Expert Articles

Learn To Play or Play to Learn?

Author: Mel WAGENAAR
Educational psychologist, teacher and mother, South Africa 

Play is serious business – that sounds rather confusing, doesn’t it? Because at face value, play means being playful and spontaneous and having fun: how then can this noun/verb then mean a serious activity? This is where a mind-shift needs to occur, and one needs to think of play as being THE WORK of childhood – this axiom is repeated in most baby and childcare manuals and often in brochures for pre-schools. This is because play is essential to development and experts will trot out a list that will inform you as parent or care-giver that the more time spent playing, the better chance of the child eventually having BETTER focus, grades, creativity, happiness, motor skills, problem-solving (the list is long believe me) and on the other side of the coin, LESS anger, anxiety, delinquency, depression, relational problems, etc.

Research has proven that time spent playing is never wasted. We live in a fast-evolving world where children are often enrolled in so many “activities” that we lose sight of the fundamental building blocks that typically involve very little financial outlay but do require time and effort. So be mindful of just spending money on the plastic and fantastic that advertisers promise will tap into your infant’s future success and academic attainment. Rather do some of what has been handed down as collective human wisdom through the ages and can be practiced with very little at one’s disposal.

Placing baby under a colorful, swinging noisy, musical mobile does have a purpose but it is the actual engagement with the “other” that has the most effect. Humans are typically social beings who learn in social environments through the acts of socializing, communicating and engagement with others. It is why we take small children to play centers, parks, and areas where we are likely to find gatherings of other small people who are typically all engaged in the work of play. We instinctively know that this is where learning occurs and BONUS it also a great opportunity to spend time with other adults who are also trying to find ways to entertain similar small people!

Play needs to be intentional and purposeful and play with a newborn up until around the age of 3 months (or 12 weeks) is a very different activity to play with a 6-month-old or even a toddler. These will be dealt with in later articles. The first thing that needs to be borne in mind (whether you are a father or mother or grandparent or helper seeking more information around this), is that play with a baby needs to be purposefully interactive. Read through the activities and make a list of the equipment you may require. I suggest that you cut out the activities below and pin these up somewhere for quick and easy reference:

1.What did I hear? Use suitable, non-jarring music or musical instruments, household items and rattles to make sounds. Do this in different locations, but in close enough proximity to baby that it encourages baby to seek the source of the sound or to show awareness of the sound.

2. I am a marionette: Gently move baby’s arms and legs, extending, bending, stretching, flexing, kicking, bringing their feet to their hands, and cycling their legs.

3. Tummy time: Put baby on their tummy. Place a rolled-up blanket under baby’s arms and chest. Hanging items can create a visual stimulus and these need to be regularly changed. The adult can also lie on their tummy and engage with baby.

4. Peek-a-boo: Use your hands or a cushion to cover your face and thus “disappear” and re-appear.

5. Mirror-time: A mirror can provide much fun as babies are typically fascinated by and love their own reflections.

6. Kick it: Place baby on their back and use their natural kicking movements to “kick” light objects. Place your own hands near their feet to create a surface to kick back against or from.

7. Mimic Me: Place baby on their back on your legs facing you (you can be sitting on a chair or sitting on the floor) and make facial expressions, widen your eyes and yawn as you engage with baby. To change things up, start imitating baby’s expressions and parrot their conversational noises. As early as around 2 months some babies can seem to start imitating the adult. 

8. Sensory play: Gently rub suitably soft and non-abrasive objects against baby’s hands, arms, or legs – and even their face.

9. Activity Centre: Place baby on their back under an activity center with swinging objects of differing shapes, colors, and lengths. These are usually commercially available and need to be bought bearing in mind all the necessary precautions. 

10. Mobile watching: Baby can be soothed and entertained by a musical, melodic mobile, but this, like the Activity Centre, should never be the default solution for play.

For most of these activities above, the requirement for the adult is that they speak or sing in a sing-song voice, make faces at baby, and maintain eye contact, promoting back and forth interactions. The act of playing with an infant does need to be taken seriously because if it does not occur naturally there may be long term repercussions. It is a well-known fact that children who do not play and are not played with can be affected both cognitively and socially. Enjoy this time and remember that the joy of watching a baby develop is unequalled by anything.

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Learn To Play or Play to Learn?