toki mats CEO and founder eli yonas holding her youngest baby

The Power of Playing With Your Baby

September 26, 2022

For babies and children, play is so much more than a chance to have fun. From the moment they are born, babies have the drive and capacity to learn through play. Their brains can form up to 1,000 new connections every second—a breathtaking pace that allows them to learn about their world and their place in it through even simple activities. Play is considered so critical to child development that even the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes play as a fundamental right for every child. Play not only supports healthy brain development, it also teaches children how to interact with the world, work in groups, resolve conflict, discover their own areas of interest, and engage in one of the simplest joys of childhood. Although children benefit from unstructured playtime by themselves and with other children, there are many special benefits that also come from playing with a parent.

dad holding his baby

When your little one is a newborn, play is much less about toys and more about building the connection between you and your baby. Because their eyesight only allows them to see about 8-12 inches away, your face is usually at the perfect distance for them to gaze into your eyes. Your face and expressions are the things that your baby will get to know best, and it’s no wonder that your face is the one they prefer long after their eyesight fully develops. With your guidance and interaction, your baby will learn how to move, socialize, communicate, and understand their surroundings. They can recognize and respond to your voice, learn that your face can signal emotions, and react accordingly. Through you, your baby will learn how people behave in social settings and follow your cues. Because your baby’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything it experiences, you are your baby’s first teacher and the one to set the groundwork for future independent play. As your baby grows, allow them to lead the way in exploring their environment, while providing mutual interaction and active observation. It doesn’t take much to be a good playmate for your child, but the benefits from playing with your little one are endless. Here are some of the ways that playing with your baby aids their development:

It promotes speech and language development

When you play with your little one, you’ll find yourself narrating your movements, giving instructions, and reacting with praise or encouragement. Let’s say you’re handing your baby a rattle. You might say, “Watch Mommy shake the rattle! Do you hear that? It’s making noise! Now, you try. Here, take the rattle. Shake, shake, shake!” Within that small interaction, your child is given a ton of information for their brain to absorb and process. They learn that this small toy has a name, that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the rattle and the sound it makes from shaking it, and they comprehend new words and form the connections between them. 

Before children can independently use words, they have to understand the meaning of them first. Simple play targets these receptive language skills and builds their vocabulary. If you’re looking at a picture book of animals together, you can point out each animal and demonstrate the sounds associated with them. You can say, “Cow. The cow says ‘moo.’” Eventually, you can ask your baby to identify the cow on their own, which is something they can do nonverbally. Their brain forms the connection between the words “cow” and “moo,” which even creates the building blocks for their first sentences. No matter what or how you play with your baby, the simple act of being involved opens opportunities for language development that might otherwise not be there with another child or sibling.

It develops their motor skills

In the first few months of life, your baby will likely protest during tummy time. It’s not their favorite activity (yet), but it’s an important one that will give them the foundational strength they need to roll, sit up, crawl, walk, and someday run. By setting up a soft, comfortable surface like a Toki mat, you give your baby the opportunity to build the necessary strength in their head, neck, shoulders, and trunk. Babies need room to practice gross motor skills, and the best place for them to explore movement and develop strength is on the floor. Since your little one spends much of the day and night on their back, make sure you give them plenty of floor time to play, as well as plenty of encouragement. To find out more about what tummy time will look like as your baby grows, you can read our blog post here.

While gross motor skills are movements related to large muscles, such as the legs, arms, and trunk, fine motor skills refer to the movements made by smaller muscle groups, such as in the hand and wrist. Both groups are important for your baby’s growth and independence, and playing with your little one can help them master both. Although it doesn’t seem like much, being able to reach for and actively grasp a toy isn’t a skill we’re born with (grasping is a newborn reflex that they can’t control). Babies are usually able to do this around 4 months old, and it’s a fine motor milestone that builds strength in their fingers, and develops their hand-eye coordination. By 6 months, your baby will probably be able to reach for a toy they want, grasp it in one hand, then bring it to their mouth or pass it to the other hand. In fine-tuning these fine motor movements, your baby builds skills that will someday allow them to type, handle small objects, and write with a pen or pencil. Managing crayons, opening doors, opening containers, and stacking blocks are all fine motor activities that are made possible with the first step of simply grasping a toy.

mom playing with her baby on a toki mat at the beach

It builds imagination and creativity

As babies explore through play, their imagination and creativity begin to grow and flourish. Open-ended toys differ from structured toys in that they don’t have a beginning, middle, and end. They can be played with in as many ways as your imagination allows, which fosters creativity and paves the way for independent play. To help your little one develop creativity, limit screen time and toys that do all the entertaining. Instead, engage in activities where you make the entertainment, such as playing peekaboo behind various objects, reading picture books where you can invite your baby to turn the pages, or heading outside and using your senses to explore objects you find. For outdoor activity ideas, read our blog post here. Open-ended, creative activities help your baby learn important skills such as emotional regulation, communication, and self-expression. 

It creates an opportunity to bond with your baby

There’s no question that playing with your baby has lifelong benefits that set them up for future success. Play stimulates creative thinking and exploration, supports healthy brain development, and helps your baby develop social skills that are necessary to build relationships with their peers. Bonding with your child might seem like a given when you’re with them 24/7 to meet their needs, but playing with your child can foster an important connection that builds their self-esteem, as well as secure attachment. By fully engaging in play with your little one and meeting them at their level, you strengthen the bond between you and your baby and give them the tools they need to explore and master challenges, and build confidence and resilience.

The Power of Playing With Your Baby

About the Author: Alice

Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.

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