Precious Playtime for Little Learners
Here’s a ball for baby
Big and soft and round
Here’s the baby’s hammer
Oh how she can pound
Here’s the baby’s dollies
Dancing in a row
Here’s the baby’s music
Clapping, clapping so!
This little song, along with so many others, is deeply ingrained in my soul, for my mother, who had seven children sang it to us so often. Passed from generations before through her mother, my mom was full of songs, smiles, poems, rhymes, and fingerplays. It was part of growing up with her and we all loved and expected it. When I had my own four children I was reminded again as she helped me change diapers or give them a bath that she never wasted an opportunity to sing, talk, interact, and play with each of us. Re-learned as she bestowed these gems on her grandchildren, “How lovely, a fun little family tradition,” I thought. What I didn’t realize in my early motherhood, but have come to appreciate now is that those simple lullabies, poems, and fingerplays were wonderful tools for building strong relationships and boosting the language and emotional regulation centers of tiny developing brains.
According to Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 3 core principles improve outcomes for children and families:
1. Responsive Relationships early in life are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture . . . A major active ingredient in this developmental process is the interaction between children and their parents . . . Given the foundational importance of the first few years of life, the need for responsive relationships, in a variety of settings, starting in infancy, cannot be overstated.
2. Core Skills are crucial for learning and development. Scientists call these capabilities executive function and self-regulation skills. . . . these skills are crucial for learning and development. . . . Between ages 3 and 5, most children make huge gains in using these skills through creative play, learning to adjust flexibly to different rules for different contexts and resisting impulsive behaviors. [play is how kids practice]
3. Reducing Stress . . . stress drains precious energy the brain needs: in childhood, for healthy development . . ."
While this Harvard Research document deals with ideas to redesign policy for practitioners, not just moms or dads, it does emphasize the importance of parental interaction in many instances and helps underscore the notion that play is how kids practice to form the neural connections and skills they will need for a productive life.
Anne H. Zachry, PhD, OTR/L in her healthychildren.org article Simple Ways to Entertain & Boost Your Baby’s Development at Home suggests this list of baby play ideas:
Newborn to 3 Months
Puppet Play. Make a hand puppet using a sock. Move it up and down and back and forth where your baby can see it, doing a silly dance and singing silly songs. You can even have the puppet give her kisses!
Footloose. Gently dance with your baby positioned over your shoulder. She will enjoy the movement and at the same time will learn to tolerate the slight pressure against her tummy.
Pat-a-Cake. Hold your baby's hands and gently clap them together to play a game of pat-a-cake:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man (Take baby's hands through the motions)
Bake me a cake as fast as you can
Roll it (Roll her hands around each other) and pat it (Clap)
and mark it with a B (Guide her finger to write a B in the air)
And put it in the oven for baby and me (Kiss your baby!)
Can't Smile Without You. Lie down on the floor, tummy down facing your baby. Try to get her to smile by sticking out your tongue, smiling at her, and making other funny faces. You may even hear your infant's first giggle!
4 to 6 months
Little Piggy Game. Hold your baby's foot up and wiggle each toe while teaching the classic "This Little Piggy" poem in an animated, singsong way. Don't forget to give your infant a tickle at the end!
This little piggy went to market (big toe)
This little piggy stayed home (second toe)
This little piggy had roast beef (third toe)
This little piggy had none (fourth toe)
And this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home (little toe)
Mustang Sally. Sit on the floor with your baby sitting on your raised knees. While holding on to her, slowly move your legs side to side and sing "Ride a Little Horsey." When you say, "don't fall down," slide your feet forward!
Ride a little horsey
Down to town
Oops, little horsey
Don't fall down!
Crocodile Rock. Hold your baby securely, tummy down on your chest. Rock your body from side to side and sing a song like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Free Fallin'. Stack up some blocks and encourage your baby to bat at and reach for them. Most infants absolutely love to see and hear the blocks tumble to the ground!
7 to 9 months
Fly Me to the Moon. Carefully lift your baby up over your head and back down while playing or singing a song like, "Fly me to the moon!" If your child seems fearful, move more slowly and talk in a calm, soothing voice.
See You Later, Alligator. With your baby seated in front of you, hide a rattle under a blanket or behind your back. Shake the rattle while hiding it and see what happens. If your baby loses interest once it's hidden, reveal part of the rattle and ask, "Where's the toy?"
If the Hat Fits. Sit just in front of baby, place a colorful hat on your head and say, "Look! The hat is on my head." Then remove it and say, "Now the hat is off." Next, put the hat on and off your infant's head! Encourage your baby to reach for the hat for more play.
The Humpty Dance. Sit your infant on your lap, either sitting up or tummy down, and gently bounce your legs up and down. For more fun, do this while using a rocking chair!
Be-Bop Baby. Seat your baby upright on the floor, legs separated just enough to place a medium-sized ball between them. Show your baby how to roll the ball in your direction, then roll the ball back. Continue taking turns.
Marching On. While seated, stand your baby on your thighs. Hold your baby's hips and slowly make stepping motions by moving your legs up and down, one side at a time. Sing your favorite song.
You Light Up My Life. Shine a flashlight on the wall. Once your baby sees the light, move it slowly from one side of the room to the other and up and down to encourage visual tracking.
Homemade Toy: Baby Drums
Cover an oatmeal box or coffee can with colorful contact paper and use plastic baby spoons as drumsticks. (Or, simply give your child a saucepan and a short wooden spoon.) Beat It. Show your baby different ways to tap a drum using the palms of your hands, your fingertips, or a baby spoon. See if your baby can imitate you.
The Big Squeeze. Take colorful kitchen sponges and cut them into fun sizes and shapes to fit into your child's hand at bath time. Show your little one how to sink a sponge underwater, watch it fill up, then hold it up and squeeze the water out.
Homemade Toy: Toddler Tambourine
Tape two sturdy paper plates securely together halfway around using colorful duct tape. Fill the tambourine half-full of dry cereal, tape the paper plates together the rest of the way, and shake! Mr. Tambourine Man. Show your little one how to shake and tap a tambourine to make noise. Add more ways, like tapping it against your hip, over your head, and in various directions.
Poking Fun. Show your baby how to press numbers on an old phone or peck on an old keyboard. Glue different textures of fabric at the bottom of each section of an egg carton or old ice tray. Let your baby feel the various textures.
So go ahead, mom! Play with those precious piggies and don’t be shy. Whether you are listening to Harvard Researchers or generations of mothers who instinctively know the wisdom of sweet songs and silly poems, you are building stable brain architecture to last your baby a lifetime!