a wide range of social, physical and mental skills, and babies find them endlessly amusing. Choose games that you enjoy too. Your mutual enjoyment will be infectious.
Toys that make noise will arouse your baby's interest as he tries to connect the source of the sound with his ears and his eyes. To play "musical mittens," take some brightly-coloured mittens and sew a tiny bell securely onto each one (a bell that could be easily pulled off poses a choking risk for your child). Put the mittens on his hands. He will soon discover that when he waves his hands, the mittens make a tinkling noise.
Sing along with Dad
Most babies like the sound of your singing, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. Lullabies and nursery rhymes are always a hit. Get some CDs or tapes to remind you of the words and the melodies. Sit your baby on your lap and bounce him to the rhythm of a nursery rhyme. Lift him up into the air, wiggle him to the beat, and bring him back down to a safe place on your lap for the finale.
What's in the cupboard?
Your baby loves to have things to grab and hold, to feel and play with different shapes and textures. Along with rattles and other toys, let him explore household objects such as spoons, pots, pans, cans, plastic or paper cups, and empty shoe boxes after you've first ensured that the area is childproofed.
Peekaboo is a standby that never falls to amuse. Cover your face with your hands, a blanket, or a piece of clothing. Say, "Where's mommy?" Uncover your face and say, "Peekaboo, I see you!" And don't forget hand games like Round and Round the Garden, Patty-Cake, and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.
Babies love the infinite possibilities of blocks. Watch your baby pick up blocks, transfer them from hand to hand, bang them together, drop them, and stack them.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Mirrors give babies a change of view. Use a metal safety mirror rather than a glass one. Hang it near the crib or changing table, but out of the baby's reach.
Fly, baby, fly
This exercise will benefit both of you. Lie on your back with your knees and feet up. Lift your baby up so that his torso and legs are resting on your shins. Hold his arms at your knees to support him and look at each other's faces. Raise your knees and lift his arms into the air so that he's "flying," but still securely held.
Excerpted from Growing with Your Child: Pre-Birth to Age 5 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1998 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.