The importance of play

By Dr. Lin Day , Baby Sensory

Babies have a biological predisposition to play. It is how they learn about the world, other people, their culture, and themselves.

There are two types of play: free-flow (unstructured) or structured. Both contribute to your baby’s development, but in different ways. Structured play is planned, organised and adult-led. Free-flow play is not directed or structured. It is a flexible, self-motivated activity that is initiated and controlled by your baby. There are no set rules or guidelines. Your baby decides what toys interest him the most, how he explores them, how long the play will last and when he needs support or help. 

During free-flow play, your baby may look at you as if to say “be there for me, but don’t do anything unless I need help.” Your reassuring presence and encouragement will support the play and build up social skills, but your baby will let you know if he needs a helping hand.

The following activities offer endless opportunities for self-directed exploration, discovery, problem-solving, imagination and creative thinking. They will keep your baby busy, happy and interested and provide an emotional outlet for tension and frustration. Your baby will also entertain himself for short periods, which will become a beneficial life habit.

  • A drawer, box or bag filled with different objects, which your baby can take out and put back
  • A handbag filled with safe items such as a scarf, a soft nailbrush, a squeaky toy or rattle
  • A cardboard box filled with soft toys and textured fabrics
  • Wooden spoons to bang on pots and pans
  • Balls, building blocks, musical instruments, plastic containers that fit together, plastic tea sets and other age-appropriate toys

Toys have the advantage of being safe and specially adapted to your baby’s age and stage of development. Your baby will look at them, listen to the sounds that they make, touch, and smell and taste them. All these things will build neural pathways in your baby’s brain and develop intelligence.

You can set the stage by making the environment safe and by providing tools to support and extend your baby’s mobility, thinking and reasoning skills. The following resources may be helpful:

  • Toys that can be pulled around the furniture
  • Stroller trucks that can be pushed while walking
  • Tunnels that can be crawled through
  • Cushions or pillows that can be crawled over or around
  • Toy cars that can be crawled after or rolled across the floor

A ball will encourage a whole range of mobility skills as well as hand-eye coordination and sensory exploration. Balls that are lightweight, bouncy or make playful sounds can provide an endless source of amusement and fun.

Free-flow play is serious business, but this does not mean that structured play with carers, family members and friends is any less important. Reading books, singing, playing peek-a-boo, showing your baby how to put rings on a stacker or shapes in a sorter builds social and language skills and provides the emotional security that your baby needs for healthy development. However to fully utilise his ingenuity, creativity and problem solving skills, your baby also needs to explore and make discoveries on his own.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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