Playing with your baby may seem like all fun and games -- shaking rattles, squeaking plush animals, and watching as your child tries his chubby hand at rolling a ball. But make no mistake: What looks like downtime is work to little ones, and toys are often the tools for getting the job done.
"Playtime helps develop a baby's social, intellectual, language, and problem-solving skills," says Marilyn Segal, PhD, an early childhood studies program director at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
Toys and games aid your child in learning to master motor skills and figuring out how the world works. When he's stacking toy rings, for instance, your baby is exploring their shape and what happens when they're thrown. He's developing hand-eye coordination as well as learning to recognize patterns and colors, how things are similar and different, and spatial concepts like "up" and "down."
The most important ingredient in play, however, is not a toy, but you. Your baby loves your attention, and playing is how he bonds with you and other caregivers. Here's what else he'll learn from his favorite toys and activities -- and how you can play up these important lessons.
The classic first toy, a rattle gets baby's attention when shaken.
What Babies Learn: Born with natural curiosity, infants gather information about the world through their senses. "The more of the five senses a particular toy commands, the more rewarding and appealing it is," says Sally Goldberg, PhD, author of Baby and Toddler Learning Fun (Perseus).
Your baby can see a rattle's bright colors, feel its smooth or nubby texture, hear its clinking sound, and mouth it. A rattle also teaches about cause and effect -- if your baby shakes it, the toy makes a sound -- giving her the thrill of realizing she can make things happen.
The best rattles allow your baby to connect the sound to sight. "Get a rattle made of clear plastic so your baby can see the beads inside clinking together," says Goldberg. Young infants, who can't see in color yet, will also be more attracted to rattles in bright, primary hues rather than pastels.
Game Plan: Hold the rattle 6 to 12 inches from your newborn's face -- the distance at which he sees best -- and slowly move the toy back and forth. This technique helps develop eye coordination. Then shake the toy at various points in your baby's line of sight so he can track its sound. He'll also enjoy the novelty of hearing the tinkling from different angles. You can mold your newborn's fingers around a rattle and help him shake it. But until he's about 3 months old, he won't be able to hold it for more than a few seconds. Switch off presenting the toy to him from his right and left sides; he'll get practice grabbing it with both hands, which will help develop both sides of the brain.
A takeoff on the mobile, activity gyms typically feature a charming, brightly colored floor and hanging detachable toys that make sounds, play music, and sport tantalizing textures.
What Babies Learn: Like rattles, activity gyms help babies explore their environment through their sense of sound, touch, sight, and taste. Their motor skills also get a tune-up when they kick at, bat, reach, and grab for toys. When you put your baby down on his tummy, you'll also give him the opportunity to develop his upper-body and neck strength, a prerequisite for rolling, crawling, and other physical feats.
Game Plan: Newborns will start their mat-time fun on their back, gazing up at the toy charms. If your baby doesn't like being put on his stomach initially, "distract him with the gym's lights, music, and crinkle toys until he gets used to it," says Kristina McMorris of Clackamas, Oregon. She says her son, Tristan, 5 months, "loves tummy time now." You can also detach baby's favorite toys and hold them out so he can reach for them. At first, your baby might just make general movements toward objects. Eventually, he'll be able to reach out and pull objects forward.
A warning: Your baby might find her activity gym so entertaining, you'll be tempted to park her there. That's okay once in a while, but your baby learns best by interacting with you and other caregivers, says Goldberg.
Playing peekaboo -- hiding your face behind your hands and peeking out at baby -- is an exciting game.
What Babies Learn: By the time your child is 4 months old, she can begin to understand the notion of object permanence -- that you or an object still exist when out of sight. Playing peekaboo helps reinforce this concept as well as build her memory skills. "Children never outgrow peekaboo because it provides an element of excitement and surprise," says Goldberg.
Game Plan: Try all sorts of variations. Cover a toy car with a blanket and ask your baby "Where did the car go?" while looking perplexed. "During bath time, have toys disappear under the bath water, then magically reappear," says Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips for Moms (Simon & Schuster). Clarissa Zulick of Carlsbad, California, mother of 18-month-old Noah, says her son's favorite game is a version of peekaboo for toddlers: "He waves and says 'Bye,' which is my cue to sneak off somewhere quietly. Then I pop out and surprise him."
Shaking, throwing, dropping, and especially whacking toys against a surface is how your baby experiments. "Babies love to bang," says Maureen O'Brien, PhD, director of child development at The First Years corporation in Avon, Massachusetts.
What Babies Learn: Crashing two objects together reinforces the concept of cause and effect: If your baby hits them hard, they make a loud noise; if he hits them lightly, a soft noise. But that's not all. "Experimenting with sound effects also helps children understand what's big and little, heavy and light, and rough and smooth, as well as spatial concepts, such as 'up' and 'down,' 'next to' and 'around,'" says Goldberg.
Game Plan: Think outside the toy box. Fill a bottom kitchen drawer with toys and household objects that your baby can safely beat and batter, such as pots, golf balls, and wooden spoons. Of course, the sound of pounding is often not music to Mom's ears. "I couldn't stand the bang of the pots and pans so my twins got Tupperware," says O'Brien.
Round and bouncy, a ball is the toy that keeps on giving.
What Babies Learn: A ball is one of the best toys for babies because it's something to see, touch, and interact with, and it's the epitome of surprise because it never does the same thing twice. Rolling and, later, throwing and catching a ball help develop hand-eye coordination. Children also enjoy the give-and-take of playing ball with others. "They don't get tired of playing with a ball because their skills with it continue to grow -- even into adulthood," Goldberg says.
Game Plan: Textured or plush balls will be easiest for younger babies to manhandle. Chime balls that tip back and forth and make a tinkling sound when tapped will fascinate them, too. When your baby reaches 6 months, start rolling a large ball on the floor to him, with your legs spread out so the ball stays in bounds. At first, he may just slap at it. But soon he'll learn to swat it back in your direction. By the time your baby is walking, you can try a classic game of fetch: Throw the ball and have your toddler chase it down and bring it back. Also, have him toss a ball to you, then hand it back to him for another round of target practice. (Toddlers tend to be better at throwing than at catching.)
Nesting blocks and cups and stacking toys keep little hands busy.
What Babies Learn: Stacking toy doughnuts and nesting one colorful toy cup into another are other ways babies develop hand-eye coordination and learn about spatial relationships -- how things fit inside and on top of each other. They also help kids fine-tune their grasping and releasing finger skills.
Game Plan: Hide another toy inside a plush nesting block to see if your baby can find it. "That adds the element of surprise and builds on the concept of object permanence," says Goldberg. At first, children may be more interested in knocking down toy towers, rather than building them. To encourage stacking, show interest: Exclaim "Oh, what a big tower!" or help balance the block creation when it gets too high.
No doubt, by the second half of baby's first year, she will repeatedly drop things from her high chair -- a spoon, her bottle, or her sippy cup -- and squeal with delight when you fetch the objects...again and again.
What Babies Learn: This exasperating game actually helps reinforce the concepts of object permanence and cause and effect -- when your baby sends her sippy cup on a nosedive, it doesn't disappear but bounces and rolls across the kitchen floor. It also teaches her about gravity -- what goes up must come down -- and helps her realize that she can make an impact on her environment and get your attention. Bonus!
Game Plan: Save your sanity by giving your baby objects she can drop that won't make a mess, such as a rubber ball, plastic spoon, or paper cup. To add to the fun, be sure to say "Where did it go? There it is!" It can make mealtime a longer affair, but it will probably be less annoying now that you know your child's getting something out of it. If you're game, give her opportunities to drop things throughout the day, such as toy keys off the dining room table.
Starting at about 8 months, your baby will be able to grasp objects with her fingers and put smaller toys into a bigger one, such as a ball into a box. At around age 1, she will be able to put triangles, circles, and squares through their designated slots on a shape sorter.
What Babies Learn: Sorting helps babies understand the relationship between objects -- how they fit together and relate to each other. "It lays the groundwork for organizing and categorizing, which are basic mathematical concepts," says Goldberg. Sorting also helps babies develop hand-eye coordination, finger skills, and an I-can-do-it sense of competence.
Game Plan: Take advantage of sorting opportunities in everyday tasks. When you're grocery shopping, for example, let your child pick up a soft or unbreakable item and put it in the cart, which is a way of sorting and categorizing on a large scale. Have an older toddler help you sort the silverware and the socks by asking which ones go together.
Turn your back and you're likely to find your toddler emptying the salt shaker or overturning the dog's dish. "My daughter loves to take the wash in and out of the laundry basket," says Katrina Blauvelt of Marietta, Georgia, mother of 1-year-old Eva.
What Babies Learn: Filling and dumping enhance hand-eye coordination and teach basic spatial concepts such as "in" and "out," as well as what things look like separately as opposed to all together; how big an area objects can cover; and whether objects will bounce or slide when dumped out.
Game Plan: Bath time is perfect for filling and dumping by adding toy cups or a plastic shampoo bottle to the tub so your child can fill and pour. Cardboard boxes are another boon -- babies can fill and empty them over and over again.
Sandra Gordon is the author of Consumer Reports Best Baby Products (2004).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2004.