Developing your baby's social and emotional skills through play

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 Photo: Getty Images

Here are some great ideas to help encourage your baby's social and emotional development through play. 

Role play in the home

You are your baby's role model – they observe everything you do and say, and will try to imitate the activities you (and other family members) do. Role play has social, emotional and cognitive benefits for your baby … and is lots of fun!

At first, your baby will explore role play by imitating tasks they see you do every day, such as talking on the phone, posting a letter, or brushing your hair. Later, they may play more elaborate games that involve you, like making you a pretend cup of tea. Playing along is a lovely bonding experience and builds your baby's social awareness.

Role play also stimulates your baby's imagination, and develops their language and emotional skills. For example, when you baby takes on the role of cook in a play kitchen, they have decided on a purposeful activity and are now carrying it out in a confident manner. They'll feel a sense of satisfaction as they complete their task and may babble to themselves about what they are doing.

Ideas for role play:

  • Basket of everyday objects for role play – utensils; brush; wallet.
  • Toys that your baby can use for role play – toy mobile phone; set of plastic 'keys', tea set.
  • Practise role play in different locations – at home, in the garden or at the park.

Object permanence

Object permanence is the understanding that an object or person continues to exist, even when it cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed. It's an important cognitive development milestone in your baby's cognitive development, and occurs around five months of age.

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You can tell if your baby has developed object permanence by their reaction to certain situations. For example, a young baby will drop a toy and not look for it – out of sight, out of mind. But if an older baby drops a toy, they'll look to see where it fell. They realise the toy exists even though they can't see it any more.

Babies who have developed object permanence will enjoy playing hiding games such as peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek. Your baby will love finding you under a scarf, and they will love hiding from you around the corner. These playful activities are also great for building social skills.

Ideas for babies with object permanence:

  • Jack in the box
  • Finger or hand puppets (hide then reappear)
  • Items to hide under like a scarf or hat
  • Little toys in a discovery bag.

Introducing animals

From pretend play to studying picture books and meeting live animals, your baby will be fascinated by creatures great and small!

Pretending to be animals stimulates your baby's creativity and imagination. Prowl like a lion, fly like a bird, or slither along like a snake. Don't forget the animal sounds to go with your movements. Your baby will find these animal walks and sounds entertaining and try to roar, tweet and hiss like you. Making these noises is a great way to learn new sounds.

Studying animal books builds vocabulary as you describe each creature's size, colour and characteristics. It aids comprehension, too – even before your older baby can form words, they will understand when you ask, "What sound does the tiger make?" and may even growl back at you!

Meeting live animals is wondrous, especially if you don't have a pet. If the owner is willing, show your baby a gentle dog up close and help them pat it. Describe the animal: "Look at the dog's tongue hanging out, it's pink! Feel his beautiful fur, it's so soft." This is a simple social interaction that also teaches new language.

Ideas:

  • Petting zoos with baby animals
  • Animal books or flash cards
  • Animal songs – 'Baa baa black sheep' and 'Old Macdonald had a farm'.

Sensory Soothing toys

Familiar objects make your baby feel safe and secure when they're out of their comfort zone. Whether it's napping in a different environment or being looked after by someone new, a soft and squishy toy can provide emotional support to make these occasions less stressful.

A cuddly toy your baby can explore using touch and sound will help relax and soothe them in a daunting situation. They'll gain comfort as they feel the texture of a plush toy or stroke the ribbons on a sensory blanket. Soft toys that also play soft music or gently vibrate can assist with the calming process.

Make your baby's soothing toy a part of their routine – a sign that it's time to relax or nap. You might say, "Let's get your elephant and have some quiet time" or "I'll turn on your mobile so you can listen to your music" as you pop them into their cot.

Ideas for sensory soothing:

  • Soft toys that vibrate or play music
  • Sensory blankets with different textures (tags)
  • Musical mobiles above the cot.

Dressing up like Mummy or Daddy

Your baby is your greatest fan. From day one, you and your partner have been there to care for them, meeting all their physical and emotional needs. So it's little wonder that your baby looks up to you and sees you as a role model!

Babies learn so much from studying and observing the people they spend the most time with – their parents. They'll imitate you and learn from what you say (language) and what you do (actions). And yes, they want to act and look like you too! Your baby might enjoy exploring a basket of real-life accessories they associate with you (such as a necklace, sunglasses, small handbag), mixed in with toy versions of your mobile phone, make-up compact, or keys. Dressing up like Mummy or Daddy promotes creative play, teaches your baby about real-life situations, and strengthens your emotional bond.

Ideas for dressing up like Mummy or Daddy:

  • Toy laptop or tablet
  • Real-life dress-ups – your old hat, sunglasses, empty wallet
  • Toy mobile phones
  • Toy make-up compact and lipstick

Sensory seeking (textured toys)

'Sensory seeking' play exploring touch will feed your baby's natural curiosity. It's a wonderful way to develop this sense, and build social and emotional skills along the way.

Enjoy tactile discovery with your baby by creating a sensory bag. Encourage your baby to reach into the bag and feel each object before removing it. Describe how it feels as you touch it together. Include textures from both the natural and man-made world – a floaty feather, squashy sponge, rough pinecone, corrugated cardboard, fluffy wool, scratchy sandpaper, soft velvet, and hard wooden block.

Your baby will love exploring toys with different textures. Look for soft toys with a variety of materials (like bumpy corduroy, crinkle and fluffy fabrics), as well as textured rubbery discs they can mouth, and satin ribbons they can stroke. Other toys that promote tactile play include bouncy balls with soft rubber 'spikes' your baby can grasp; links of plastic rings; ridged teethers; small (secure) beanbags; and sensory blankets edged with ribbons.

Invite a friend over for parallel play with a playset or sandpit

Babies enjoy social interaction with their parents, but they are also very interested in peers. So having friends over for a baby playdate is a chance for your baby to develop their social and emotional skills, including feelings of self-esteem, confidence, happiness and excitement.

Being in the company of another baby is a valuable learning experience, as they observe each other's actions and behaviour. Even though they won't actually play together, your baby and their friend will enjoy playing alongside (as opposed to with) each other. This is known as 'parallel play'.

When planning a baby playdate, consider large toys that both babies can play with at the same time, but still independent of each other. The babies will have fun sitting or crawling in a paddling pool filled with lots of small plastic balls; or exploring with sieves, spades, buckets and plastic shapes in a sandpit or at a water-play table. For indoor play dates, try a large playset with fun interactive elements.

Who's on the phone?

Babies learn through imitation. As they watch you go about your day, their brains are taking in all the little details of what you do and what you say. So it's only natural they'll want to have conversations on the phone like you!

When your baby hears and sees you talking on the real phone, they learn about emotions and social interaction. You might laugh, sound surprised, use affectionate words, or animatedly tell a story to the person on the other end of the phone.

Pretending to chat on the toy phone is a fun learning experience that encourages imaginative and creative play, as well as stimulates listening and language skills. Introduce a game of 'Who's on the phone?' using your baby's toy phone – make ringing sounds; introduce new words when you discuss who might be calling; and then pretend to answer and have an exaggerated conversation. Your baby will soon enjoy reversing this role play by pretending to ring you up (or Daddy or Nana).

Read more about your child's development in areas of physical play and cognitive play.