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Play is big business these days. Browse the internet and you'll find all manner of classes for babies and toddlers, from swimming to singing to sign language. And rightly so, says Dr Pat Spungin, a psychologist specialising in child development.
"Play is work for children – it's how they learn about the world," she explains. "Take a game of Peekaboo, for example. When you hide your face and then pop back out again, your baby is learning about constancy – the concept that something exists even if she can't see it. Play is the basis of a lot of education, even when you don't realise it."
Easy does it
In truth, fun though organised activities may be for your tot, they're not a patch on the games you can play together at home. After all, you're the centre of her life, and her favourite playmate. So what should we be doing?
"The most important thing about play is that it's interactive," says Dr Spungin. "Babies and toddlers can play by themselves, but it's more fun if both of you are actively involved. It's a way of relating to each other, having a nice time together and helping her learn."
It's never too early to start playing with your tot – in fact, those first games, such as peekaboo or pulling funny faces, often come naturally. These teach that even if you're hiding, you're still there, and when she starts copying the funny faces you pull at her, you'll have proof that she's watching and learning.
Moving on up
As your tot gets older, her ability to play – and learn – is developing all the time. And as your little one enters her toddler years she can run around, clap her hands and kick a ball – and her imagination is developing too.
From around two or three years, you can start playing games of make-believe – perhaps she'll be 'Mummy', and you'll be the baby. "She's rehearsing social roles and developing her imagination and a sense of creativity," says Dr Spungin.
The games you play with your toddler will help her learn all about the world. Letting her fill containers with different substances, like sand, rice or water, will help her learn about weight and mass, for example.
You can also start to play simple word games together, singing action songs and playing I Spy. It doesn't matter if she doesn't get it at first – hearing the words over and over again and learning to fill in the blanks you leave will boost her language development.
She needs a variety of play to boost her skills, from language to science to motor ability, so make sure that your little bookworm goes out puddle-jumping every now and then, or that your budding Kelly Holmes sometimes sits down quietly with a book.
Learning to be independent
Interactive play is by far the best kind of play, but you don't have to make silly noises or wear funny hats all day – playing is also about learning to be independent.
Let your little one take control – she learns by getting things wrong, so stand back and let her experiment. "A lot of parents feel that there's an objective to be achieved. For example, if they're doing a puzzle with their child, they end up showing them where to put the pieces, but your tot needs to learn for herself," says Dr Spungin.
Let her play alongside you, and copy whatever you're doing. If you're cooking, give her a bowl and spoon of her own, and let her do some mixing.
If you're writing a shopping list, sit her at the table with you with crayons and paper and she can 'write' too. It's a win-win situation – you get the chores done without feeling like you're losing your marbles, and she gets the benefit of your company and attention.
'Mummy, I'm bored…'
It's tempting to think that being a good mum means filling every minute with a different, exciting activity. But it's just as important for your tot to learn to entertain herself.
You may feel guilty for not entertaining her every waking minute, but being a good playmate means teaching her to enjoy her own company. She'll have as much fun tearing pages out of a catalogue or pulling up grass in the park as she would at the latest baby Picasso art and craft group.
So let her amuse herself every now and then – you'll both reap the benefits.