The Importance of Baby Play

The Importance of Baby Play
Play is fundamental to healthy brain development.

It lays the foundation for reading, writing, mathematical reasoning, critical thinking, language and scientific discovery. Play provides an emotional outlet for tension and frustration and it is crucial to the socialisation process. Play allows babies to interact in the world around them, to make sense of it and to learn about their own culture. In fact, play is so important that it has been globally recognised to be a fundamental human right.

Play can be quiet or noisy, energetic or passive, social or non-social, relaxed or serious, imaginative or purposeful. Play may or may not require toys or equipment. It does not need an end product. Play is a spontaneous, self-motivated activity that is initiated and controlled by the baby.

Through play, babies master the skills that enable them to move on to the next developmental stage. Most of these skills will be gained in the home or setting that creates the love, safety and security that babies need to thrive.

Creating a Balance

In the midst of so many conflicting messages about what parents should do to support their baby's play, it is hardly surprising that they feel under pressure to provide the best conditions. Studies show that rich adult interaction is vital to healthy development, but that babies also need to explore the world around them on their own terms. A balance of quality adult interactions and baby-driven play is a time-tested way of producing a happy, healthy baby.

Studies show that babies learn best, retain interest longer and enjoy play more when they decide what they want to play with and at what pace. When given a choice of play materials, they are surprisingly adept at choosing the right one for their developmental stage, their
mum playing with child
temperament and their interests. Even so, they still need the support and interest of a loving adult. If they do not feel safe, secure and loved, they will not play.

The best opportunities for play often occur during routine activities such as feeding, nappy changing, dressing, having a bath or preparing for bed time. The play doesn't have to be elaborate as it is often the simplest play that is the most effective. The simplest form of play involves plenty of eye contact, facial expressions, vocalisations, smiles and words of encouragement.

The Process of Play

Most play involves use of the hands in some way, starting first with swiping and then with proper reaching: the result of weeks of repeated practice. These little experiments soon lead on to grasping, which means that objects can be brought to the mouth for exploration. Mouthing decreases when babies start using their hands to explore and manipulate objects. For example, they may squeeze a soft toy with their hands or investigate the properties of a textured object with their finger tips. With the development of the pincer grip, babies waste little time in working out how to pick up the smallest object. At this time, parents must be extra cautious about safety. Anything that is small enough to be swallowed should be removed and plug sockets should be covered up.

Babies also learn best when they can experience things that they can see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and taste. It is how they gain knowledge of themselves and learn about the world. It is through exploration of objects that discoveries are made and problems are solved. When the baby engages in play, the growth of interconnecting circuits within and between the brain cells is accelerated. Through repetitive practice, these connections become hard-wired for life

Baby Sensory Class
The process of play is far more important that toys. However, toys are usually the main objects that babies play with because they have the advantage of being safe and specially adapted to their age and abilities.

Ideas for Play

Toys that capture attention and provide endless entertainment include rattles, musical toys, plastic tea sets and play food, books with brightly coloured pictures and a toy telephone. Toys that help develop crucial skills such as problem-solving and perseverance include large plastic bricks, balls, nesting cups and stackers. Toys that develop fine motor skills include puzzles and crayons. Toys that develop large motor skills include push-along or ride-on toys.

Providing the best conditions for play does not mean purchasing the most expensive toys on the market. Very often, homemade or household objects offer the best value and will keep baby happy, interested and busy. Exploring everyday items can fill babies with wonder and excitement and create an extremely rich learning experience. However, if the object fits through a kitchen roll cylinder then it is not safe. Homemade or everyday objects must be carefully supervised and removed from the cot during daytime naps and at bedtime.

Here are a few ideas that will capture baby's attention and lead learning and development forwards:

Bullet A blanket or quilt with toys attached to short lengths of ribbon sewn along the sides can be used as a play mat (also useful on long car journeys).
Bullet A cardboard box filled with different fabrics.
Bullet Pots and pans.
Bullet Books with different textures glued to each page.
Bullet Plastic containers made into sound shakers (the lids must be secured).
Bullet Measuring cups and large plastic spoons.
Bullet A treasure basket filled with interesting objects such as paper cups and plates, a sock with a ball in the toe, a soft brush, reflective paper or a shiny box.

Other types of play might include listening to stories or music, dancing, singing, rhymes and songs, bouncing games and peek-a-boo. Including babies in household chores, taking them shopping and swimming are also forms of play. In addition, going to a parent and baby group can offer scope for social play and the opportunity for fun conversations to develop. Babies also enjoy going to the park, going on a nature walk or just being outside where they can investigate the world with their senses and their whole bodies.

Play time with carers, extended family members and close friends can also be enriching. For example, they can show the baby how a new toy works or get involved in turn-taking activities such as rolling a ball back and forth. Babies also know that they are loved and that they are fun to be around.

By Dr. Lin Day from

October 2010

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