Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Games Babies Play

We don't often think of babies playing games, but they do! In fact, baby games are very important to your baby's emotional, social and intellectual development. The games help baby learn a lot about the world and how to interact with other people. It's very important that you find games to play with your baby and that you play them regularly.

Babies can start to play games just as soon as they have enough control over their bodies to interact a little bit with the environment. As soon as they can make intentional movements, however uncoordinated, they can begin playing games. For many babies, this happens at three months of age or even sooner! One of the main developmental tasks of this very young age group is to learn that their actions can affect things outside of themselves. The first lesson is that when they cry, adults take action to fix the problem. Not long after that, they learn that when they smile, adults do all sorts of funny things to get them to smile again. We put on quite a show, don't we? This "smile and get them to act silly" game is one of baby's first attempts at play.

And look out, world! Baby quickly learns to wave arms and legs on purpose. Some of this is for exercise and to learn control, but some of this movement is to play. Babies who are at this stage can learn to cause reactions in the world by flailing and occasionally hitting their target. One game that our daughters all enjoyed immensely at this age was called "Surprise the Daddy." I cradled the girls in my arms and we quietly snuck up behind their father. I held the baby close enough to his back that an arm or leg movement would come in contact, and when it did, Daddy jumped around with a startled "Oooooh!" It wasn't very long before the baby intentionally swung her arm out to surprise her Daddy and elicit that exciting response. Not long after that, the game started causing peals of laughter. It was FUN to make Daddy jump and start! "Surprise the Daddy" remained a favorite game until well after the girls could walk and sneak up on Daddy under their own power, but it started at a very, very young age.

When babies are learning that the world exists even when they can't see it, the game of "Peek-A-Boo" becomes a favorite. This classic has been around since time began, I think. I found over the course of raising three babies that the best way to start is by covering your own face with your hands, then moving your hands and saying the standard "Peek-A-Boo!" Baby will watch you expectantly, then smile and laugh when you "reappear." Later (when the baby has learned to grab things on purpose), try putting a cloth gently over the baby's face, and the little one will pull it aside. That's your cue to say "Peek-A-Boo!" again. This trick doesn't work out very well, however, if your little one is frightened by it! Take your cue from the baby. If it's not fun, put the idea aside and try again in a few weeks. Before you know it, "Peek-A-Boo" will turn into hide and seek!

Baby clapping games are loads of fun when your little one can hold hands in place to be gently tapped and has learned to clap hands alone. "Pat-A-Cake" is the classic hand-clapper, but you can easily make up your own! Finger plays are fun learning experiences, too, for the little ones who are able to imitate your movements. Many nursery rhymes have movements that you can use, and there are a host of toddler finger plays available at your local library.

Each developmental stage has its games that practice and support whatever baby is learning. Babies studying the concepts of inside and outside will spend hours filling and emptying containers. Babies learning about possession will give you an item and then snatch it away with a grin. Some of your best games will be those that are matched to these cognitive developments.

And each time you play games with baby, you are teaching lessons about social interactions. Babies who play games with their parents and caregivers are learning about taking turns, sharing, and many other concepts that will be very important later in life. Don't miss out, and be sure to do your part-it's tough for baby to play many of these games alone! One of your jobs as a parent is to play, and play, and play some more.

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