How Babies Learn Through Play

From the moment they're born, babies love to play. But how do you choose the right toy or game for your infant? Here's what to expect developmentally in your baby's first year -- and the best toys and games for each stage.

0 to 1 Month

  • Our baby's vision extends to just beyond arm's distance; he can see colors but prefers high contrasts.
  • Palmar grasp reflex occurs, and he will clench anything you put in his hands.
  • He listens to familiar voices as hearing develops.

Tools for Play:

Babies are interested in Mom's or Dad's face, simple black-and-white drawings of other faces, black-and-white geometric pictures (for contrast), and toys that are easy to grasp, such as thin, smooth rings. At this early stage, the best game may simply be interacting with another person, says Susan McQuiston, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Baystate Medical Center Children's Hospital, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Stay close so that your baby can focus on you. To encourage him to recognize your voice, talk and sing to him, even when you're not playing with him directly. He'll learn to track you by eye and ear. Holding your baby in an infant carrier allows him to hear the comforting sounds of both your voice and your familiar heartbeat while he's getting used to the world, according to Diane Wiessinger, a lactation consultant in Ithaca, New York.

2 to 3 Months

  • Your baby begins to exert control over her limbs and will repeat movements that bring her pleasure.
  • By the end of the third month, she may develop hand-eye coordination.

Tools for Play:

Watching and interacting with moving objects helps your baby achieve these developmental milestones, so mobiles and gyms that dangle above her are ideal. (Once your baby can pull herself up, however, mobiles and gyms can be a hazard, so be sure to remove them from her crib.) Gyms also encourage your baby to swipe at things, "increasing her control over her body and her world," says Cindy DeLuca, a physical-therapist assistant at Baystate Medical Center.

While she's on her stomach, hold black-and-white puppets with mouths that move or colorful toys that make soft, gentle sounds just outside your baby's field of vision to encourage her to lift her head, says Shelley Velleman, Ph.D., a clinical linguist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Practicing these lifts strengthens your baby's neck, chest, and rib-cage muscles, which will help her develop the breathing patterns she'll need to talk.

4 to 6 Months

  • Your baby's mouth becomes his main tool for exploration. Besides putting everything into it, he is fascinated with the sounds it can create.
  • He is becoming more physically active and beginning to socialize more.

Tools for Play:

Exploring with his mouth is a great way for your baby to learn, so let him do it as much as possible. Make sure all items he mouths are clean -- and too large to be a choking hazard. Even if your baby is months away from cutting his first tooth, teething toys in a variety of shapes, textures, and tastes are excellent now. Rolling a ball to your baby is a great way to challenge him physically, says DeLuca. Social games, such as peekaboo, start at about 5 months.

7 to 9 Months

  • Your baby starts scooting, creeping, and crawling. He takes the initiative and enjoys influencing his environment.
  • The pincer grasp develops, allowing your baby to pick up small objects.
  • He begins to understand words and can bring his hands together.

Tools for Play:

At this stage, parents face more challenges than ever before. Suddenly, your baby sees everything in the house as a potential toy -- and for the first time, he has the power to reach it, says Nanci Weinberger, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Bryant College, in Smithfield, Rhode Island. His new pincer grasp also allows him to pick up small objects. "Get the VCR wires and the cat food out of the way, and offer attractive alternatives," she adds. Your baby may also be able to recognize familiar words that are spoken to him. Simple games and board, foam, or cloth books are appealing. Create games using repeated words and actions, or lay out objects around your baby in a semicircle and ask, "Where's the brush [spoon/bagel]?"

Capture your child's attention with a nonbreakable mirror placed at crawling height. You may find that he talks to the mirror more often than to you.

Dropping, throwing, or banging things is also great fun right now, because these actions produce immediate effects. You can buy toys for this purpose, or you can just hand over some pots and pans and watch your baby delight in the noise that he can make! Also good: games like pat-a-cake and, toward the end of this age range, an easy hide-and-seek with objects.

10 to 12 Months

  • Your baby's sense of balance has greatly improved; she may even be cruising or walking.
  • Her perceptual, language, and fine motor skills increase.
  • She begins imitative play.

Tools for Play:

Now your baby can focus on mastering fine motor skills. "A favorite game is dump and fill," says DeLuca. "Give your child crates filled with anything you don't mind having dumped. Take advantage of her interest in putting things in containers, and teach her to clean up." Encourage perceptual skills by offering nesting cups and stacking rings (though most babies won't get the order right for another six months or so). Finger and hand games emphasizing language are big hits; try "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "The Wheels on the Bus." Says Dr. Weinberger, "Babies can't really sing the songs, but your singing helps them recognize familiar words and encourages them to try to say a few."

Near 12 months, your baby will enjoy imitative play with toy phones, dolls, and animals. She'll also incorporate you more into her play, notes Dr. McQuiston, and will begin using toys as tools -- pounding pegs into holes with a block, for example, or propping a stuffed animal under her doll's head for a pillow.

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