Learning to Play:

Activities to Encourage Exploration

and Problem Solving


                Babies are constantly exploring and learning as they interact with their families and surroundings. Providing young children with opportunities to experience new sensations helps them learn about their world and develop a variety of skills, including gross- and fine-motor, problem solving, and communication. Children with developmental delays, including some babies who were born premature, can benefit enormously from this kind of play. There are lots of things parents and caregivers can do themselves to enrich playtime for their babies, and many states offer services to help children with developmental delays and disabilities. Early intervention services are invaluable to families with children who need extra help meeting developmental milestones. If you are concerned about your preemie’s development, talk to your child’s doctors. They should be able to direct you to the services available in your area and determine whether your family qualifies for them. Physical, occupational, and speech therapists can help you understand your child’s challenges and provide you with techniques to overcome them. Whether you have a preemie, a full-term baby, a typically-developing child or a little one with developmental delays, there are plenty of things you can do to help them learn and grow while having lots of fun, too! Here are some ideas…

                Babies love tissue boxes! Have you ever seen the face of a kid who got hold of one and is gleefully distributing the contents across the living room floor? Pure joy. But tissues are not the ideal toy for babies, considering the trouble they run into when they try to eat them and the fact that other family members need them for their noses. So why not make a baby-friendly “tissue box” toy that they can empty again and again? You can use clean washcloths or cut pieces of colorful fabric about the size of tissues. Stack them the way tissues are arranged and place them in an empty tissue box. Then let the baby pull them out and give them to you or put them in another container. You do have to fold them after each time the baby plays the game, so you can take that time to talk to the baby about the colors of the cloth or to sing a little song. This is a simple game that helps the child learn to use his hands and follow directions: “Give it to mommy” or “give it to daddy”. He also gets to explore the look and feel of the colorful cloths. Adjust your setup to make sure your baby is sufficiently challenged, but not overwhelmed, by what you are asking him to do. For example, if your child is still learning to sit up and is unsteady, sit him in a chair with plenty of support while you play. If he is busy trying to keep his balance, he won’t be able to give his full attention to the activity at hand. 



Another activity you can do is to fill a box with household items for your baby to pull out through a hole cut in the top of the box. Of course, only choose things that are safe for you baby to have and stay engaged with her as you play together. The objects used in this activity are of necessity smaller, so choose them thoughtfully and don’t give your baby anything she might choke on. You can use a short piece of ribbon, a spool of thread, a small toy block, a piece of textured fabric, a cotton ball, the lid from a spice jar, etc. Try to choose things of different shapes and textures and make sure they can be pulled out of the hole with relative easy. Depending on her age, the baby may lose interest if it’s too hard to get an awkwardly-shaped toy out of the box. Give the baby the box and ask her, “What’s inside?” Show her how to reach in, grasp an object, and pull it out. Talk to her about what the thing is, what it looks like, and how it feels. Applaud her when she succeeds and adjust the game if you see that it’s too difficult. This activity develops problem-solving skills, teaches communication skills and, again, gives baby a chance to explore new objects.

                For children who have mastered the basic fine motor skills of picking objects up and letting them go again, you can play this simple game to help them learn to manipulate objects and navigate spatial relationships. Save some empty plastic containers from the kitchen (yogurt and coffee containers work well) and cut a slot in the lid slightly larger than the size of a smaller, flat lid from a jelly jar or spice container. Collect a few appropriately-sized lids and show your baby how to drop them through the slot into the container. Let him shake it to hear the lids clatter inside. If he’s able, show him how to take the lid off, empty the container, put the lid back on and drop the small lids through the slot again. You can make several interchangeable lids with different-sized slots. You can cut a circle in one and give the baby balls to drop inside. Talk to your baby about the concept of “in” each time he puts something in the container and “out” when he empties it. You can also talk about the shape of the lids and the sounds they make in the container - shake it loudly and quietly.

                There are many ways to help babies learn while they play. Simply interacting with your children and talking to them about what they’re doing enriches their experience and gives them chances to learn and develop new skills. And can be a lot of fun for both of you! - Sally