As stated before, babies will learn through play naturally if given the proper freedom, boundaries, love, and tools. However, there are some things that you can do to turn play from a passive spectator activity to an interactive exchange. Instead of just watching adults or older children build blocks, let babies and toddlers try it themselves, even if they're not successful. Rather than observing babies play with a colorful ribbon and saying, "oooh" or, "ahh," (which is also acceptable), try narrating your baby's activities to help them start building their verbal skills. You could say, "Look at Billy twirl the long, red ribbon..long, red ribbon." You are also never too old to play along with your child. As young children get older, allowing them to lead you in whatever form of play, no matter how fantastical or illogical (as long as it's safe) actually will increase their self-confidence and compliance with authority. During all of these activities, remember to follow your child's lead to determine if they are becoming tired, over-stimulated, or frustrated. Young children have shorter attention spans than adults. Make sure to change activities or take a break as needed.
The next and final section of this piece will discuss some concrete play activities that you can do with your children. These activities are are designed to enhance specific types of developmental skills, and are organized by age group. For a refresher of the typical developmental milestones (for example, when babies usually roll over, talk, walk, etc.) see the article on Sensorimotor Development. While all of these documents discuss different types of development in discreet areas: physical, cognitive, emotional, and social, it is important to remember that babies and toddlers often develop in several areas simultaneously. As a results, many play and enrichment activities can enhance development in several or all areas.
Developmental Enrichment Play Activities
As stated before, as babies play, they develop physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. As babies grow, they build on skills previously mastered and then start to enjoy new and more challenging playtime activities. The following paragraphs are only a small example of the hundreds of activities and ideas you can use to play with your baby. The key thing for adults to remember when trying any of these activities is just loosen up, have fun, and enjoy watching your child's minds and body in action.
From birth, you can help your baby to develop physically by giving him or her activities that help build upper body and neck strength. Two adults can gently rock a baby in a blanket hammock. Or, you can assist your baby in doing "sit-ups" by helping him or her to sit up and down while cradled in a blanket snugly draped between your arms. To start developing hand-eye coordination and cognitive problem-solving, you can create games where different objects are brought into and out of your baby's line of sight. These types of games also encourage visual tracking and grasping. From three months on, you can encourage leg movement by letting your baby kick a tin pie plate or other noisy but safe target. As s/he hears the noise that is created by the movement, s/he will want to repeat it.
To help very young infants develop language and other cognitive skills, you can talk to your baby. Try commenting on present and past events that are occurring (pretend like you are a sportscaster describing a game). This type of running commentary will also help develop baby's memory skills. To enhance your baby's emotional and social skills, make different faces (sticking out your tongue, smiling, etc.) and other silly gestures and/or mimic the facial movements that your baby makes. The age-old baby game "peekaboo" also encourages social development and object permanence. See infant development for more information.