About baby play and cognitive development
Play is important for your baby’s cognitive development – that is, your baby’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and work out what might happen next.
Back-and-forth interactions are a key part of baby play. When you interact with your baby during play, you give your baby important information for understanding the world. For example, a simple game of peekaboo helps your baby learn that when you disappear, you come back too.
Also, playing with your baby builds your relationship and sends a simple but powerful message – you are important to me. This message is key to helping your baby learn about who they are and where they fit in the world. And it gives your baby confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world.
Your warm and loving relationship with your baby lays the foundation for all areas of your child’s learning and development.
What to expect: baby cognitive development and play
At 3-6 months, your baby will probably:
- talk to you in ‘coos’ and other sounds
- listen to you when you talk and try to reply
- smile at their own image in a mirror
- reach out to grab things or put things in their mouth.
At 6-9 months, your baby will probably:
- say ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ randomly
- imitate talking sounds like ‘ma’, ‘ba’ and ‘da’
- respond to their own name
- hold their own bottle or feed themselves finger food
- look at things when you name them, from about 8 months.
From 9-12 months, your baby will probably:
- say ‘mama’ and ’dada’ at the right time
- understand simple instructions like ‘Give it to me’
- make silly faces or sounds to make you laugh
- enjoy repetitive games and familiar stories.
Also at 8-12 months, babies might start experimenting during play. For example, your baby might:
- throw a bowl and watch it fall
- push things off the edge of tables
- throw toys at the wall
- test all toys and any objects within reach – cups, saucers and even pets.
This is how your baby learns about cause and effect – that is, ‘If I do this, that will happen’. Your baby probably enjoys cause-and-effect toys at this age too, like a jack-in-the-box.
If your baby has plenty of opportunities to test out the environment, they can learn more and more every day. If you set up a safe environment and always supervise your baby, they can roam and learn with freedom.
Play ideas for encouraging baby cognitive development
It’s good to try plenty of different play activities with your baby. This promotes cognitive development by giving your baby many ways to learn about their world.
At 3-6 months
Here are fun and simple play ideas for you and your baby:
- Read books, sing songs and recite nursery rhymes together. Babies enjoy cloth books with different textures, flaps and puppets.
- Let your baby hold, drop and roll different balls. This helps your baby learn about how things move.
- Play with rattles, bells and other toys that make noise.
- Put toys around your baby to encourage movement.
At 6-12 months
From this age, you and your baby can explore more ways to play:
- Provide fun bath toys for dunking, measuring, floating and pouring. Plastic milk bottles and food containers work well for this.
- Give your baby toys with buttons to push to make things happen, or try activities like shaking or banging objects.
- Play with stacking blocks and toys that your baby can roll or push across the floor.
- When reading with your baby, use different voices for different characters or make the sounds of different animals.
You can give your baby play options to choose from, but try not to overwhelm your baby with too many. Also, it’s good to give your baby time to choose what and how to play and then follow your baby’s lead.
Try to step back from your baby’s play and give your baby the chance to work things out independently sometimes. You can still help your baby’s learning by describing what’s happening. For example, ‘That pot makes a big noise when you bang it!’
It’s always good to respond to your baby’s interests and share your baby’s delight at discovering new things, however small they might seem. For example, ‘Wow! Look how the little red boat floats in your bath’.
If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to get help early. See your child and family health nurse or GP. If your child goes to an early childhood education and care service, you could also talk with your child’s educators.