Playtime is considered by many development theorists to be a baby's work—through play babies learn about themselves and the world around them. They learn how to relate to others, how to cooperate, and how to communicate using all of their five senses. Playtime is the most important tool for your child's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth.
Exploration is at the heart of play. Your baby is moving, touching, kicking, pushing, squeezing, licking, babbling – engaging all the senses to figure out how things work.
A baby's playtime is an enjoyable learning experience for parents as well. Playing with your baby allows you to interact, laugh, and make noise together. Simple interactive games such as peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake, and your own silly made up games are not only fun, they are learning tools. Talking and singing help your baby develop language skills.
As your baby becomes a toddler, play becomes more complex and imaginative. Playtime at this stage marks the development of creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, and independence. Playtime is usually the first time most toddlers begin to explore feelings and develop social skills. You may notice your toddler offering to share tea, but only with the pink bunny. Manners start to develop and you may hear the first whispers of "yes please" and "thank you".
Watch your baby play. The activities that interest and engage your baby can indicate the skills to emphasize or encourage during your baby's playtime. If your 6 month old can't resist putting things in their mouth, offer a variety of teethers in different textures and sizes. If your12 month old baby is exploring cause and effect, break into a game of peek-a-boo.
Your baby will be interested in different types of play at different developmental stages. Pay attention to the various stages and incorporate different types of play to engage and interest your baby. Young babies need social play from the very first month of life. Social play involves interacting: smiling at your baby, letting your baby look at you and make eye contact, and laughing. Older babies enjoy interactive play such as peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. Around 4-10 months, babies like to play with things. Object play involves touching, banging, gumming, throwing, and pushing soft toys, blocks, and household items and can entertain your baby for hours.
Once your baby hits 12-18 months, playtime involves mimicking actual behavior with familiar objects. This type of functional play involves pushing a vacuum over the carpet or using a shoe as a telephone. Imaginative play really begins to take hold at this stage.
On your baby's second birthday, imaginative play takes over. Early symbolic play involves assigning a new role to toys or items around the house. At this stage, your baby might turn the box of tissues into a truck. Pretend play with food is quite common at this stage. Don't be surprised to see your 2 year old serving you a block while insisting it's a piece of cake. Just before your baby turns 3, your baby will start assigning themselves new roles. Role playing doctor and wanting to take your temperature or listen to your heart is common at this age.
Playtime is more than just playing with toys. Everything from playing with your toes to blowing bubbles to dancing around the room is play. Watch your 12-month old play with a cardboard box and you will begin to understand how wide the parameters are for play. There are many ways you can create constructive playtime and encourage learning at the same time.
Create a safe environment. Babies don't need toys as much as they need a safe place and the time to let their imagination wander.
Let play happen. You don't have to structure play or activities all the time. Introduce activities or games when your baby is happy and rested, and then give them the time to play alone and see where they end up.
Your baby learns through both playing alone and playing with others. Get down on the floor and play with your baby. You are your baby's favorite playtime pal. Even the simplest game will seem more fun when they can play it with you. Talk to your baby while you play to help improve those language skills.
Playing games while dressing your baby, bathing, or eating are fun ways to engage, interest, and help your baby learn about the daily routine.
Stop playtime when your baby seems bored, cranky, or tired. Babies can only play for so long before they become over-stimulated and need a break.