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The wonderful world of play

Discover how to make the most of playtime and why toys are a parent's best friend…

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A huge amount of action and reaction – or cause and effect – goes on in a baby’s first year. As she zooms through the stages of development, her brain doubles in size. At birth, she is little more than a bundle of reflexes; by six months, she can sit up, roll on her tummy, see colour and recognise your face.

From birth to two years, a baby's focus is on sensory stimulation: touch, sight, sound, smell and taste. It’s like they’re pre-programmed to learn – their internal satnav takes them on a journey of discovery, using all their senses. This is the time when they literally shake, rattle and roll, when things get touched, put in mouths, shaken, pushed over, gawped at and listened to. It’s how the very young attempt to understand the world, and it’s why they love a good toy to help them on their way.

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As babies grow and develop, their interaction with toys also changes. Between one and two months, they become interested in new objects. By three months, they anticipate events, such as being handed a certain toy when they’re on the changing mat, and can get to grips with cause and effect. They begin to interact with their environment – for instance, they become aware that a ball responds to their movements by rolling when they touch it. Toys help children to realise they have an effect on the world – they respond to a child’s touch. Babies learn that if they kick their feet, they can make the mobile wiggle. When this doesn’t happen – say, if the mobile is wedged against the wall – the baby is puzzled because the learned association is not followed through.

Toys are to babies what work is to adults. Without play, a child would not thrive in the way that without work most grown-ups would not. Perhaps most importantly, for a baby to play with a toy, an adult has to interact with him, to give him the rattle or ball in the first place. “That’s how babies learn: through interaction with caregivers,” says educational psychologist Angharad Rudkin. “It’s about that intense contact that mirrors behaviour and responses – playing tickly games and hiding toys. It’s absolutely crucial because how you interact with your parents in the first year of life can determine how your brain develops thereafter.”
This playful interaction with babies is crucial to healthy development, yet, even in the UK, some children are play-deprived. The result is that by the time they start nursery, they are unable to concentrate for long periods: they cannot engage with people or toys for long, they wander around slightly lost, unable to sit down and build a simple tower out of building blocks. “Those children who find it difficult to interact with adults and other children haven’t had the stimulation at home,” says Rudkin. “They haven’t learned how to play.”

Dr Deborah Weber is Head of Product Research for preschool toy manufacturer Fisher-Price. She oversees each toy from concept to completion, watching babies interact with the final product. Weber says that the key to her research is “the triangle of play”: the interaction between mother, baby and toy. “Mothers are a baby’s most important toy. We always encourage mothers to play with their babies every day – to bond with them and just sit back, watch and enjoy.” For Weber, the best part is watching the expression on the babies’ faces as they interact with toys – and the mother’s response. 

Alongside cognitive development comes the physical development of gross motor skills (large muscles in the legs, arms, back and shoulders used for sitting and walking) and fine motor skills (small muscles in the fingers and hands used for grasping). Again, this occurs in sequence: around two months, a baby can lift up his head on his own; around three months, he can roll on to his back; around four months, he can sit propped up; and from six months, he can sit up and reach for his cuddly toy. Any safe object can be used for play: give a child pots and pans and he'll be just as happy. 

Most parents are familiar with a six-month-old baby being more interested in the box than the gift that came in it. But Jeffrey Goldstein, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Utrecht and chairman of the National Toy Council, says this misses the main point about modern toys. “What toys do is promote and initiate play,” says Professor Goldstein. “If you see a toy, you have to play with it because it’s purpose-made to be played with.” Goldstein says that if a child can play happily without toys for a time, that’s fine – but toys increase these periods of play. Another advantage toys have over everyday objects is that they are tested for every possible risk. “There’s nothing wrong with ordinary objects; children have to learn about the world around them, and as soon as possible,” says Goldstein. “However, toys are a safer bet than anything else – they’re made to stimulate those senses that the developmental psychologists know are key at this stage – sight, touch and smell.” 


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