7 Learning Toys for Playing with Babies
Dr. Zubler is a board certified pediatrician who has been in practice for over 20 years. She is a consultant for the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” program, which provides tools for parents and other caregivers to track and celebrate child development and act early if there are any concerns. As part of her role at CDC, She collaborates on projects with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Dr. Zubler also volunteers as the coordinator of a multidisciplinary developmental and behavioral pediatric clinic and is actively involved with the Georgia Chapter of the AAP.
When shopping for toys to play with babies, try to incorporate toys that:
- Can be used in a variety of ways
- Will grow with your child
- Inspire exploration and problem-solving
- Spark your child’s imagination
- Give your child the chance to play with “real” stuff—or toys that look like the real thing
- Encourage your child to be active
- Develop early writing and reading skills
From the very beginning, infants play and interact with the people they love and the world around them in ways that help them to learn and develop.
Babies use all five senses to learn through play. The more babies explore through their senses, the more brain cell connections they make. Babies find their parents, siblings, and other caregivers more interesting than anything else around them, so naturally, they want to play with them. They hear the familiar voices they heard in utero and match these voices to faces. They enjoy being held and talked to face-to-face by their parents and caregivers. They are programed to notice faces and love to hear “baby talk,” the sing-song voice people naturally use when talking to babies. Around 6–8 weeks of age, babies start to show a social smile, meaning they smile at the people talking to them.
This smile is a baby’s way of beginning to play with people. As your baby smiles at you, you will probably feel great joy and respond by smiling and talking back, encouraging them to continue to show you their beautiful smile. Eventually, your baby will learn to make noises and coo in response to you talking to them. If you look away or become distracted, they will move their arms and legs and make noises to get your attention.
This back-and-forth reciprocal play between you and your baby is much more than just baby talk and play—it’s developing the foundation for their language development and interaction with people.
You and your baby are practicing conversations in a playful “serve and return” way. Your baby is “serving,” or making a playful bid for your attention by smiling, laughing, or cooing. When you smile and talk in response, you are “returning” the initiation of play she sent you. To keep these playful moments going, talk with your baby throughout the day. Whether you are feeding, bathing, or changing your baby, it is the perfect time to talk, play, and enjoy everyday moments together.
In addition to learning through seeing and hearing, babies learn through touching, tasting, and smelling. For example, babies learn that their hands are their own by playing with them and putting them in their mouths. They feel, taste, and smell their hands to learn about them. Later, they will do the same with objects, like rattles and blocks. In addition to mouthing objects, they will play with objects by shaking and banging them, while listening, watching, feeling, and hearing what happens when they do. This is normal play and learning. You can encourage your baby’s exploration and interaction with the world by providing safe toys and objects to explore, but don’t forget that face-to-face interaction with parents and caregivers is the most important play your baby will experience.
The engagement that occurs with parents and caregivers while playing with toys is what helps babies learn, not the toy itself. When shopping for toys to play with babies, try to incorporate toys that:
- Can be used in a variety of ways - Blocks, interlocking blocks, nesting blocks or cups, and toys for sand and water play
- Will grow with your child - Plastic toy animals and action figures, toddler-friendly dollhouses, trains and dump trucks (and other vehicles), stuffed animals and dolls
- Inspire exploration and problem-solving - Puzzles, shape-sorters, blocks, nesting blocks or cups, art materials like clay, paint, crayons or playdough
- Spark your child’s imagination - Dress-up clothing, blocks, toy food and plastic plates, action figures, stuffed animals and dolls, trains and trucks, toddler-friendly dollhouses, toy tools, and “real-life” accessories such as a wrapping paper tube “fire hose” for your little fire fighter. The all-purpose large cardboard box is always a big hit for toddlers and is free. Boxes become houses, pirate ships, barns, tunnels—anything your child’s imagination can come up with!
- Give your child the chance to play with “real” stuff—or toys that look like the real thing - Plastic dishes and food, toy keys, toy phone, dress-up clothes, musical instruments, child-size brooms, mops, brushes and dustpans
- Encourage your child to be active - Balls of different shapes and sizes, plastic bowling sets, child-size basketball hoop, pull-toys (e.g., toys that your child can pull on a string), wagon to fill and pull, gardening tools to dig and rake with, moving boxes (open at both ends) to make tunnels to crawl through
- Develop early writing and reading skills - Books, magnetic alphabet letters, and art supplies like markers, crayons, and finger paints. “Real-life” props like take-out menus, catalogs, or magazines are fun for your child to look at and play with and build familiarity with letters, text, and print.
Playing with your baby builds a safe, stable, and nurturing relationship and a lifelong foundation for learning, problem solving, and the ability to handle life’s bumps in the road, including stumbling when learning to walk or handling a disappointing grade in school. Playing with your baby also develops his ability to self-regulate, sustain attention, and problem solve.
Knowing that everyday activities can influence a baby’s brain development can seem intimidating, but do not worry! You have what it takes to play with your baby, helping them learn and feel safe and supported. So smile, talk, read, sing, and explore toys with your baby to help your baby learn and develop healthy relationships.