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What Babies Learn Through Play

As a firstborn and the first grandchild in the family, my 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, had been showered with nearly every developmental baby toy on the market by the time she was just a few months old. But I noticed that even though she loved many of the new high-contrast, battery-operated, brain-building gadgets she was presented with, she seemed equally entertained by old hats and handbags. While I was always happy whenever anything held her attention for an extended period of time, I couldn't help but wonder if I should try to steer her toward playthings specifically designed to boost her development.

As it turns out, I needn't have been concerned. "Babies are driven to explore," says Fergus Hughes, professor of human development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Children, Play and Development. "If something grabs their attention, it doesn't matter whether it comes from a store." So while there are lots of great toys specially designed to interest and stimulate your baby, you can do a lot to entertain her and help her learn. All it takes is a little imagination. Some ideas for every age:

Kelly King Alexander has written for Family Circle and Southern Living.

Birth to 3 months

Newborns aren't interested in toys -- they're too little to play with them -- but they're endlessly fascinated by people, especially Mom and Dad. Babies love to look at human faces, and even prefer crudely drawn facial features to other shapes or patterns. But an infant can't focus beyond nine inches for the first couple of months. And it'll take some time before he can make sense of his surroundings and himself; around 3 months, he'll begin to realize that his hands and feet, which have interested him for weeks, are actually attached to his body, and he'll reach out and try to bat at and grab objects held out in front of him -- though his aim won't always be accurate for several more months.

Funny faces
You can play this game even with a newborn who's only hours old: Put your face close to his, and open your mouth wide or stick out your tongue. He'll watch you intently, and may imitate you. If he does, make another face. Keep playing until he averts his gaze, yawns, or cries -- signs that he's tired and needs some quiet time.
Benefit: Taking advantage of your infant's natural instinct for mimicry is a terrific way to communicate and bond with him, and an opportunity for him to learn what it feels like to control the muscles in his face.

Eye-hand harmony
Sometime after he turns 2 months old, tie a small, soft toy to a ribbon and hold it in front of him. Swing it slowly from side to side; he'll be able to follow it with his eyes -- something he couldn't have done just a few weeks ago. By about 3 months, your baby will have enough arm and hand control that he can take a swipe at the toy.
Benefit: This game encourages the development of important visual skills, such as focusing and tracking, and provides your baby with a great opportunity to practice his eye-hand coordination.

4 to 7 months

Babies this age begin to use all their senses to explore and learn about their world. They'll pick up things with their hands, then put them in their mouths to get more information. Around 4 or 5 months, an infant will start to understand the concept of cause and effect -- that what she does can elicit a response from or a change in things and people around her.

Shaking it up
Put an empty thread spool, dry rice, or beans in a small plastic bottle, and seal it tightly so that it won't come apart when your baby plays with it. Of course, you can always buy rattles at the toy store, but by making your own, you can experiment with different containers and contents to create a variety of sights and sounds that'll delight your eager learner.
Benefit: As your baby reaches for and grasps a rattle, she practices eye-hand coordination and hones fine motor skills. When she shakes it, she strengthens the muscles in her arms. But the best benefit noisemakers provide may be psychological: "It's a great ego builder," says Hughes. "Babies learn that they can have an impact on the world -- when they cry out, Mom comes to pick them up; when they gurgle, it makes Dad laugh." And shaking a rattle makes a great noise!

Musical pots
Give her a wooden spoon and some pots or pans. With very little coaching, she'll soon be banging her new toys on her high-chair tray, the floor, or any surface that lets her make a nice racket. (For a quieter game, hand over something soft and lightweight, such as a clean pair of socks rolled into a ball; it's easy to grasp, safe to explore by mouth, and "reacts" to a baby by changing shape as she grabs and squeezes it.)
Benefit: As with shaking homemade rattles, banging or squishing things is another self-esteem-building game that teaches an infant how simple actions can have big results -- and get a lot of attention.

Feeling fun
Let your baby touch several objects of varying textures -- a piece of fine sandpaper, a velvety pillow, a stuffed animal. Alternate a silky scarf with a scratchy, woolen one. Give her a wooden block, and then a mushy stuffed toy.
Benefit: Allowing an infant to experience a variety of sensations encourages her to explore and appreciate differences -- an important skill in learning about the world.

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.

Inside information
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.

Special collection
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.

Playing painter
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.