Play creates emotional security. Carve out ample time to cuddle: Whether you're reading, singing a lullaby, or making a silly face, parent-baby interaction establishes a sense of safety and security in newborns. "It lets them know they're valued by their parents, caregivers, or whoever they're interacting with," says Cindy Schloss Calhoun, LISW, RPT-S, LPHA, registered play therapy supervisor and program manager at Four Oaks, a children and family behavioral and mental health agency in Urbandale, Iowa.
Play enriches emotions. When you're playing with your baby, stick out your tongue to express your silly side and encourage his, too. And when your little guy smiles, grin right back at him. Expressing and reciprocating emotions teach what different feelings look like. "Play is their first way of communicating, interacting, and 'being in the world,'" Calhoun says. When he's older, teach basic words to express his feelings, such as "happy," "sad," or "angry." This encourages him to act appropriately when frustrated rather than throwing a puzzle piece or block at you.
Play engages the senses. Your baby's budding senses help him better connect with you and the world around him. If he's under a year old, stimulate him with singing or rhythm-based activities such as "This Little Piggy." Says Calhoun, "Sound is the sense that develops first, so that is why the sound of a parent's voice singing nursery rhymes or cooing is so powerful." Indulge babies older than a year with sensory-rich activities such as forming shapes with homemade play-dough.
Play fuels physical growth. Turn off the TV, turn on the tunes, and start moving and grooving. Or break out your baby's favorite stacking toys. Play is just as good for your little one's physical development as it is for her mental health because it promotes hand-eye coordination, fine-tunes motor skills, and builds upper- and lower-body strength. But that's not all: Climbing, crawling, pushing, pulling, and other play-related movements improve agility and dexterity.
Play builds self-confidence. When your little guy successfully rolls his rubber ball right to you or hoists himself up on the couch to reach his rattle, he gains self-assurance and becomes more confident in his interactions with others. To encourage his exploration, heap on the praise after every accomplishment. Challenging your baby promotes independence. Calhoun recommends coming-and-going games such as tag or "Mama, May I?" because they encourage young children to gain physical distance, yet they're still in their parents' line of vision. When they're ready, they can come back to their parents, refuel, and feel safe before going out into the world again, "even if it is just a few feet away," Calhoun says.
Play increases curiosity. Show enthusiasm over the snapdragons in your garden and get excited over the characters and storylines in books—expressing curiosity is a prime way to pique your child's interest in the world.