Playing with your baby

Why it's important to interact with little ones

As long as he’s not tired, he’s ready to play!” That’s how Erin Aldridge describes her seven-month-old baby, Owen. His parents are happy to accommodate. “I love to tickle him, race him around on his little car or play peekaboo. Anything that gets him to laugh!” Aldridge says.

That experience is more valuable to Owen than any expensive toy, says early childhood education professor Laura Oyama, of Humber College in Toronto. “You really don’t need to buy things,” she says. “Everyday events, everyday things you have in your home — as long as they’re safe — are wonderful opportunities for young babies. It’s the interactions that are the key.”

Does that mean you shouldn’t buy baby toys? Of course not. “But parents need to understand that the toy itself has no value without the adult,” Oyama explains. “We are the interpreters.” Something as simple as a comment like “That’s a really big ball. Look how it rolls!” adds so much to the baby’s experience.

We don’t always have to play directly with our babies. Once they develop more ability to explore and manipulate things on their own, babies are sometimes happy to play alone for a bit — and that’s valuable too. But Oyama encourages parents to get down on the floor with their kids. “It’s by interacting with our very young children and labelling, describing and talking that knowledge is built.” Plus it’s a wonderful way to build your relationship and enjoy your child.

Here are some useful play tips for younger babies:

Hold, sing and talk. Babies learn through their senses, so tickle games, dancing and knee bouncing are enriching play experiences. “Something as simple as ‘Head and Shoulders’ is great,” says Oyama. “A little baby doesn’t even know he has arms yet, but you can take his hands and touch the body parts as you sing about them.”

Need to refresh your music memory? Check out Songs, Rhymes & Lullabies for lyrics and audio of popular children’s tunes.

Provide interesting things to look at. “You can buy children’s gift wrap that has fantastic colours and patterns,” says Oyama. “Put it on the floor or stick it on the wall — even on the ceiling over the change table.”

Oyama also suggests making an entertaining mobile out of everyday objects. “Hang a loofah, a shiny serving spoon and a small stuffed toy from a coat hanger.”

Play “bat the object.” “My older son didn’t like the pompom on his hat so I cut it off, put it on a piece of elastic and held it over the baby to grab at it,” says Oyama. She also suggests turning a mini plastic pop bottle into a shaker. Put things like bright beads or coloured water inside, glue the top on so it’s secure, and it’s just right for little hands.

Look at books together. At this age, the focus is on bright contrast and simple pictures. “Don’t worry about words,” says Oyama. “Just talk to your baby about the pictures: ‘Oh, see the ladybug.’”

Include your baby in your world. Indoors and out, let your baby be part of what you’re doing, says Oyama. “It’s not really about sitting babies in a circle and saying, OK, now it’s playtime.”

Instead, she says, find the play potential in your daily routine. “If you’re folding laundry, sit the baby in the laundry basket with some towels. Put a tea towel over your head once in a while for a little game of peekaboo, or take the baby for a little ride in the basket.”

Once your baby is able to sit up steadily, she’ll love to unload things, discovering each object inside a basket or box. “Put some safe kitchen utensils in a box, such as a potato masher, a plastic spoon, a new nylon pot scrubber with a wooden handle, a small pot with a lid,” suggests Oyama. “A pot is new to a baby; she has no idea what it is. So you talk to her about it and show her what she can do with it.”

Other easy-to-create opportunities for discovery:

• tennis balls in a yogurt container
• a silky scarf tucked inside a toilet roll with one enticing end trailing out
• bits of cereal or blocks placed in a muffin tin
• mirror securely placed at eye level
• a clean plastic yogurt container with holes punched in it for use in the bathtub
• toys and everyday objects hidden under a receiving blanket

Each new stage of your baby’s development brings new views of the world and new play possibilities. By the time your baby is crawling, he’ll have lots of ideas of his own about what would be fun. Be sure to babyproof to keep your little explorer safe — and let the games begin!

Great play resources

Early childhood education professor Laura Oyama, of Humber College in Toronto, recommends her favourite books, full of play ideas:

A Year of Fun Just for Babies by Theodosia Sideropoulos Spewock (also available: A Year of Fun Just for One’s and A Year of Fun Just for Two’s).

Peek-A-Boo! 101 Ways to Make a Baby Smile by Sheila Hanly (out of print, but available used from amazon.ca or at some libraries).

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