You don't have to teach your baby to play. Left to her own devices, she will wiggle, giggle, and play with whatever she can reach, especially after the first two months. Why is the desire to play built into babies?
Play is crucial for a baby's physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and language development. Parents can promote skill development in these areas by doing sensory activities with their babies. For example, talking about animal toys while playing with them in the grass will encourage babbling.
Playing is the most effective way to engage your baby's mind for any kind of development. This article will focus on how play helps your baby develop language skills and provides some of the best activities to do so.
How Does Play Help with Language Development?
Your baby has got to play; it is an essential part of his life! Not only is it fun, but it also helps him explore and discover the world around him. As your baby grows, you'll notice that his playing for discovery becomes experiments of putting random elements together to play out what happens.
That's how you will get those priceless memories of a very serious little cupcake-dinosaur doctor-magician telling you a fanciful tale that is only half understandable. But for a toddler to gain this stellar storytelling ability, he must first do a ridiculous amount of observation and listening in his first year of life.
As with everything, language development is tied to other areas of development, and play happens to cater to all of them simultaneously.
Play Engages All Senses
When it comes to laying the foundation of language development during the first year, baby sensory activities are the way to go. They help your little one build his understanding of reality by engaging the senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight).
Sensory activities can be as simple as a few toys in a tub of water or a baby busy book with different flaps, colors, and textures sewn into the cloth pages. Whatever you do for a baby sensory activity, ensure you don't overwhelm your baby's senses.
The baby toy market is flooded with bright and flashy disco-noisemakers that are only entertaining because they distract your baby. A newborn doesn't need that craziness, and neither does a six-month-old (or even a twelve-month-old, for that matter).
Instead of "desensitizing" your baby to electric toys and TV shows, try letting him learn more naturally by soaking things up at his own rate by playing with classic baby toys or with sensory activities. When your baby is focusing on something with one or two senses, he is essentially studying reality.
If you want to learn more about baby sensory activities, how they work, and how to set up a sensory environment for your little one, read Baby Sensory Activities: A Guide to Promote Healthy Development.
Play Develops Cognitive Skills
Play aids in developing a baby's brain structure, brain function, and learning process ability, all of which are vital for shaping the way she will later pursue goals and focus on the task at hand (source). We see these same benefits across thousands of animal species.
For many baby animals, play is essential for learning to survive, hunt, flee, or hide. It's a safe time to try crazy things, act out scenarios, explore the area, and discover one's own abilities and limits.
Human infants will not be pouncing out of trees in their play, but they will be testing boundaries, seeing how far they can crawl, and reaching for things they haven't explored yet.
As parents react to what they say or do, babies take note of their parents' tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Somewhere between seven and twelve months of age, babies can understand several spoken nouns and basic commands, but cognitively, they interpret your tone and mannerisms incredibly well.
When you invest time into playing with and talking to your baby, you are investing directly in her language development. The more she hears you speaking about what she understands in front of her, the better off her language development will be (source).
Play Encourages Social and Emotional Development
Play is the cornerstone of social and emotional development in human babies, toddlers, young children, and animals that play. Even human play that lacks verbal communication can encourage social and emotional development.
In those first weeks, smiling at your newborn, cuddling, singing, and talking to him about what you are doing are the beginnings of his social life. These activities make him feel safe and loved (even when he's crying).
As your baby's mind rapidly develops and gains new skills and insights daily, you will notice him being more vocal and seeking your attention with his voice. This cooing and crying for attention are your baby's first attempts at intentional verbal communication, and it skyrockets from there!
I won't go into the stages of language development in this article because I've already done that in a previous one. If you would like to read about that, check it out here: From Babbling to Words: A Comprehensive Guide to Baby Language Development.
Once your baby has become a toddler who knows a few words, you will notice that his play changes a bit. He will start playing through scenarios with his toys or with friends and family. This type of play is like fuel to the fire of language and thought development. Your toddler's vocabulary will explode along with his imagination!
7 Best Baby Activities to Promote Language Development
As you can see, play is not a frivolous matter; it's serious business! So, what are some ways parents can play productively with their babies to ensure they give their little ones the best start possible?
Baby sensory activities and games are fun, engage multiple senses, and promote verbal communication. Here are seven of the best baby activities I personally used to have fun and get my baby babbling!
1. Bang Bang!
This was a favorite game for my babies in their first year. Around six months old, most babies have figured out how to bang things together, so it is easy to turn it into a game of funny faces, babbling, and laughs.
If your baby cannot sit up for this game yet, you can sit her into a seat or a high chair with a tray or hold her up yourself. Put a few blocks, a ball, and a toy hammer in front of her. Show her that the blocks make a sound when you smash them together or hit them with a hammer.
Make a big deal about it: a silly face, cover your ears, and say, "Bang!" But if your baby hits the ball, make a different, softer sound like "bump!" Your baby will likely catch on quickly and revel in making so much noise and goofy laughter.
2. Go Ball!
Any kind of hand-sized ball will work for this one, but my favorite type was a racquetball. When your baby is four months old or older, start rolling a ball to him and say, "Go ball!" Somewhere between six and eight months old, he may begin grabbing it and throwing or rolling it back.
As your baby becomes more interested, you can set up a track for the ball or something to hit at the other end of a hallway. This game is a lot of fun to drum up and get excited over together! It's also fantastic for hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills, and learning to say "ball," "uh-oh," and "go."
3. Look Away Game
This game starts off quietly but quickly devolves into giggles when you say, "You got me!" Some babies can play this at eight months old, but others may need to be a bit older. You will start by looking at your baby and making a funny sound while she is doing something.
If she doesn't look for you, keep making sounds louder and louder until she tries to make eye contact with you. When she looks at your face, look away with a silly face. After she looks down again, look at her until she looks your way again.
Keep going back and forth, making more silly faces and sounds until she catches you looking directly at her. Then say, "You got me!" and make a big deal about it.
4. Where Am I?
Hide-and-seek starts with all players knowing the game, but the concept is difficult to grasp for babies less than a year old. So, you can play by hiding somewhere your crawling or walking baby can find you and say, "Where am I?"
When your baby finds you, jump out and say, "Yay! You found me!" or "Here I am!" Make a big happy deal of how your clever baby found you. It won't take long before your baby will start giggling in anticipation when you say, "Where am I?"
As a side note, I always hid where I could still see my babies just to make sure they didn't get into something they shouldn't while I was out of sight. This also made sure I didn't hide "too well."
Another great first-year game for language development starts with you either holding onto your baby or strapping her into a baby carrier. Then, name a direction or preposition, point in that direction, and move that way in three steps, counting as you go.
For example, you could say "right," point your baby's hand right, and count the steps out loud. Then, say "down," point your baby's hand down, and crouch down. Next will probably be "up," point your baby's hand up, and stand up again.
As your baby figures out the hand gestures, she will start emphatically gesturing directions and soon add verbal babble that you can reinforce with the proper name of the direction. If she gets mischievous by pointing you into a wall, you can come up with equally goofy ways to "crash."
6. Read and Find
You've probably already figured out that your baby wants to read the same books a few dozen times a day. If you're not there yet, that phase will come soon. This repetition is fabulous for your baby's learning but can certainly bore you, so why not mix it up a little?
You can go through books to name colors and things as you point to them for nine-month-olds and younger. Most babies in the first nine months only read for a few minutes, so you can try singing the words, using silly voices, or moving your baby's fingers to things in the pictures.
If your baby likes reading books and is closing in on his first birthday, you can start asking him to point things out in the pictures as you read. You can also pretend to fall asleep mid-sentence, read super fast, or really slowly.
My babies had an obscene number of stuffed animals, so to make an easy-to-imagine game for them after nine months of age, I would create a zoo in their room. It's easy to do, especially after you've visited a zoo or watched a short animal video.
Put all the animals of the same species together in groups. One group can be in the crib, one under the crib, one in a dresser drawer, one on the changing table, and so on. Then, you can talk about the names of the animals, how to take care of them, and which ones are friendly together.
If your baby starts to pull one out, you can say, "Oh no! The lion (or whatever it is) is out! Run!" and make a big, silly deal about running away from the animal or trying to catch it.
At first, your baby will not know what to do with all of this nonsense, but the game may become a favorite in the coming months if your baby becomes an animal-loving toddler.
In a Nutshell
Play is essential for language development in babies, so encourage it and play together as much as you can! Making funny faces, using repetitive phrases, and using silly body language all contribute to enriching the experimentation and creativity of imagination and playfulness.
And hey, if anyone tries to shame you for acting like a goof with your baby, inform them that you are investing in your child's holistic development and future success as a human being. That will throw them for a loop!