Baby play

Children have an in-built need to play which begins when they are babies. Play is vital for developing language, thinking, motor skills and social skills. As children grow and develop the type of play they enjoy changes too. Providing the right kinds of play opportunities for your child's age and stage of development can greatly enhance their learning and skill development. Today we are looking at play in babies and younger toddlers. The information provided would also be suitable for older children with delayed development.

Early types of play include:

Sensory and loco-motor play: This develops motor skills as well as strength and coordination and also provides exercise.

Language play: Children vocalize and chat to themselves as they develop the skills needed to communicate.

Babies and younger toddlers use sensory motor play to explore the world around them. This includes touching, holding, shaking, throwing, banging, moving and mouthing objects. They tend to explore one thing at a time and though they enjoy common items they don't use them in the typical way; for example they may use keys for shaking and enjoy the noise they make but not try to open things with them. They also enjoy language play in terms of exploring the sounds that they can make with their voice and they way they can change sounds with their lips and tongue, as they coo and babble though they may not yet be using real words.

To develop sensory motor play in babies provide lots of opportunities to explore different objects. Provide items with different colours, sizes, shapes, sounds and textures. Include toys made from a range of materials including brightly coloured plastic, smooth wooden toys and fabric toys with different textures. Include toys that make noises such as rattles and things that they can bang and shake.

Things that "do something" such as activity centres help children learn "cause and effect". This is when a baby learns that by doing something they can "cause" an "effect" on something else, such as if I press this button I hear a noise or see something move or light up. This discovery is a vital one for later learning as early communication development is built on doing something to "cause" an "effect" on another person, such as if I say "ta" someone will give me something.

Toys that hide and reappear such as pop up toys are also valuable because they develop a child's understanding of "object permanence". This is the idea that an object still exists even when we cannot see it. When children learns that a ball, is always a ball even when it rolls away from sight, they are ready to attach a label to the object, to learn that the word "ball" stands for the round item that they like to play with. As well as pop up toys, peek-a-boo games, hiding and finding toys under a cloth or in a container and looking at flap books can also help develop this skill.

Babies can explore things that are not toys too. A plastic mixing bowl, wooden spoon and metal saucepan can provide opportunities to learn about how things feel and sound: cool, hard, heavy metal, smooth, warm wood and smooth, lightweight plastic all feel different and all make different sounds when banged on each other. Babies explore with their mouth as well as with their hands so make sure anything in reach is safe for babies to touch and not a risk for choking. Exploring textures of water and sand can also help develop sensory and motor skills. Provide safe opportunities to explore water and sand with hands and feet initially and later through splashing, filling, tipping and emptying containers.

Sensory-motor development also involves learning to move their whole body, to learn to roll, crawl, stand and walk. Baby swings and bouncers provide soothing movement. Kindergym is a great opportunity to experience all kinds of movement based activities. Toys to chase such as toys with wheels and balls encourage movement as do ride on toys. Make sure babies have plenty of time on a safe, clear floor space to learn to move their own bodies.

Babies will explore language play on their own as they coo and babble to themselves, but the most valuable language play is face to face with a familiar adult. Holding a baby face to face on your lap or getting down to their level on the floor and talking together begins early social and language development. Babies learn to make and hold eye contact, understand facial expressions and tone of voice. From an early age they begin to copy the sounds they hear adults make so that older babies tend to make mostly the sounds from their own language even before they can use real words. Babies also learn early on to "turn take", another vital communication skill. You can encourage this by talking to your baby, pausing for your baby to make a sound, then "answering" them and pausing again.

Babies also learn through play to "imitate". Learning to copy others allows babies to learn all kinds of things including early language skills. Babies love to copy actions such as waving and clapping, actions with objects such as stacking blocks and knocking them down, sounds and later words. You can encourage your baby to copy by copying them. This is likely to encourage them to do the action or sound again. Keep copying their action or sound until you get a string of turn-taking going then change the action or sound slightly and see if they copy you.

Here are some great toys for babies:

  • rattles
  • large soft balls
  • stacking rings and nesting cups
  • larger wooden and plastic blocks and shape sorters
  • larger toys with wheels
  • ride on toys
  • toys that make a noise
  • soft toys and cloth dolls
  • sturdy board books and cloth books
  • bath toys

Because baby toys are designed to be sturdy and washable you can often get great baby toys cheaply in second hand toy shops. Toy libraries are also great. Why not swap and share toys with friends and family as your children move through different stages and interests. You can make your own toys and books too. Visit our Pinterest page for some great ideas.

Watch our blog for information about play for older toddlers and preschoolers.

Signs your child is moving on to the next stage include:

  • copying actions and words
  • using toys meaningfully, such as pretending to drink with a toy cup rather than banging it
  • using toys constructively such as stacking rather than sucking or banging blocks

Remember that the most exciting, educational and wonderful toy for any baby is a caring adult. Every moment you can spend playing with your child is a moment that your child bonds, learns and builds skills for their future.

The download section of Our website has more ideas, information and activities to help your child develop their language skills.

If you are concerned about your child's development check our "what to expect" handouts and check lists to find out more. Check Our website to see how speech pathology may help if you are still concerned.

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