How do babies learn? From play, experts say--interacting with their father, mother and siblings; feeling the texture of a simple piece of fabric; watching shadows on the wall. A baby doesn't necessarily need a lot of toys to activate his mind, but he does need to be engaged with his family members to reach his potential.
"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. For more great ideas, read Your Child at Play: Birth to One Year by Marilyn Segal, Ph.D. (Newmarket Press, 1998) or visit www.zerotothree.org/play.
Up to age 3 months: make faces
"Very early on your infant is interested in you--you are his favorite toy," Lerner says. "If you stick out your tongue, he'll stick out his tongue."
If he opens his eyes wide, you can do the same. Make a big open happy face, and he'll probably respond with his own version of that expression. Move your head from left to right and see if he does the same. You not only are having fun together, you're getting to know each other's faces and expressions and beginning a lifelong bond.
One caveat: Only play when your child is receptive. "Wait for the quiet, alert moments when your baby is awake and ready to interact," Lerner says. How do you know when that is? If your baby watches you with interest, he's up for it; if he cries, looks away or arches his back and squirms, stop and try again later.
4 to 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 with 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 will get onto his back by himself.
Enhance the fun by rocking your baby to the beat of some snappy music, such as the Classic Nursery Rhymes CD by Susie Tallman and friends (Rock Me Baby Records, 2002). You and your baby can move to the beat of favorite songs such as "I'm a Little Teapot," "Skidamarink" and "This Old Man"--favorites that he will get to know through repeated listening. New research shows that you can help a baby's brain development by integrating rhythm and movement.
6 months: peekaboo!
"By 6 months of age, babies are working on the idea of object permanence," Lerner says. When a baby learns an object may exist even when he can't see it, it's a big developmental step and a great time for playing peekaboo, she says.
Hold a handkerchief in front of your eyes and wait for your baby to pull it away. At first, he may not understand that Mom is still there, but when you show your face, the recognition is bound to bring lots of happy chuckles. You also can hide a favorite toy or stuffed animal under a blanket and encourage your baby to find it.
"Do some little movement that makes your baby smile," Lerner says, "then don't do it again right away. You will see your baby lean toward you as if to say, 'Do it again, Mom.' When you do repeat the activity, he feels proud that he is a good communicator."
8 to 9 months: name games
At this age, your baby will begin to respond to specific words. You can say, "Where is the ball?" and he may indeed look around for it. "Now it is especially important to have an ongoing dialogue with your baby," Lerner says. "Verbally label everything as you go about your day and talk about it." Play games with your baby in which you ask for items and then wait for him to crawl to get them. When he finds that ball you've asked him about, give him an enthusiastic confirmation: "You found your ball!" This teaches your baby confidence and the feeling of success. Be prepared: He will want to play this game over and over again.
12 months: tour the neighborhood
By about 1 year of age, babies start to understand such concepts as big and small, up and down, near and far. "Playing a computer game about sizes may be fine, but seeing the idea in real life makes the lesson longer lasting," Lerner says. Take a leisurely stroll with your baby and ask him to point out the big house, the small house; the leaves up high in a tree, the leaves down on the ground; the nearby truck, the truck far away, etc. You also can do this at home in the kitchen, looking for the big spoon, the small spoon and so on.