What Babies Learn Through Play
8 to 12 months
At about 8 months, an infant can sit without support and show off his improved grasping skills. Yours will start to use the pincer grasp (picking up small objects with the thumb and forefinger) around this time, and delight in dropping and throwing whatever he gets his hands on. Exploration becomes much more active as babies start to crawl and cruise, and discover the thrill of getting into cabinets and shaking, flinging, and banging objects together to find out what they're all about.
Since he's going to get into everything anyway, provide him with safe places to explore. Take the childproof locks off a kitchen cabinet or a bottom drawer, and fill it with containers of various shapes and sizes, such as empty plastic butter dishes and shoe boxes. Throw in the tops of training cups, plastic cookie cutters, and metal or plastic bowls. Add a few pots and pans with lids.
Benefit: When he stacks cups or puts smaller objects into larger ones, he learns about sizes, shapes, and concepts like inside and outside. When he hides something in a box or a pot only to rediscover it moments later, he's learning about object permanence -- the idea that things continue to exist even when they're out of his sight.
As he starts to walk, your baby will enjoy toting things about. Buy a small beach pail or make a handy container out of a plastic gallon-size milk jug (cut the top off, leaving the handle intact, and cover the sharp edges with tape). Fill it with fun, baby-safe items, or scatter a few things on the floor so he can toddle around and collect them.
Benefit: As your baby walks, carrying the container, then stoops to pick up dropped objects, he's strengthening his large muscles as well as developing a sense of coordination.
Give your baby a clean, unused paintbrush and a cup of water (add food coloring, if you'd like) and let him "paint" on pieces of brown-paper grocery bags on the kitchen floor or on a stretch of concrete outside.
Benefit: Using a paintbrush helps sharpen his eye-hand coordination, and toddling back and forth to view his work from different angles develops his motor skills. And if you paint along with him, it can teach him how to work with others.
Fun with chores
Something as simple as grocery shopping can be turned into a game. My 3 1/2-year-old son, Ethan, always enjoys our weekly trips to the supermarket, but he seems to have more fun once we return home. When I set the bags down on the floor, he immediately begins to "help," taking items out one by one and handing them to me. Often, he'll stack or roll cans of tuna or tomato paste, squeeze a bag of rice and finger its grainy texture, or shake a box of macaroni and cheese.
Benefit: One of the greatest advantages of inventing games out of household chores is that it lays the foundation for babies to understand that they're part of a home and the people in it. And these everyday activities can be used in different ways over time to teach kids various skills. For instance, toddlers who help Mom or Dad sort clean laundry can learn colors or patterns by picking out something red or striped, while preschoolers can handle more complicated challenges, such as separating out the T-shirts and socks.
We didn't plan it this way, but Ethan, who's our youngest, has far fewer store-bought toys than either of his two sisters did at his age. Some may see this as evidence that later babies are deprived, but as I watch him on the kitchen floor, happily searching for the right-size top for the pot he's just filled with spoons, I know better.