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The essentials of baby play

27 Nov, 2023

Play is fundamental to healthy brain development. It lays the foundation for reading, writing, mathematical reasoning and problem solving. Play provides an emotional outlet for tension and frustration and it is crucial to the socialisation process.

In fact, play is so important that it has been globally recognised to be a fundamental human right. Play can be quiet or noisy, energetic or passive, social or non-social, relaxed or serious, imaginative or purposeful. Play may or may not require toys or equipment. It does not need an end product. Play is a spontaneous, self-motivated activity that is initiated and controlled by the baby. However, play at all levels must bring pleasure and fulfilment. If it is not fun, it is not play.

The process of play

Most play involves use of the hands in some way, starting first with swiping and then with proper reaching. These little experiments soon lead on to grasping, which means that objects can be brought to the mouth for further exploration.

Mouthing generally decreases when babies start using their hands to explore and manipulate objects. With the development of the pincer grip, babies waste little time in working out how to pick up the smallest object. At this time, parents must be extra cautious about safety. Anything that is small enough to be swallowed should be removed and plug sockets should be covered up.

Opportunities for play

The process of play is far more important that toys. However, toys are usually the main objects that babies play with because they have the advantage of being safe and specially adapted to their age and abilities. Toys that capture attention and provide endless entertainment include rattles, plastic tea sets, books with brightly coloured pictures and a toy telephone. Toys that help develop crucial skills such as problem-solving and perseverance include large plastic bricks, balls, nesting cups and stackers. Toys that develop fine motor skills include puzzles and crayons. Toys that develop large motor skills include push-along or ride-on toys. Providing the best conditions for play does not mean purchasing the most expensive toys on the market.

Very often, homemade or household objects offer the best value and will keep baby happy, interested and busy. However, if the object fits through a kitchen roll cylinder it is not safe.

Homemade or everyday objects must be carefully supervised and removed from the cot during daytime naps and at bedtime.

Play time with carers, extended family members and close friends can also be enriching. For example, they can show the baby how a new toy works or get involved in turn-taking activities such as rolling a ball back and forth. Babies also know that they are loved, and fun to be around.

Other types of play might include listening to stories or music, dancing, singing, rhymes and songs, bouncing games and peek-aboo. Including babies in household chores, taking them shopping, swimming, to the park or on a nature walk are also forms of play.

In addition, going to a parent and baby group can offer scope for social play and the opportunity for fun conversations to develop.

The best opportunities for play usually occur during routine activities such as feeding, nappy changing, dressing, bath or bedtime. The simplest form of play involves plenty of eye contact, facial expressions, vocalisations, smiles and words of encouragement.

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