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3 Brain-Building Ways to Play With Your Baby

Babies are more brilliant than any artificial intelligence​ program a tech company can develop. Why? Because they are taking in so much information, through so many channels. They are constantly working to blend that information with what they already know. They take the world in by playing with it and exploring it.

What are the stages of play?

Infants are in what we consider a sensorimotor stage of play. This is all about taking in information with their senses, moving around rooms and grabbing and handling objects. They are mastering being a part of the 3D world and mapping it in their brains. It's pretty cool.

Soon, once they are a toddler, they will get to symbolic play (vrooming a car around, using a hammer to bang on things). Then comes pretend play (pretending to be a lion or to sweep the floor). And, before you know it, you may see them leading a classroom of stuffed animals (imaginative play)!

Here are a few ways to build on these stages and your baby's brain development:

  • Build a flexible attention span.


    ​​When babies look at the same thing over and over, they don’t get as much of a chance to build mental categories or see all the various ways the world works. So, limit TV, videos and YouTube for babies. Instead, direct their attention to the objects and activities around them.

    ​Infants will look at what their parents​ and caregivers are paying attention to. Try showing them new things and talking about whatever they seem to be looking at. It may sound basic, but if you can’t focus and shift your attention, it’s hard to play pretend!​​

  • Break out of play ruts.


    ​​​When you are playing with your baby, and they seem to be doing the same thing over and over again, change it up just slightly. If they are banging a pan with their hand, give them a wooden spoon to bang with. If they are putting blocks in a bucket, try making zooming or silly noises as the blocks fall in. Think of it like a "variation on a theme" in classical music—where the basic play pattern is the same, you just change it up a bit.​​​​

  • Bounce it back and forth.


    ​Developmental scientists talk about "serve and return" interactions—like you and your baby are playing a tennis match of emotions and action. Sometimes you ace it (like trying something new that gets a belly laugh!), sometimes you might be out of bounds (it’s ok, we learn from failure!) But sometimes you get a really satisfying rally back and forth—like when you sing a few lines of a song, your little one coos back at you, you sing some more, and their face lights up.

    You can’t always run up to the net and whack the ball as hard as possible every time (if you’re an anxious or competitive parent, you might find yourself trying to manage the interaction too much—it’s OK. But take a break, back up to the baseline, and wait for your child to return, or even serve something unexpected to you!)

    We are all too exhausted to play a full match. But if you can build brief playful back-and-forths with your baby every day, this will support language, thinking skills, and babies understanding themselves and others. You hopefully will also enjoy a boost to your wellbeing with simple interactions like this.​


    Sometimes infants are calm and ready to engage, and other times they are not—​they might fuss, turn their head away, or close their eyes. Don't take this as a rejection…infants have to work hard all day to keep their brains alert and organized. When they've had enough, they show you. So, take it as a “cue" and give them a little break to a calmer experience. 

    More infor​mation

Last Updated
Adapted from Melissa & Doug: Our Blog
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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