Physical play and development

Essential Baby recently ran an email program, inviting our readers to join the 30 days of #PlayIQ challenge, where they received an email each day with a playtime tip or idea that will help encourage development through play, covering the three main areas of development: Physical, Cognitive and Social & Emotional.

The campaign has now concluded, but we wanted to bring you this valuable information.

Welcome to 30 days of #PlayIQ Challenge

Like crying or walking or making sounds, children don't have to be taught how to play. That doesn't mean their parents and teachers aren't important in helping children advance developmentally through their play, for interaction with someone else is critical in the process.

Although play is important for people of all ages it is especially meaningful and important for young children. Play is their work, and they give a tremendous amount of energy and effort to it.

Experts say there are at least three ways in which play is important for young children: cognitive, social & emotional and physical. Learning occurs in all areas of development as young children play and the learning will stay with them throughout their lives. Read more.

Take the PlayIQ quiz to discover what kind of learner your child is and how you can best assist in their learning and experiences.

Tummy Time

Because your baby sleeps safely on their back, your baby needs to spend some of their awake time on their stomach to develop physically and mentally. While on their tummy, your baby lifts it's head, which strengthens the neck and upper back muscles in preparation to one day crawl and walk. Start off with just a few minutes at a time, building up to 10-15 minute sessions.


Ideas for tummy time play

  • Place safe objects and toys close to your baby. Move them from side to side in front of their face. This encourages them to move, lift and turn their head
  • Babies are fascinated by their reflections. Pop a mirror in front of your baby and see how they react to their new friend!
  • Get down on the floor with your baby and flip a book or demonstrate a basic puzzle.

Tip: If your baby doesn't like the floor, try tummy time on your lap, your chest, a rolled-up towel or large ball. This will still provide the same physical benefits.

Construction play - Hand-eye co-ordination

Coloured wooden blocks and stacking cups that nest together are the perfect introduction to construction play. Your baby will enjoy building and stacking from the time they can sit through to the toddler years. Blocks are sturdy for little hands to grasp; help develop fine motor skills; and form a basis for free creative play. As your baby learns to pick up blocks or cups and stack them, their hand-eye coordination (their ability to do things that involve your hands and eyes working together) will develop. Your baby's eyes will also be drawn to blocks or cups that are bright primary colours.


  • Demonstrate stacking for your younger baby – start with just a few blocks or stacking cups. They will watch and learn before attempting to build their own tower.
  • Use blocks to introduce the concepts of counting and colours. As you place each block on the tower, count out loud, "1 block, 2 blocks, 3 blocks!" or say, "Your block is red. My block is yellow."
  • Build your baby's social skills – have fun together as you build towers then knock them down. Laugh and exaggerate your shock when the blocks or cups fall to the ground.

Push-Pull toys for motor skills

Toys that can be manipulated by either pushing or pulling develop your baby's gross and fine motor skills. They'll use their hands to grip a handle as they push, or grasp a cord as they pull. And they'll strengthen their arm and leg muscles as they manoeuvre their toy along.

Push and pull toys also foster independent, creative play, as your baby decides to toddle off pulling their toy puppy on a lead, or push their lawnmower or vacuum. They'll have to navigate any obstacles they encounter, too.

Push-pull toys offer a physical challenge – at first, your baby will stand and hold a push-along toy, but later they'll walk as they push it, gaining stability as they take their first steps. Similarly, once your baby's on the move, they'll need to coordinate towing their pull-along toy behind them, while navigating their way forward.

Push toy ideas:

  • Supermarket trolleys
  • Strollers
  • Walkers
  • Lawnmowers
  • Wheelbarrows.

Pull toy ideas:

  • Animals on a lead
  • Vehicles on a cord.

Rhythm and music

Music play has wonderful benefits for babies – it fosters emotional and social connections; develops your baby's listening and language skills; builds gross and fine motor coordination; and teaches them about rhythm and beat.

Before your baby is mobile, you can introduce the concept of rhythm by moving their arms and legs in time to music, bouncing them on your knee, or clapping in time as you sing. It's also fun to put on music with a strong beat and march or bop around the room with your baby on your hip!

Once your baby can sit up, they can explore body percussion (you tap their body parts in time to music), toy instruments, and music activity centres. Play a CD of nursery rhymes or simple songs and clap or shake bells as you feel the rhythm of the music.

Ideas for rhythm and music play:

  • Tapping sticks
  • Shakers
  • Toy drums
  • Music activity centres
  • CDs of nursery rhymes and simple catchy songs

Eye tracking

Your newborn baby's vision is blurred and fuzzy. Their eyes haven't yet learnt to focus and don't move together, so your baby may sometimes appear cross-eyed. As your baby grows, their eye muscles will strengthen, and they will learn to coordinate their eyes so that they move as a pair without wandering.

This development occurs around three months, and means your baby can now 'track' objects. Later, your baby will reach for the object they are tracking, which is the start of eye-hand coordination.

Develop your baby's ability to eye-track with simple games:

  • Hold a high-contrast toy 20 centimetres in front of your baby's face. Once they've seen the object, move it slowly from side to side. Their eyes will fix on the toy and follow or track its movements.
  • Make your face the 'object' that your baby practises tracking. Test their eye-tracking ability by gradually moving your face from side to side. With practise, your baby will increase the amount of time they can track before they tire.
  • Roll a ball slowly back and forth across the playmat during tummy time, and watch your baby track it.

Floor play - Roll and Kick

The floor is the perfect place for physical play – from early on, you baby will enjoy kicking on their back, and tummy time is vital to develop strength in their neck, head and upper body. Once your baby is crawling, physical play strengthens their muscles as they practise their movement and coordination skills.

Non-mobile babies will enjoy:

  • Kicking and swiping at toys hanging from a mobile
  • Reaching for, grasping and shaking toys placed in front of them while on their tummy.
  • Rolling over and over on a playmat, especially to reach a toy they want!
  • Baby-gym style exercises, such as lying your baby on a mat, then raising their legs or arms up and down to the rhythm of a nursery rhyme.

Mobile (crawling) babies will enjoy:

  • Crawling through a tunnel – peek through at your baby from the end for an element of surprise!
  • Chasing and rolling a ball with you – choose a lightweight plastic or fabric ball, or try one with a bell inside.
  • Navigating 'soft play' equipment such as gently sloping slide and step shapes.

Ride-on Toys

Babies can have fun with ride-on toys from about nine months. Even before they can walk, your mobile baby may enjoy sitting (and later standing) astride a stationary ride-on. Gripping the handles will develop their hand muscles and give them stability, while bouncing up and down will strengthen their legs for when they begin to walk.

Once your baby has greater balance, they will start to propel their ride-on forward (and backward!). This movement will develop your baby's gross motor skills as they use their arms and legs to push and steer the toy in the direction they wish to travel.

Ride-ons build your baby's confidence and independence as they get to decide where they want to ride. These toys promote imaginative play, too – your baby might wave 'bye-bye' as they zoom off, pretending to go somewhere important all on their own.

Using a ride-on also teaches your baby how to distribute their weight, which will help them ride a trike once they become an older toddler.

Tip: Ensure safety around steps and other obstacles.

Pretend driving games

Once your baby is able to sit unsupported, they may enjoy pretend driving games. Your baby imitates all the activities they see you do, so this is a way to foster pretend play with a 'real-life' theme.

You can set up pretend driving games with a few simple props. Drive an imaginary 'bus' by setting out cushions for seats and taking turns at being the driver. Pretend to turn the steering wheel and sound the horn with actions and sound affects. Describe the journey with simple language and pick up soft toy 'passengers' along the way. Or create a 'car' for your baby using a cardboard box with plastics plate stuck on for the wheels and steering wheel. These games are a great way to stimulate your baby's imagination and creativity.

Your baby will also love exploring an activity centre with a driving theme – they can practise fine motor skills by turning the steering wheel, beeping the horn and even using the indicators! As they manipulate the toy, they'll be rewarded with sounds and lights, stimulating their sight and hearing.

Go to the playground – swings and slides

Regular playground visits help your baby develop physical skills and explore their sense of adventure. Seek out playgrounds with equipment specifically for young children – soft-fall surfaces, sandpits, low slides, rockers or see-saws on springs, baby swings with backs and safety chains, all preferably enclosed by a fence!

As your baby climbs the ladder to the slide and whooshes down the other side, or swings back and forth gripping the swing handles, or balances on a stepping stone, they're developing gross and fine motor skills, strength and balance. Some playgrounds also have kids' riding tracks around them. Taking your child's favourite ride-on toy, such as a push-along trike or first scooter, will further develop these physical skills.

Playground visits are a valuable social experience, as your baby can watch and learn from other children, and enjoy interacting with them. They might find a little friend to smile at! If your child prefers just to observe, allow them the space and time to get used to the environment.

Bouncers and walkers

A bouncer provides a safe, supportive and comfy spot for your non-mobile baby to observe everything going on in the family home. It gives your baby a more upright perspective on the world than lying flat on the floor! Select a bouncer with a toy bar that your baby can reach out and bat, to develop early motor skills and eye-hand coordination. Some bouncers also have vibration or swing modes to soothe, calm and relax.

Mobile babies will benefit from using a walker. Once your baby can sit, they can sit next to a stationary walker to explore its activity elements. As they spin, flip and press buttons, they'll strengthen their fine motor skills. The lights and music will also stimulate their sight, sound and touch.

Once your baby can stand, they can use the walker to develop gross motor skills, muscle strength, balance and coordination. The walker will provide your baby with security and stability as they practise walking, and build their confidence as they toddle off on their own!

Toys which encourage reach and crawling

By three months, your baby can grasp a toy if it's put in their hands. A couple of months later, however, they're capable of reaching for objects independently. Encourage your baby to reach and grasp by placing a selection of bright toys just in front of your baby while they're on their tummy on the play mat. They'll need to decide which toy to target, then coordinate their hand to reach out and grasp it, which develops both problem-solving and motor skills.

Once your baby can crawl, physical play strengthens their muscles as they practise their movement and coordination skills. Motivate your baby by placing a few toys in front of them, just out of reach. Once they can crawl a bit further, place a toy or ball at the end of a tunnel. Large stationery activity stations also encourage crawling, as your curious baby will need to navigate their way around the sides of the toy to explore its elements. Crawling after a ball is great practise, too!

Read more on Cognitive development.

Read more on Social & emotional development through play.

Lean more about your child's PlayIQ