It is extraordinary how quickly your dependent, little newborn, learns to purposefully move their bodies. And what is so magical, is how this movement and ‘play’ is how your cherub learns, develops and makes sense of their world.
We sat down with the amazing Sarah Olaussen, Melbourne based Occupational Therapist and Mum to beautiful 18 month old Elsie, to understand how nurturing play with your baby, helps to promote their optimal development.
Read on for Sarah’s advice on getting the most out of playtime.
The best toy for your little one throughout the first 3-4 months is you. Your facial expressions, your singing, reading, and gentle swaying – all supporting babe’s initial stages of connection to the world. Here’s a few things you might like to do to further encourage overall development through play.
High Contrast Play
For the first 4 months of your little one’s life, they can only focus on objects up to 30-40cm away (so not really beyond your face). Using high contrast (black and white) images and toys can help to stimulate and strengthen the nerves in the eye, helping the ability to focus and ultimately boost learning. Our first point of communication is looking with our eyes, so supporting visual skills is a great way to inadvertently support the first stages of speech and language development.
Tips: (from birth to 4-5 months old)
- Print off some high contrast images and stick to the wall next to the change table or hang from your play gym. They don’t need to be fancy! If you’re feeling creative, grab some white paper or paper plates, a black marker, and make some simple patterns for your babe.
Tummy Time (from birth onwards)
Tummy Time is an activity that most health professionals drill into parents in those first few months, as it ultimately builds the foundations for the gross motor milestones to follow e.g holding head up, rolling, sitting, standing and eventually walking. Toys and mirrors in front and to the sides of your babe are good motivators and distractions to extend tummy time play. Not all ‘tummy time’ needs to be on the floor though! If you find your little one screams the house down during tummy time (totally normal!), try mixing it up with some different positions.
Tips: (tummy time practice is appropriate from birth onwards)
- Use a kids’ travel pillow or rolled up towel underneath bub’s chest so they are propped up a little. This takes away a little pressure from being flat on the floor.
- Use your body as a base of support. Try different positions such as laying on your back with your head on a pillow to be on a slight angle, lay babe on your chest and place your hand on their lower back and apply a tiny bit of pressure. This encourages them to look up towards you and increases neck control.
Babies usually start firstly rolling from their tummy to their back, then master from their back to tummy later on. Rolling can begin anywhere from 4-8 months and there are lots of tricks to help them on their rolling mission!
- Side play (appropriate from birth onwards): Lay babe on their side and put your leg or rolled up towel behind them to prop them up. Once they have the strength to stay on their side, move the towel away and encourage rolling onto their back by moving a toy from their front to back so they follow it.
- Rocking side to side on a therapy ball or your chest (appropriate from birth onwards). This increases the weight shift from side to side and prepares the muscles for rolling.
- Finding their feet: (appropriate from 3-4+months). in order to roll over, baby must be able to reach their feet, as it encourages the natural motor pattern of rolling. You could attach some ankle rattle toys available from most baby suppliers, or make your own by tying a small rattle toy around the ankle. You could also place some foil onto the wall, place bub on their back so their feet can touch the wall to make a crinkly noise. This encourages them to bring their knees to chest to again create way for that rolling movement.
Sitting can be achieved a few different ways and can occur anywhere from 6+months onwards. Some of my favourite ways to encourage sitting are using a sturdy cardboard box, storage container or laundry basket.
Tips: (appropriate from when babe is able to hold their head up with good neck control/can turn head when being supported to sit up, usually 4+ months of age)
- Place babe in a basket, prop them up with some towels or cushions and pop in some toys, or attach a pram toy across the basket to practise using their hands whilst sitting. These help to develop the postural control required for sitting by themselves.
One of the best ways we learn is through our sensory system. For example, ever wonder why you may associate a sound or taste with a particular event? Because the brain loves using our senses to strengthen memories and learning. So, for a baby, using any form of sensory play can increase those pathways in the brain to make stronger connections with the world around us. Some of my favourite sensory play includes:
Tips: (Appropriate for 6+ months of age or from when babe starts solids)
- Chia slime – a great intro to sensory play for 6+months. Mix some chia seeds with water, leave overnight in the fridge and voila! Taste safe slime.
- Yoghurt paint – mix some Greek yogurt with a tiny bit of food colouring and have your little Picasso paint away. This one is great to set up in the bath, for easy clean up!
- Taste safe mud play – mix some cornflour, cocoa and water to create a mud like substance. Add toy cars and toy animals, and play away.
Vertical surface play
Think magnets on the fridge, sticking spinning toys to windows etc.! For babes, this is a great way to encourage reaching, pulling to stand and prolonged standing. This position also helps to develop the muscles we need for daily fine motor tasks such as holding a drink bottle, using a spoon, picking up small items and eventually drawing/writing. Learn about magnet safety before beginning these activities.
Tips: (appropriate from when your babe starts to pull to stand from the sitting position. The age will be different for each child, but usually from 7-11 months).
- Grab a whiteboard with large magnets and lean against a wall to practice taking magnets off/putting on when sitting on the floor.
- Stick some toys to the window to reach and grab. Magnets on the fridge are always a winner too. No magnets? Try taping some lightweight toys (e.g balls from the ball pit) to the fridge. This can work a treat too and your little babe will be just as happy.
- Take the cushions off the couch and place some toys onto the base of the couch. This is usually a perfect height for bub to start pulling up to stand and a softer surface for their chin to land on whilst getting the hang of standing up.
I can’t express how great it is for your babe to be able to play with food to help them become comfortable when trying new things. This can set them up in the long term to be happy little vegemites when at the dinner table. Did you know that there are actually 32 steps to eating? (Toomey, 2010). From being in close proximity to the food, looking at the food, touching it, squishing it in their hands, maybe bringing it to the mouth, to the final step of actually swallowing the food. If you find yourself having to grate all the veggies to hide in the meal this one may be for you.
Tips: (Appropriate for 1+ years old, or when babe is eating solid pieces of food. Ensure you cut food large enough to avoid choking hazard)
- Veggie stamping: cut up some veggies/fruits and one food you know they like (for us it was bananas). Make up some quick yoghurt paint and stamp away. The idea is to play with the food. It’s totally ok if they just want to touch it, but also fine to lick some yogurt off the broccoli too!
There is a reason why Albert Einstein claimed that “play is the highest form of research”. This is how your baby learns about cause and effect – that is, ‘If I do this, that will happen’. It can be helpful to remember that even those super annoying and mess-causing things your baby/toddler does are most likely related to their developmental and exploratory play. For example:
- Mouthing every possible toy/object in sight = oral motor and sensory development
- Throwing the carefully prepared meal you just made onto the floor = cause and effect and first stages of communication, sense of control
- Pushing over the full bin = what noise can this make?
- Pushing over that beloved pot plant = Yep I can definitely get my parent’s attention by doing this AND sensory play
- Use a peg as a phone = imagination
- Test all toys and any objects within reach such as the packet of tampons, pegs, the dog’s tail, buttons on the washing machine, taking everything out of the container drawer = problem solving, cause and effect, all of the things!
Happy playing parents and carers! We hope you’ve enjoyed Sarah’s simple tips and tricks to nurture your little one’s development through play. If you’d like more developmental play ideas, check out Sarah’s account @otplay.at.home