You remember finger plays, right? These little gems were great fun for nearly everyone at some point in their lives. They are little rhymes with motions that very young children can learn, and they serve a number of purposes in children's development. You'll want to be sure and teach them early and often.
Some of the first finger plays are from nursery rhymes. Babies can learn and enjoy Pat-A-Cake even before they actually have the coordination to make the movements! Take their hands and gently guide them through the motions and watch their faces glow. It won't be long before your little one is helping, then doing the motions all by himself or herself. Another early rhyme that has simple motions is Pease Porridge Hot. This hand-clapping game has a simple rhythm and can be accomplished shortly after your baby learns to clap hands.
When your baby is just a bit older and more coordinated, try that old favorite, Where Is Thumbkin? You remember this one-you hide your hands behind your back and bring them out on each verse, showing a different finger. Kids learn to move their fingers independently of each other (yes, the ring finger takes a lot of practice!), and will strengthen muscles and build coordination as they wiggle each finger in turn.
Of course, there are many, many other finger plays that you can move on to as your baby grows and learns. Check with your librarian or your local bookstore for some resource books. Good books of finger plays will have clear instructions and diagrams to help you know just what movements to make. The rhymes are often ordered by difficulty, and many books have suggested age ranges to help you choose one that will be challenging, but not too difficult. You'll want to start with simple ones and work your way upwards, but make sure that you try some of these with the baby.
Finger plays are very important, developmentally speaking. They build and nurture numerous important skills, including fine and gross motor coordination, memory, and language skills. Your child will learn to imitate movements, and that will help him or her later in life when students need to copy the teacher's movements to learn to make letters and accomplish other important tasks. Most of the finger plays are also rhymes or songs. Working with the rhythms and rhymes will help your child learn about language and the structure of words. Children who understand and recognize rhyming words will be better prepared to understand Word Families (groups of words with similar sounds and spellings that are used to teach beginning reading skills) than those who have not had the chance to learn them.
These are all foundational to later reading and writing skills, and babies who have had these types of experiences are able to do better in school than those who have not. Amazingly enough, teachers can tell just which children have had the opportunity to learn in this way and which have not. Don't deny your little one such an advantage!