“Because they’re still developing those motor skills, we often tend to think they’re not capable yet; so, they’re waiting to learn, rather than learning,” Sheila Degotardi, Associate Professor in Early Childhood at Macquarie University, says.
Play harvests the cells in a baby’s budding brain, kindling the connections – or ‘synapses’ - that underpin their emotional, social and intellectual growth. From birth to three years, children are at their most fertile, growing faster than at any other time in their life, with about 80 per cent of their brain profile locked in, according to extensive research.
While genes fuel part of that, experience is a major accelerant, with play the primary trigger for a baby’s learning.
“Play is like that space where children can consolidate and extend themselves safely, and that’s hugely important when all their skilled areas need development, consolidation and maturation,” early childhood expert, Professor Marc de Rosnay, of Wollongong University, says.
More subtle than the overt physical or pretend play of older children, the lessons of baby play often warrant translation, though, especially for first-time parents.
“With infants, it’s very different because they’re much less mobile and they’re using their hands, they’re using their senses, their sense of touch, their sense of smell, their sense of sight – all of those senses to explore what’s happening in the world around them,” says Dr Degotardi.
Method in Their Mettle
As natural scientists, babies test the basic properties of things to exert their place in the world. Hard/soft, rough/smooth, objects they can hold or not, understanding how things move, are all rapidly evolving sensory motor skills at play.
Parents might puzzle and despair at the classic spoon drop volley from the highchair, yet for a baby it’s an exercise in cause and effect, in practising and refining – the process learning we later so value as adults.
“It’s that whole thing of action-reaction: I do something and something happens, and that sequence is something that’s interesting and appealing for children – and motivating,” Linda Harrison, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Charles Sturt University, says.
When is the best time to play with your baby?
Educators stress the importance of tuning into the sweet spot for baby play, when an infant is fresh from sleep and food, looking around, eyes wide open, not tired, overwhelmed or distressed, when play is unwelcome, counterproductive and learning impeded.
“It’s that awareness of when the child’s in an alert and interested state. When they’re alert and interested, they’re ready to play, they’re ready to interact, whether it’s with other children, or with the adult,” Prof Harrison says.
Channel Your Own Playfulness
Reciprocate, participate, and enable an infant’s own sense of mastery, is the message from experts.
The more a parent joins in, the more a baby learns, the science shows. A baby will not only be more attentive when their playful cues are reciprocated, but they are wired to expect it and without a response, may retreat.
Infants are also likelier to tackle more complex, elaborate play, at the appropriate age, when a parent pays attention, research suggests.
Something of an early version of ‘show and tell’, according to early childhood writer, Ursula Kolbe, resisting the temptation as parents to expressly ‘teach’ and insert our own agenda in a child’s enterprise will foster their initiative and lateral thinking. Doing it with them, not for them: watching, listening, reading when to give a hint.
“It’s using your intuition and becoming playful yourself, by trying to tune into what the child is doing,” Prof Harrison says, explaining these exchanges are a baby’s formative experience of positive social connection, acknowledgment and conversation, joyful for both parties.
Chat, Sing, Read! You’re helping your baby to speak
At just weeks’ old, babies can engage in rudimentary conversation with their eyes, facial expressions and imitation games, smiling and sticking their tongue out.
Horseplay aside, these precious, private exchanges are also educationally ripe: laughing, singing, chatting, reading, using lots of words, significantly extends a baby’s inbuilt disposition to interact, educators say, stoking their emergent language and future literacy.
“Chatting, singing, those little kind of sing-song interactions, ‘peek-a-boo’ interactions that adults will have with babies, are really important, because that actually sets the foundation for language,” says Dr Degotardi.
Make Time and Space
Playgroup NSW chief executive Karen Bevan says although it’s sometimes hard for a grown-up to pause and respond in the moment, strong, bonded relationships forged through play are the cornerstone of children’s development.
“We do know that children are actually built to engage, they want to engage with others because that’s how they learn,” Ms Bevan says.
“We’re literally building the links, the synapses in the brain, by the way we communicate with them; so, creating environments where children actually see, hear, and do things, is so important for their development.”
While caring for a baby on top of the demands of managing a household can sometimes feel all-consuming, devoting time every day to play need not be a task, educators say, nor does it need to be costly or involve whiz-bang toys.
A spirit of play can be incorporated into ordinary activities like nappy changing, feeding and bath times, aside from more explicitly, in time spent at the park, playgroup, or lying on a rug - activities which can also be stress-relieving and re-energising.
Regular time for full body play for infants is especially imperative, Dr Degotardi says, as babies spend more time in capsules, cars and prams, trailing busy family lives.
And forget about forking out for fancy toys, the broad word is that simple, safe household props like pots and pans, wooden spoons, collecting a basket of tactile, interesting things, like scarves, for a baby to hold and explore, are enduringly more tantalising and cognitively beneficial than many manufactured baby toys that have limited function and flexibility.
See our Baby Activities area for more play ideas.
Enable their social horizons: Playgroup
Beyond the home, venturing to a local playgroup offers a play-geared, low-key space to accommodate a baby’s evolving play in the social world in parallel with a parent, according to CEO Karen Bevan.
“Children are hard-wired to play, play is a really important part of their development and there’s lots of things that people can do one-on-one with their children,” Ms Bevan says.
“But creating a social environment that has both the parent and child together in that social environment, is a really important part of what we do.”
Playgroup NSW runs playgroups for babies, toddlers and preschool age children. They also have some groups specifically for parents with babies. Playgroup is appealing to parents when they outgrow cafes and need more of a child-focused than adult-focused space, and safe, inviting ‘baby corners’ are prominent in most general playgroups.
Playgroup also runs interactive baby play workshops with local early childhood centres and libraries to help parents of newborns navigate play and enable their child’s development. These occasions are especially powerful, Ms Bevan says, because it might be the first time anyone’s said to a new parent: “you can actually play with your five-week-old baby.”
“There’s a real opportunity in those first three to five years, of putting in place the real basics that … really allow us to ‘switch on’ their brain as it grows,” she says.