More Than Just Child’s Play: Parents and Experts Talk About How and Why to Play with Babies
When Stephanie Jamgochian’s twin girls were born premature, “they slept a lot. Even though (I knew about) the importance of play, I started second guessing what I was doing. I think play has increased our bond. I see it in how they look at me, how they smile and laugh, and that makes me want to play with them even more.” Parents and early childhood experts offer tips for playing with babies—and talk about why it’s important.
Learning by play
“Play is the way that children first relate to other people, but also (how) they understand and learn how to master their environment,” says Mariam Jafari, mother of a one-year-old girl.
- Forming attachments: As Jamgochian says, playing with babies helps develop the strong parent-child bonds that help kids thrive.
- Brain development: “Research shows most brain development is taking place in the first three years,” says Ramee Brown, coordinator of Constructing Connections.
- Learning to move: Playing helps babies and toddlers learn how to move and hold objects, says Indira Caunin, a public health nurse with the Nurse Family Partnership.
- Social skills: “Play has helped my children learn to share, disagree, and explore,” says Rachel Ross Steidl, mother of three children and founder of ParentClick.com.
- School readiness: “Repetition and singing songs help get (babies) comfortable with skills they will need in school. Just letting your child hold a book turns reading into something fun,” says John Lopez, prevention and early intervention program manager at the Family Ambassador Project.
Parents may feel awkward or reluctant to play with their baby. Marlin Darby, mother of three, says she was afraid of “teaching (her son) to be a sissy.” But she told herself, “When (boys) grow up, they become fathers, they need to learn to be gentle. It’s okay to play with them and hold them.”
“In my culture, (people believe) your children won’t respect you if you play with them,” says Ana Jimenez, a Long Beach mother with two sons. “It was difficult to overcome. It helped to have a nurse do home visits with my family and also watching other mothers play with their children.”
“Some Chinese parents don’t know how to play with infants because they didn’t experience that growing up,” adds Angel Kwok, the former Early Head Start home-based program specialist for Wu Yee Services. Child-rearing methods that work in traditional cultures may be different from what is expected in the U.S. today. Play groups, parent groups, and infant-toddler classes “give you a chance to interact with other parents and see how (they) do things,” says Ross Steidl.
Talk to your baby
“The most important thing parents can do is talk, even when you’re sure that (the baby) can’t understand. You’re making the child feel recognized, building a bond, and stimulating (learning skills),” says Allana Elovson, the director of Parent Education Resources.
“When nursing, in a very soft voice, you can talk to your baby,” says Jafari. “Make a noise, and then the baby makes a noise, and keep going like that. With my baby, sometimes the noise was too much. Light touching would help her calm down.”
Ross Steidl talks to her children “about everything we are doing and seeing. At the park, I ask questions while we play with sand, climb on play structures, explore flowers,” she says.
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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