“Infants explore their world through their senses, while adults foster their development and learning through interaction,” Odette says. “From birth to three months, your baby is likely to show a keen interest in sights, sounds and touch; from four to seven months they’re engaging more with the world, displaying expressions and cooing; and from five to 10 months their back-and-forth interactions begin to evolve, including emotional expression, hand gestures and turn-taking.”
Odette suggests sitting and holding your baby in front of a mirror, pulling silly faces and talking to them. “Introduce different textures and offer them toys that make sounds. You can also very carefully and gently roll your baby on an exercise ball. If you like, place objects at the edge of the ball for them to feel, touch and maybe grab on to. This activity also encourages tummy time, which is vital for developing the muscles needed to crawl.”
From six months you might want to introduce heuristic play (see overleaf) or treasure baskets. “Offer your baby a basket or bowl full of everyday objects found around your home,” Amy advises. “Real-life items are often much more interesting and educational than many purpose-made toys are.” She adds that reading to your baby from birth and having colourful, textured, fabric and plastic books that your children can page through again and again will start to encourage a love of reading.
“Talking to your baby as much as possible and playing simple games like Peekaboo, hide-the-rattle, tickles, or blowing raspberries-on-the-tummy teaches babies about cause and effect, about how people act and react, about sound and sensation and, of course, language.”
With young infants it is important to synchronise your level of energy and enthusiasm to theirs. “If baby is enjoying the activity, continue,” Amy advises. “If they find it too much – which they will communicate by turning away, fussing or crying – stop and let them regroup. Sometimes they just need a small break, or sometimes they have another need that takes precedence over play, like eating. Each baby is different but as long as you observe and follow their cues and try to synchronise your play to their behaviour, you can’t really go wrong.”
1-2 years: Dish the dirt (and ditch the screen)
Here you can start adding stacking toys or nesting cups and containers to the mix, as these are great for fine motor skills and learning.“Toys that look like grown-up objects – think realistic mobile phones, keys, hand bags, vacuum cleaners, mops and brooms, kitchen toys and play food – are great for mimicking and early pretend play, and so are the real thing,” Amy says. “Think about having a kitchen cupboard filled with safe utensils that your little one can rummage through.”
Toys to push, ride on and scoot on will help with gross motor skills, while sturdy board books to page through and read with caregivers should be accessible on kid level, and not kept up high on a shelf. Playing chase and ‘I’m going to catch you’ will also encourage walking and running.
“You need to offer your baby lots of opportunities to practise climbing, sliding and hanging, either at the playground or on the furniture,” Amy adds.
If you don’t mind a bit of mess, Odette suggests getting your kids to paint using their hands and feet, or getting their hands dirty outside. “Kids love to dig and play in the earth, so if you have a garden and the weather is fine, you might want to do a little gardening with them.”
Where does TV fit into all of this? According to Odette, watching TV has its positives and negatives, “but parents
must monitor what’s being watched and stay consistent with the time allowed for screen time. Leaving your child alone in front of the TV may have a negative impact on their ability to play and interact with others and, if left to watch TV for several hours at a time, may limit them to receiving information, detracting them from developing interactions and social skills.”
According to the American Academy of Paediatrics’ website, “television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age two. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”
Amy agrees, adding, “too much screen time has been proven to be detrimental, both to learning, mood, physical health and mental health and behaviour. Screen time should really be avoided as much as possible.”
2-3 years: Get their minds and body active
“At this age, kids are building more on pretend play centred around indoor and outdoor play,” Odette says.
Encourage activities like trampoline jumping (although doctors are now warning of the dangers of trampoline jumping, with trampoline injuries contributing to more than one million emergency department visits in the US from 2002 to 2011), blowing bubbles and catching them with a spoon, or helping to water indoor or outdoor plants with a spray bottle.
Story sacks, puppets and felt boards are fun for acting out stories and making books come alive. Amy suggests bringing out whipped cream, water, a pile of flour, dried beans, finger paints, play dough and even sand to create tactile, sensory experiences.
“Junk play – that uses empty cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and other recyclables to stack and build things – is great fun, as is playing pretend using dress-up clothes, baby dolls, toy doctor kits, and other pretend and real-life objects. Whatever you decide to do, remember that kids at this age need plenty of physical activity to burn energy, strengthen muscles and develop skills like climbing and jumping and skipping.”