Playing with your baby yields more than sweet smiles, squeals, and coos. According to researchers and child-development experts, simple, everyday games can boost baby’s brain development, fostering growth in language, science, math, and organizational skills (called executive functions) along with social and emotional learning.
Babies at play are learning about themselves and their world, says Sarah R. Lytle, Ph.D., director of outreach and education for the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). “Babies are these natural scientists. They’re always playing games that are actually experiments. Every time a baby drops their spoon off their high chair, they’re figuring out their world and how it works.”
Here’s how to help your little scientist along with games that benefit cognitive development from birth through age one:
1. Back and forth. Quality interactions with loving caregivers are vital to cognitive development - things like responding to baby’s coos and cries, gazing into their eyes, and making silly faces. “In a high-quality interaction, you want to see a true back-and-forth exchange between parent and baby. When baby babbles, the parent responds like they’re having a conversation,” says Lytle.
2. “Where’s the cup?” By four to seven months old, babies begin developing object permanence (the knowledge that something still exists even when it’s not visible). Simple games like moving a cup just out of sight and asking your baby, “Where’s the cup?” help your baby toward this memory milestone.
3. Baby gym. Physical activity - think tummy time, crawling, scooting, walking practice, or parent-child swim - can boost brain growth. Researchers found that physical activity benefits cognitive development, especially executive functions and language skills, in children from birth through age five.
4. “Why, thank you!” When your baby hands you a toy and looks at you expectantly, they’re initiating a game that develops social and emotional intelligence, says Lytle. Play along by responding with delight (“Thank you so much!”), waiting a beat, then handing the toy back to your baby, and keep the back-and-forth going for as long as baby stays interested.
5. Bust a move. Exposing babies to music introduces the concept of rhythm, which benefits mathematical skills, says Lytle. Encourage this learning with mini dance sessions as early as the newborn stage (holding your baby, of course), spending five to 10 minutes bouncing and swaying to the beat of songs you know and love.
6. Rhyme time. Reading books filled with rhyming words, like The Cat in the Hat, help your baby develop phonological awareness, an important component of language and literacy, says Lytle. “Books work well for this because as parents, we don’t normally speak in rhymes. We tend to get into verbal ruts and use the same words over and over again. Books expose babies to words and rhymes you might not normally use,” she says.
7. Face it. Just hours after birth, babies show a preference for gazing at faces, which boosts their visual development and cognitive growth. Stanford researchers found that by four months old, babies’ facial recognition skills rival those of adults. A simple game like placing your face 25 to 30 centimetres from your baby’s face, then switching with another person or even a stuffed animal and waiting for your baby to respond can help babies hone this important skill.
8. Skill-building. That shape-sorter you may have received at your baby shower is great for developing spatial awareness and mathematical ability, says Lytle. Once babies get a bit older, building blocks can help continue that development. “With blocks, babies are testing their environment and really getting into some complex concepts related to math, like volume, distance, and how structures work,” she says.
9. Baby comedian. “Parents sometimes think that in order to build language skills, they need to ‘fill their baby’s bucket’ with a lot of words,” says Lytle. “But the back-and-forth interaction is what really benefits cognitive growth.” Try responding to your baby’s early coos and first words with a hearty laugh, a squeal, or a surprised face. The sillier the better since babies are often delighted by these responses and more interested in keeping the interaction going.
10. I get it. Playing together provides opportunities to boost social and emotional skills by helping your baby understand and process emotions, says Lytle. “When your child becomes frustrated, talking about the emotions they’re feeling is important. When you say to your child,
‘I understand why that made you upset,’ you’re scaffolding [or supporting] important social and emotional concepts.”
Focused, attentive interactions with loving caregivers are the best brain-builders for babies, says Lytle. When caregivers play with babies, they can make the experience even more beneficial by focusing on the baby and tuning out their phone and other distractions. “To create a high-quality interaction, it’s important to be fully present and really focus your attention on your child.”
Malia is a health and family journalist.
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