Baby play: why it’s important for imaginative and creative development
Between birth and 12 months, babies become more and more interested in the world. Play is the main way that babies develop, learn and explore the world.
As babies explore through play, their imaginations develop. And as their imaginations develop, they can experiment with new sounds, sights, objects and activities. They also learn to solve simple problems, and they start being able to understand their own and other people’s feelings.
What to expect as baby imagination develops
Your baby is likely to be fascinated by you. Your face, facial expressions, voice and touch spark their imagination and help them learn.
From about 5 months, your baby might be fascinated by themselves too! Babies love looking in mirrors to watch their own expressions and body movements, like clapping hands. At this age, your baby won’t understand that they’re the baby in the mirror. This understanding develops at 18-24 months.
At the same time, your baby will enjoy looking at pictures in books. Your baby’s expanding imagination helps them learn that pictures in books relate to things in the world around them. For example, a picture of a dog is like your family’s pet dog or the dogs they see in the park.
Babies are naturally curious about the environment and are keen to explore, especially once they can crawl. Your baby might look into cupboards, under beds and in other tight spaces around the house. When your baby does this, they’re imagining what they might find there and what they can do with whatever they find.
At 5-6 months, touching and tasting are how your baby explores and expands their imagination, which is why they seem to put everything in their mouth.
Around this age, your baby will also enjoy seeing what happens when they bang things together or use their voice.
From about 7 months, your baby might try to copy you if you make different sounds. And from about 8 months, your baby will start using their imagination to copy what they’ve seen you do. Your baby might use a block as a mobile phone or play peekaboo by hiding their face behind a cushion.
Play ideas and creative activities to help your baby’s imagination grow
A wide variety of play experiences will help your baby’s imagination grow.
Here are play ideas for inside:
- Play peekaboo with objects like scarves or tea towels.
- Sit your baby in front of a mirror. Young babies can look at the mirror while lying on their sides or tummies.
- Put toys, open books or interesting objects in front of your baby.
- Look at photos of people and places. Talk with your baby about what you see together.
- Read books and share stories or sing nursery rhymes using actions together. For example, do twinkly star fingers while singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’.
- Listen to various styles of music and get your baby involved. You could use a bucket and wooden spoons for a drum. A plastic jar full of uncooked rice can be a shaker – just make sure the lid is on tightly.
- Make a treasure box for your baby, full of safe, soft everyday items and natural objects for your baby to touch and feel.
Here are play ideas for outside:
- Look outdoors for new and interesting natural objects. Let your baby explore them with their senses. Your baby could feel the prickliness of grass or the roughness of a seashell, or they could taste a basil leaf.
- Go for a nature walk in the park, at the playground, at the beach – anywhere there are plenty of things to see, hear and feel.
- Give your baby tummy time on a mat outdoors. This lets your baby see and experience the world from a new perspective. Your baby might also like to lie on their back and watch the light flicker through the trees.
- Try messy play using sand, mud, clay, playdough or paints. Just make sure these materials are non-toxic, because your baby’s fingers are likely to end up in their mouth at some stage.
Open-ended play and structured play
Open-ended play is good for your baby’s imagination. Blocks are great for open-ended play, because your baby can use them for all sorts of things. For example, a block can be a car, a phone, something to build with, and much more.
Toys and activities that encourage structured play are good too. But you might notice that your baby finds more creative uses for toys like these!
In general, the key events in development happen in a similar order, but the age they happen might vary for each child. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your baby’s development, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP. For example, if your baby appears to lack interest in play or in playing with objects, talk with your nurse or GP.