Babies naturally learn through happy exploration and gentle play.
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.
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 adds. Hold a handkerchief in front of your eyes and wait for your baby to pull it away. At first he may not understand that you are still there, but when you show your face, the recognition is bound to bring lots of happy chuckles. You can also hide a favorite toy or stuffed animal under a blanket and encourage your baby to find it. "Do something 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."
8–9 months} Go find it At this age, your baby will begin to respond to specific words that he hears often in his home, such as the name of the family pet. You can say, "Where is Max?" and he may indeed begin to look around for his dog. "Now it is especially important to have an ongoing dialogue with your baby," says Lerner. "Verbally label everything as you go about your day and talk about it." Play games with your baby in which you ask for some of his favorite toys or stuffed animals, then wait for him to crawl to get them. For example, if he finds a 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. But be prepared: Once your baby gets the hang of it, 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. As you point them out, you and your baby can marvel at the little details of the everyday world.