Power of Play - Learning through play at every stage (birth-12 months)

Based on content from ZERO TO THREE®: National Center for Infants, Toddler and Families.

Young Explorers (birth-12 months)

Playing with your baby begins by engaging all of his senses. His eyes, ears, nose, hands, and mouth are his tools. As he grows, he learns to use his body to make discoveries. He begins to reach and grasp (watch out for long hair and dangling earrings!), which allows him to explore toys in new ways. By the time he's 9 months, he will understand cause and effect: "I push the button to make the music play." He will also understand that things he can't see still exist. This means he'll be looking for the ball that rolled behind the couch and calling for you when you leave the room. As he approaches his first birthday, he will be a great communicator, using his gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and maybe even some "words" (such as "duh" for "dog"). Before you know it, you'll have a hard time remembering when he couldn't talk.

Close-up: Using All My Senses

Marsha's four-month-old son, Jared, loves his rattle. "Let's watch it fly," Marsha suggests. She moves the rattle through the air so Jared can see it. Jared's little arms and legs go like egg-beaters! When Marsha hands the toy to Jared, he grabs it and begins to chew. Jared then shakes the rattle and delights in the soft, tinkling noise. Soon, Jared gets tired and turns his head away. Marsha takes the rattle and continues to shake it in front of Jared's face. Jared closes his eyes and begins to wail. "Okay, I get it. Time for a break," says Marsha. She picks up Jared and cuddles him.

During this playtime with mom, Jared learns about:

  • sounds of words and the rhythm of language as his mom talks with him.
  • communication as he and his mom engage in a back-and-forth "conversation" and as his mom reads and responds to his cues.
  • his own self-worth as he sees how much pleasure his mom gets from playing with him.
  • imitation and cause and effect when he shakes the rattle like mom and hears the noise.
  • hand-eye coordination as he reaches and grasps the rattle.
  • objects when he hears the rattle's sounds, sees its colors, feels its texture, and even smells and tastes it.

Playtime for Babies

Back and Forth

Coo and talk to your baby. You can imitate her sounds and wait for her to respond. Encourage her to copy you, too. Show her that pushing the button makes the toy dog bark or how she can turn the pages of a book.


Try hiding behind your hands, a diaper, or a onesie as you dress your baby. Early on, he may show his pleasure simply by paying close attention. Then he may smile, kick his legs, and make sounds. By 9 months, he may pull your hands away from your face to "find" you.

Sing and Dance

Listen to different kinds of music and dance in different ways to see what your baby likes best. Sing a favorite song that has been passed down through your family. Don't worry about the sound of your voice - he loves to hear you.

Play Ball

Offer a ball with different colors and textures. Let your baby explore it with all her senses. Encourage her to see what else she can do with it. This will eventually help her learn to roll it, drop it in a box, and take it out again.

Q & A

Q: My neighbor's baby loves his mobile. He kicks his arms and legs and squeals with delight. I got the same mobile for my baby, and he hates it. He turns his head away and cries every time I turn it on. What does this mean?

A: Children have different levels of tolerance. While some can handle lots of sound and movement all at once, others find that overwhelming. It sounds like your baby is telling you that this mobile is more than he can handle. Try just letting him look at it without turning on the music. When he seems to be calm and enjoying that, try gently moving it so he can see it turn. If he likes it, you can try adding the music. Slowly and sensitively introducing him to more stimulation can help him build greater tolerance over time.