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It’s nearly impossible to ignore the claims that certain types of music, toys or activities can make your baby smarter, but many child-development experts recommend doing just that. Babies learn naturally, they insist; that’s how they’re made. They learn from play and their environment—interacting with their fathers, mothers and siblings, feeling the texture of a piece of fabric, watching shadows on the wall or their own fingers.
“Play is how children learn about the world,” says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child-development specialist at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Zero to Three, which promotes healthy development during children’s early years. “Play doesn’t have to be structured. It can be as simple as making eye contact with a newborn, moving your hand back and forth while he tracks it. It is a mutually joyful interaction.” Here we offer some simple ways you and your baby can discover the joys of play throughout his first year. For more great ideas, read Your Child at Play: Birth to One Year by Marilyn Segal, Ph.D. (Newmarket Press, 1998).
–3 months} Make faces
“Very early on, your infant is interested in you—you are his favorite toy,” Lerner says. “You stick out your tongue, he sticks out his tongue.” Have fun with it: Move your head from left to right and see if he does the same. Also make it reciprocal: If he opens his eyes wide, do the same. You’re not only having fun together—you’re getting to know each other’s faces and expressions and beginning a lifelong bond. One caveat: Play only when your child is receptive. “Wait for the quiet, alert moments when your baby is awake and ready to interact,” Lerner says. If your baby watches you with interest, he’s up for it; if he cries, looks away or arches his back and squirms, try again later.
4–5 months} Roll over, Beethoven
At this age, most babies begin to explore their strength and coordination by rolling over from their backs to their tummies and over again. Have fun encouraging your baby to master this skill: Rest your hands under his shoulders and gently rock him back and forth. Stop when he’s on his side and see if he can get to his stomach by himself. Enhance the fun by rocking your baby to the beat of some snappy music like the new CD by Susie Tallman and friends, Classic Nursery Rhymes (Rock Me Baby Records, 2002). You and your baby can move to the beat of “I’m a Little Teapot,” “Skidamarink” and “This Old Man”—favorites that he will get to know through repeated listening.