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Dr Katie Heathershaw is a Melbourne-based paediatrician and the Fisher-Price paediatric specialist who has been providing expert care to infants and children with different health needs for over 23 years. Here, she answers questions mums and dads have asked about playing with their babies from birth to 12 months.
1. What should the balance be for structured and unstructured play for bubs 6 months onwards?
Unstructured play, or play that 'just happens', lets your baby take the lead and move at their own pace. This may be floor time, free play with toys, interactive games like peek-a-boo, sharing a book or a simple tickling game during nappy change.
Structured play is more organised and happens at a set time and place, and is often adult led. Examples include water familiarisation classes, music classes, baby gym classes, or storytelling groups at the library.
Although unstructured play should make up the largest proportion of babies' and toddlers' play time, structured play can also be fun. It can also be a lovely opportunity for older toddlers to play with their peers and for parents to meet other parents with children the same age.
2. I have an eight-week-old. I read each day to him and pop some toys in front of him, sing sometimes, and just generally talk to him. Is there anything else I should be doing? I feel like I am boring him!
For babies, the best toy is you! You'll never be boring to him, and he would probably be blissfully happy if you simply spend time smiling, babbling and singing to him all day.
Your eight-week-old is able to see a bit more clearly and may also be starting to discover his hands, so you can start to introduce colourful objects like the Fisher-Price™ Rainforest Friends Comfort Curve™ Bouncer, rattles and mobiles for him to watch and track, and to encourage grasping.
It is never too early to read to him so that is a great daily activity - look out for books with colourful pictures or textured pages. Introduce songs with actions like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Five Little Ducks. Tummy time for a few minutes several times a day will help strengthen his upper body, shoulders and neck muscles.
3. My 12-month-old has a lot of toys that light up and play music which I'm not sure is 'teaching' her anything. When do kids start imaginative play, and when/how can I encourage this?
Actually, all play is important for learning! The toys you describe that light up and play music teach her that her actions (eg. pushing a button) can have an amazing consequence: lights and music. This is an important early lesson in cause and effect! The music may also encourage dancing and movement and teach her about rhythm - a great opportunity for a baby dance party.
Babies are fascinated by the world from birth onwards and their brains and imagination expand all the time. Make-believe play such as mimicking phone conversations, tea parties and pretending may start from around 15 months.
Some other ideas to stimulate imaginative play include:
- a nature walk in the park, by the sea or to a farm, talking all the while about what you discover
- giving her paper and crayons for drawing
- singing nursery rhymes with actions
- playing real or homemade musical instruments together
- introducing open-ended toys, such as blocks which can be made into anything.
4. How can I get my little one to like tummy time? She just rolls over and refuses it! It takes half the time to flip her back over. She's six months and sits independently with a little unsteadiness and rolls from front to back and back to front.
I would say the purpose of tummy time has been achieved! In other words we recommend tummy time to strengthen the upper body, shoulders and neck muscles in preparation for rolling and sitting – so your job is done!
5. Could you please give me a couple of ideas for playtime with my six-month-old, something that is a bit different? I work three days a week so really try and make the most of my days at home with my baby and want her to be entertained while learning.
Your six-month-old will love to spend time with you; what you actually do during that time is less important than sharing the closeness and enjoying each other's company. As a working mum it is very important that you look after yourself and make sure you are getting the rest and down time you need. If you don't look after yourself you can't look after your daughter.
Remember that baby play doesn't need to be complicated! She will love it if you look at her, blow raspberries, make faces and sing songs. Place some different items on the high chair tray for her to explore: blocks, a wooden spoon and plastic bowl to bash, a cloth book. Tummy time can be more interesting if you introduce a mirror – she'll love catching a glimpse of herself, even if she doesn't know who it is!
If it's a nice day, take a walk to the park, talk about the sights and sounds along the way and set up a blanket under a shady tree for some outdoor 'floor' time. A few favourite toys, a soft ball to roll, and Mother Nature should make for a happy, learning, playtime!
For more activity and game ideas, visit the Fisher-Price website. The fun Play IQ quiz also helps you to assess your baby's level of development in physical, cognitive, and social and emotional areas, and suggests activities that are best suited to their development.