5 Baby Games You Can Play with Your Fingers

No toy handy, no prob! When it comes to captivating your baby, nothing can compete with these songs and games.

Mom in Polka Dot Pants Holding Baby
Photo: Marley Kate

A half hour into my first flight with my spirited 9-month-old, I knew I was in deep. We had already blown through our stash of toys; the pouch of apple-spinach puree was sucked bone-dry; the book Gossie & Gertie had been read approximately 18.5 times; and the floor was littered with puffs. Steadfast in my resolve not to pull out the iPad, I began whisper-singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" to my daughter. She loved it—her eyes lit up as my hands ascended through the air, her toothless smile as bright as the sunshine my arms were forming over my head. Bingo! "We'll get through this," I realized.

We've all heard about how music benefits babies: It enhances language development, promotes word acquisition, and helps establish a sense of rhythm. What's more, engaging your little one in a song or game is a stellar form of bonding. "Your baby might not understand that Little Bunny Foo Foo is running though the forest, but he does recognize that both you and he are focusing on the same sounds, rhythms, and flow," says Sharon Syc, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of child development at Chicago's Erikson Institute. "The result is your child feels soothed, calmed, and connected to you."

Beyond "Itsy Bitsy Spider," though, I didn't know more than a few words to childhood rhymes, and unless you have a grandparent who's versed in such classic ditties, you may not either. Enter this top five playlist. None requires a verbal response, so they are ideal for infants, though big sibs will delight in them too. Try them at home when you're not sure what to "play," or when you're someplace where you need to pass the time—in the pediatrician's waiting room, at a restaurant, and, of course, on an airplane.

1. Where Is Thumbkin?

Why you should try it Pretending your fingers are people talking to each other reinforces the idea that playtime is something fun to share with others. "It's a rehearsal for real play, so when children are older and on the playground, they'll be able to interract with other children," says Joanne Loewy, D.A., director of The Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Plus, the physical action of "Where Is Thumbkin?" provides a rich sensory experience, notes Dr. Syc.

The lyrics Holding hands behind back:

"Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?"

Bringing out one hand with thumb up: "Here I am!"

Other side: "Here I am!"

Thumbs "talking" to each other: "How are you today, Sir?" "Very well, I thank you."

Returning thumbs behind back: "Run away. Run away."

Repeat with "Pointer," "Tall Man," "Ring Man," and "Pinkie."

2. Peekaboo, I See You

Why you should try it If your baby clings to you like chewing gum to hair, then you know separation anxiety is real. Enter the peekaboo game. "Hiding games and songs reinforce the notion that mommy or daddy can disappear under a blanket or behind their hands and still come back," explains Loewy. "It helps them understand that it's okay to be alone." Music also enhances trust by providing a sense of predictability; stick with simple, short melodies and make sure the reveal happens to the same words.

The lyrics Covering and revealing face, say:

"Peekaboo, I see you, Peeka Peeka…Boo!"

3. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Why you should try it Kids of all ages, especially babies, tend to have a hard time with change. It makes sense, then, that a song about moving from one activity to the next would be ideal for singing during times of transition. The melody is so well-known that you can easily improvise with your own words to fit the activity at hand. For instance, "having one's diaper changed is not usually enjoyable for a baby," Loewy says, "but singing, 'This is the way we change our clothes, change our clothes, change our clothes' during it makes it more fun." Doing this, she says, is the musical equivalent of dressing up strawberries by placing them on a lovely antique plate rather than serving them out of the plastic container. Try it with toddlers too: "If your daughter doesn't want to put her shoes on, sing, 'This is the way we wear our shoes, wear our shoes, wear our shoes' to make it interactive."

The lyrics "Here we go round

The mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush.

Here we go round the mulberry bush

So early in the morning.

This is the way we wash our face,

Wash our face,

Wash our face.

This is the way we wash our face

So early in the morning."

Repeat with "Comb our hair," "Brush our teeth," "Put on our clothes," and any other routines.

4. A Little Flea Went Walking

Why you should try it Little ones love the anticipation that builds in this song. "Lay your baby on his back and use your fingers to 'walk' a circle around his tummy as you sing," says John M. Feierabend, Ph.D., professor emeritus of music education at the University of Hartford's The Hartt School. Not only will he gurgle with glee waiting for the tickle, but by creating the buildup of suspense followed by the release, "you're preparing your child to be open to those same qualities found in good stories and books," he says.

The lyrics While "walking" fingers around your child's tummy:

"A little flea went walking

To see what he could see

But all that he could see…"

Tickling his tummy: "Was baby's little tummy!"

Variation: After three months, when babies' palms naturally unclench, try drawing a circle on your child's palm while singing,

"Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step, two step…" then move up to her armpit and sing, "Tickle you under there!"

5. Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Why you should try it Who knew a few moos and oinks could teach your child empathy? "Animal songs cause us to imagine how different animals feel," Loewy explains. "When a child pretends he's the dog in 'Old MacDonald,' he wonders, 'Why is the dog barking? Is he hungry? Tired?'" Similarly, "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" gets a child thinking about those poor monkeys' headaches. Strange but true: Loewy says that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was originally written to help children with school phobias feel more comfortable; Mary's lamb served as a lovey, bringing her comfort.

The lyrics "Old MacDonald had a farm


And on his farm he had a cow


With a moo moo here

And a moo moo there

Here a moo, there a moo

Everywhere a moo moo

Old MacDonald had a farm


Repeat with "pig," "duck," "horse."

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