As parents, we all want our children to have a head start on learning. But during the first few months, we’re basically resigned to a schedule defined by feedings, diapers, and sleep deprivation. Still, in between celebrating all of the first achievements and struggling to keep up with baby’s schedule, we also can find time to play.
Playtime is important in childhood development, even for infants. When you talk to your baby, they are watching. When you hide behind your hands to play peek-a-boo, they are learning. And while it’s still too early to bring out the flash cards, it’s never too soon to start teaching through play.
- Learning occurs when cells in the brain forge new connections, called synapses.
- Every new or repeated experience strengthens connections in a baby’s mind.
- When some connections aren’t stimulated enough, they can atrophy.
In the first several months of life, your baby goes from being completely helpless to sitting up and possibly even crawling. They go from only detecting shadows and shapes, to seeing bright colors and texture differences. They also experiment with making noises, like babbling, laughing, and crying. By 6 months, they may even begin to recognize some common words, including their own name.
Healthy interactions with your baby during these first months can help them make these developmental milestones, and provide you with memories to last a lifetime.
How Babies Learn
Babies are born with all of the brain cells they’ll ever need. Just like muscles, they don’t get any more as they grow. However, these brain cells do change, and begin changing the moment your child opens his or her eyes for the first time.
The learning process begins when cells in the brain create new connections, called synapses. These become the basis for brain power and thought. Every experience, every sight, sound, and feeling creates new connections or strengthens existing ones. The more a synapse is stimulated, the stronger it becomes. Synapses that are not stimulated on a regular basis eventually atrophy.
As a parent, you are in a unique position to help your child grow and learn, by helping their mind make strong connections through healthy experiences.
Games to Play
It’s never too early for your baby to begin learning, and Dr. Renate Zangl, childhood development expert and author of “Raising a Talker,” suggests several easy games to help your baby develop.
1. Sound Chants
- Position the baby so he/she is facing you, whether in a car seat, swing, or in your arms.
- Make a silly sound to get your baby’s attention.
- Get close to your baby and make an exaggerated “oooooohhhh…” sound.
- Pause and give baby a moment to mirror you. If he/she responds to your sound, praise him/her.
- Continue making the sound, exaggerating the way you move your mouth and extend the sound, pausing for your baby’s response each time.
- Switch to a new sound, like alternating between “ooooh” and “eeee,” for instance, using different pitches or other variations.
“Getting up close is important so that baby can clearly see how these vowel sounds are formed,” says Dr. Zangl. “Babies around 4 months are literally hanging on your mouth and by going up close, you can give her visual information to learn from as well.”
2. Face Gallery
For this game, you’ll need several photos of familiar faces. Use ones of family members and even the baby herself if you like. Hang these photos at eye level, spaced out from one another.
- Walk through the “face gallery” with baby held in your arms.
- As you pass by each face, point to them, getting excited in your baby-talk/parenting voice and say things like, “Oh look, it’s Daaaadddyy,” exaggerating the person’s name.
According to Dr. Zangl, this game fosters visual and auditory discrimination, sound learning, social skills, and cognitive skills.
3. Black-White-Red Art Gallery
As above, you’ll need several pictures for this game. But instead of faces, use art or drawings with black, white, and red in them. These colors are the first identifiable colors for babies.
As you walk through the gallery, talk about what you see and allow your baby to reach out and touch the pictures.
4. What’s in the Kitchen Cabinets?
Put a noise-making toy in each kitchen cabinet. Consider using a baby toy that squeaks or rattles. You could even use some keys, a bell, and other similar objects.
- Holding baby tightly in your arms, walk through the kitchen, opening one cabinet after another.
- Knock on each cabinet to get the child’s attention before opening it.
- When you open the cabinet, pick up the toy, exclaim what you see (e.g., “Oh, look! It’s Mr. Duck!”) and squeeze, rattle, or otherwise make the toy’s noise. Act surprised about finding the toy and articulate what it is each time.
- Use the same ritual at each cabinet door, so baby learns what to expect. Give baby a chance to hold the toy at each door.
When baby is a bit older, you can play a similar game where he/she can crawl up to shoeboxes with similar types of toys inside.
Come Up with Your Own Games
Dr. Zangl says babies love to see faces, and they love it when things appear and disappear (that’s why peek-a-boo is so popular). Use mirrors, other people, toys, and hiding places to make up your own games. Use labeling words like object names, colors, and people’s names to start making those connections in baby’s mind.
Parents naturally gravitate towards games that help their baby develop, often without realizing it. By adding some clearly focused developmental games to the mix, you can have fun with your baby while helping them grow.