Encouraging your baby's cognitive skills

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Water play

Water play is fun, and has plenty of developmental benefits too. As your baby dips a jug into water to fill it, they're practising eye/hand coordination and fine motor skills. When they splash the water with their hands, it's a pleasurable tactile experience. And when you laugh together as you sprinkle water on your baby's skin, it nurtures their emotional and social well-being. Water play helps instill confidence around water for your baby, which is important when they begin to learn to swim.

Ideas for water play:

  • Fill a crate with water and plop in buoyant toys, a small jug or bucket, and a sponge. Add a few drops of food colouring for extra fun.
  • Freeze plastic animals in food containers – turn the blocks of ice out on a tray and allow your baby to mouth them. They'll be fascinated as the ice melts to reveal a surprise in the middle!
  • Blow bubbles for your baby. They'll be mesmerised by the floating shapes! Blow the bubbles low enough that your baby can reach out and pop some with their fingers

Caution! Any amount of water can be a drowning hazard, so never leave your baby alone during water play.

Lights and sounds

Babies learn so much by looking and listening. They're also very curious, so exploring toys that unexpectedly light up and make interesting sounds is an appealing way to learn. Toys that play music or songs stimulate your baby's auditory development. They'll enjoy listening to the words or melody, and may even babble or gurgle along! Older babies will work out that either shaking, pulling or pushing different parts of their toy will produce a different sound. Toys like this teach your baby about rhythm, as well as sound concepts like high/low, soft/loud, long/short sounds.

Babies are also attracted to toys with brightly coloured or flashing lights. They'll be motivated to reach out and manipulate them by pressing, pushing or grasping, which develops their fine motor skills.

Another benefit of toys that light up and make sounds is that your baby will feel a sense of achievement when they manipulate a button, flip a switch or pull a cord to make something happen. This teaches the concept of cause and effect.

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Pretend or dramatic play

Pretend play (also called dramatic play) is a perfect chance to practise social, communication and emotional skills with your baby. Your baby will begin role play with simple tasks like talking on a play phone or putting on a hat. This will lead to more complicated games like playing doctors, acting like animals, or driving a train.

Set the scene for creative play at home – make a cave under the table; pile up cushions to create a mountain; turn a cardboard box into a car. Encourage your baby's creativity by joining in – roar like dinosaurs; fly like fairies; dress up for a day at the office.

Dramatic play helps your baby develop real-life skills and teaches them about social interaction. Pretend play toys, dress-ups and props will help stimulate their imagination as they act out everyday scenarios.

Ideas for pretend play toys:

  • kitchen with pots, pans and utensils
  • shopping trolley with plastic fruit and veg
  • tea set
  • handbag containing phone, make-up compact, and keys
  • playhouse with letterbox and doorbell
  • medical kit.

Shape and colour sorting

Using a shape sorter provides your baby with several learning opportunities. At first, they'll be attracted by the bright colours of the plastic, fabric or wooden shapes – they'll reach out to grasp and mouth them. They may also explore by tapping two hard shapes together to make an interesting sound.

You can then move on to demonstrating how to put the shapes through the holes, but try a few holes before you succeed in finding the right one. This helps demonstrate the challenging nature of the task.

Shape sorters present your baby with a cognitive challenge – they need to solve the problem of fitting each shape into the correct hole. They may be frustrated at times, but when they succeed, they'll feel a sense of achievement. Sit with your baby and gently guide them along.

Shape sorters also help develop memory skills and are useful for teaching shape and colour concepts. As you baby picks up a shape, teach them its name by saying, 'You've got the circle.

Introducing books

Reading to your baby from birth stimulates their brain and helps them understand the concept of language. Books are also a wonderful way to introduce concepts such as size, shape and colour; as well as the names of objects (like animals, vehicles, foods).

Books stimulate three senses – sight, especially books with colours and bold images; sound, including the rhythm of words and buttons or pages with built-in noises; and touch, with 'touch and feel' and 'lift-the-flap' pages. Interactive electronic books that your baby can manipulate to make different sounds and explore various textures, books are also a fun way to learn.

Whether the book is cloth, board or interactive, story time is a beautiful chance to bond with your baby. You'll strengthen your emotional connection as you hold your baby close, look at the book together, and discuss the words and pictures.

Book reading ideas

  • If your baby is too exhausted by the end of the day to concentrate, make book time during the day.
  • Make book time a ritual by reading in the same quiet, comfy spot each day.

Cause and effect

Cause and effect is a cognitive process whereby your baby realises they can do something deliberate to make something else happen. They are working out how to make objects function, which requires thinking, practice, problem-solving and concentration. Understanding the concept of cause-and-effect is an important milestone in your baby's cognitive development.

You can tell if your baby understands cause-and-effect by observing their reactions to situations. For example, your baby will learn that when they cry (cause), you will come (effect). Similarly, when they take a swipe at the baby gym (cause), the toys will move (effect). And when they press a button on an electronic toy (cause), it will light up or play a song (effect). These 'effects' act as a reward for solving the problem.

Cause-and-effect play also fosters emotional development. Your baby will feel confident and independent because they have made something happen all on their own. They may laugh and clap with excitement and pride – join in to support your little one's first achievements!

Stacking cups and toys that experiment with size

Building a tower with cups, or stacking rings on a post, are simple but rewarding activities that assist in several areas of development, particularly cognitive and physical skills.

Your baby's eye-hand coordination will develop as they grasp, hold and mouth the rings or cups, then try to deftly place them on top of each other. They'll have to concentrate on carefully stacking them, and use problem-solving skills to work out how to build the stack without it toppling.

Stacking cups or rings that are graduated in size teach your baby about 'relative size'. Demonstrate this concept by stacking a bigger cup on top of a smaller cup and watching it tumble; then stacking the cups in size order so that the tower stays standing (or the rings are in a graduated stack). This is a simple lesson in cause and effect, too.

These toys also provide the opportunity to introduce language related to size (small, medium large; big, bigger, biggest; small, smaller, smallest), as well as words that describe placement, like 'under' and 'on top of'.

Puzzles and shape recognition

Doing puzzles is mentally stimulating, challenging and fun for babies, children and adults alike! Encouraging your baby to explore activity puzzles will foster their cognitive development.

Offering your baby puzzle toys helps with problem-solving and concentration skills. They need to work out which puzzle piece goes into which spot, and manipulate it to fit. (This manipulation also develops fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination.) Your baby will have to persevere and try several different holes before they find the correct fit. Once they have mastered a particular puzzle piece, they may enjoy putting it in and out of its spot several times in order to 'perfect' it.

Choose puzzles with large, chunky pieces that are easy to grasp and manipulate. Activity puzzles may offer motivational rewards such as lighting up or making a sound when pieces are fitted correctly. Themed puzzles are also useful for teaching concepts such as shapes, colours, animals or vehicles, including the language used to describe each theme.

Colour recognition

By about five months, your baby has developed their colour vision. They can distinguish between colours and are most attracted to bright primaries.

Teaching your child the concept of colour means showing them objects that are the same colour, but also teaching them what colour is not (i.e. it is not the size, shape, name or feel of an object). This is an important cognitive step, as your child makes the link between the word 'red', for example, and an object that's red.

Once your little one has grasped the complex concept of what colour is, introduce recognition of different colours. At first, concentrate on just one or two colours. Reinforce what colour a toy or object is, but also what colour it is not. For example, "That block is blue. This block is not blue." Gradually move on to introducing all the major colours.

Ideas for teaching colour recognition:

  • interactive toys with coloured buttons or panels
  • soft toys with contrasting coloured fabrics
  • colour-themed board books
  • colouring matching with blocks or pegs.