Play helps children learn and develop. During the early years infants use all their senses to explore the environment. They intently look, smell, taste, hear and feel everything they can in order to make sense of their world. Children’s’ genetic makeup combined with opportunities to explore, shapes who they become.
Physical development begins at the head and works downwards. Infants first gain strength and control of their head and neck, followed by the hands and arms. Then the spine and trunk strengthen in order to assist them to sit and swivel. Next, the legs strengthen, which helps them crawl, stand and eventually walk. Exposing infants to games and toys that match their physical abilities and mental alertness encourages mastery of one area in readiness for the next.
An infant’s first year can be divided into five developmental stages:
- For the first six weeks there is no need for toys. Infants are more concerned with who is caring for them. Newborns delight in familiar voices and heartbeats so cuddle up close, read and sing to them. Newborns are comforted by touch and rhythmical movements so carry, sway, rock, give tummy time on your chest, across your lap or on a soft mat on the floor. Newborn vision is limited to about 20cm so get close to get their attention.
- From six weeks to four months you’ll notice infants looking at you intently. They often have a puzzled frown as they closely observe objects and faces. Black and white patterns and hanging mobiles hold their attention and they grip thin toys when placed in their grasp but won’t have very good control so may drop objects or hit them self in the head. Their refection in the mirror is fascinating. Tummy time continues to be important but is not always enjoyed so use various distractions and persevere.
- From four to six months most infants are not mobile although many have mastered rolling over. They reach out for and hold toys with better coordination and enjoy feeling textured fabrics and surfaces with their hands and feet. Many infants are nearly sitting but avoid leaving them in ‘sitting aids’ for too long as their spine and hips are not developed enough for this until they can sit naturally. Mimicking sounds and ‘talking’ to your baby is a game they love and so is exploring the taste of different foods.
- From six to nine months infants are rolling over and have mastered sitting up. Seeing the world from this angle provides more ‘play’ opportunities. Stacking blocks and cups make colourful fun. Sit them in the highchair while you cook and hand them safe kitchen implements and foods to explore. Sit them on a rug, in a washing basket or in a stroller while you hang the washing on the line. Hand them some wet washing and coloured pegs to examine. Infants begin to understand ‘object permanence’, where just because they can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For this reason, introduce games like ‘peek–a–boo’ and hiding objects under something nearby and encouraging them to look for it.
- From nine to twelve months life starts to get even more interesting. Most infants are now on the move, crawling, cruising around furniture or walking. Introduce toys they can stand at. Tables with nobs to push twist and pop are entertaining. Discovering finger food is a great game but be prepared for mess before manners. Hazards are a big problem at this stage because they are very quick and very inquisitive. If you have older children, be aware of very small bits on their toys. If they are walking they love pushing things around. Pulling and throwing objects are also popular.
To be able to coordinate and learn well infants need adequate sleep.
Play is exciting and it’s how children learn about their world. Help them get involved and provide consistent boundaries to show them how far they can go. Keep them safe and stimulated to foster their inquisitive spirit and enjoy their limitless enthusiasm.
This article was brought to you by Jan Murray, Private Child Health Consultant who is an internationally renowned expert in her field. Jan encourages parents in the area of infant sleep, nutrition, activities and family balance.