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learning through play

Even on the day babies are born, they are alert and listening. They soak up their environment and look around even though they may not be able to focus very well. By the time they are 6 weeks old, babies can smile, they quieten down when they hear a familiar voice and they turn their head towards light.

Babies learn and develop when their senses are stimulated. So what they see, hear, touch, feel, smell and taste are all helping them to grow mentally. You can help your baby's mental development by stimulating these senses. Playing, singing and talking with your baby are important aids to learning. These aids help their social and physical development as well as mental growth and will encourage your baby to observe things and concentrate.

talk to your baby

Always try to talk to your baby - while you are feeding her, changing her nappies and playing with her. Explain any actions that you do and name the things that you use so you begin to develop your baby's vocabulary. You will soon overcome any embarrassment as you realise that your baby understands what is going on and begins to respond to you.

sing to your baby

Babies love repetition because it helps them to remember things. Singing the same nursery rhyme over and over again may seem dull to you, but once your baby learns to communicate you will find that they will ask you to repeat songs they like. You may find that a familiar rhyme calms them down when they are crying because they associate the song with you - the person who loves and cares for them.

play with your baby

From the age of about 3 months your baby will begin to love games and you can join in. Playing games such as 'peek-a-boo', 'round and round the garden' and 'this little piggy' will be fun for both of you. Water play is also lots of fun. Your baby will enjoy splashing in the bath, filling containers with water, pouring and emptying them, so make sure you have plenty of suitable toys in the bath - household objects will do, provided they are safe. Make plenty of eye contact with your baby when you are playing and talking. This lets them know they have your full attention and are listening and responding to them.

From an early age babies can enjoy toys that stimulate their senses. Brightly coloured pictures, mirrors, mobiles and rattles can be placed around a baby in a carrycot so that they can see them. Once babies can pick things up they can practise their hand skills by playing with plastic and rubber toys, which are good for grasping and squeezing. Balls, building blocks, chunky vehicles to push along, picture books and bath toys can all be offered to babies between about 6 months and a 1-year-old.

Some other play activity ideas for you and your baby:

  • Look at picture books together - pointing to and describing the different objects on the page.
  • Point to and name parts of your body - 'this is my nose, where is your nose?' Demonstrate what happens when you do things. For example, bang a wooden spoon on a saucepan to make a loud noise.
  • Read simple stories. Most babies like animals - teach them animal sounds, which they can imitate. For example, sing 'Old McDonalds's farm' together. Roll a ball between you and your baby.

set a good example

Babies and children learn by copying so it is important to show a good example. If you are trying to encourage your baby to use a spoon, show them what to do by using a spoon yourself. You may have to exaggerate your gestures, but by explaining 'we eat with a spoon' your baby will soon get the right idea. Try and combine tasks such as putting the toys away with humour so your baby can join in and you can both make a game out of putting the toys into a storage box, for example.

be positive

Try not to be too negative. Babies can get scared by loud noises and recognise angry voices from an early age. Being calm and reassuring goes a long way towards developing a baby's security. For example if your baby is distracted by a toy when she is supposed to be eating her lunch, you can gently remove the toy and say 'We are eating lunch now' rather than telling them 'Don't play with that toy'. Play helps your children to learn and develop, but most of all, it should be fun for you, the baby and the rest of the family.