Why do toddlers love playing with mirrors?

Mirror Play

Why toddlers love mirrors.

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From as early as the age of three months infants will respond to their reflection differently to how they respond to another baby so we know that quite early on they recognise that a reflection is not the same as another person. However, studies that look at when children can reliably be seen to recognise themselves in a mirror found that this happens on average around the age of 18 months, with the vast majority of toddlers able to understand this concept by the age of two years.

Why mirror play?

Dr Ginni Mansberg is a GP, author and resident doctor on Channel 7's Sunrise program. She says that while there are developmental benefits of mirror play parents should just take the time to enjoy the way their babies and toddlers interact with reflective surfaces.

"Watching a toddler look at themselves is just a lovely thing for you to do," she explains. "Doing it with them makes it fun, interactive and can provide an opportunity for unstructured play.Unstructured play is categorised as play with no specific learning objective and its benefits can include protecting children from the effects of stress and, importantly, allowing parents to engage fully with their children.

Who is that?

Clinical and Coaching Psychologist, Dr Suzy Green, is the founder of The Positivity Institute, an organisation dedicated to research and application of Positive Psychology for life, school and work. She says that play in front of a mirror helps with development of self-awareness, something that is rare in the animal world. "Monkeys, apes, dolphins and elephants are the only other animals that have self-awareness," she said. 

But being able to recognise yourself isn't the only reason to engage in this sort of play. "Research also suggests mirror play can aid reading ability and build motor skills as they observe themselves."

A fun way to figure out whether or not your little one actually recognises the reflection in the mirror as being them is to do the spot test. Put a sticker or other easily removable mark on his face – make sure he doesn't notice you putting it there – then sit in front of the mirror with your toddler in front of you facing your reflections. If he notices the mark and tries to wipe his face to remove it then you'll know he understands that the reflection is showing his image. Another way to test this is to hold up a favourite toy behind him where he can see its reflection. If he reaches for the reflection of the toy you'll know he's not quite grasped the concept yet, but if he turns and tries to take the toy you'll know he understands what the mirror is showing him.

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Games you can play together

Some of the easiest games you can play with your baby in front of the mirror aren't really games at all, but just opportunities to laugh with one another. Try making funny faces and encourage your child to imitate you. Poke out your tongue, cross your eyes, open your hands put your thumbs on your temples and wiggle your fingers – anything you can think of.

This ability to be entertained simply by their reflection and yours and to find ways to enhance the experience is important for creativity. "Mirror play is a great way to get kids to engage by themselves away from a device," says Dr Ginni.

Another way to play with your child in front of the mirror is to sing, particularly songs that include actions that you can do with your child as they watch your reflection and try to copy the movements. Songs that teach things like body parts – for example, Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes – are great for this activity.

Dress ups and other ways to make mirrors fun

Dress up clothes and accessories don't have to be a perfectly matched collection of outfits that create specific characters. In fact, their creativity and imagination will be more likely to be stimulated by an eclectic collection of cast-offs from his mum and dad and wild hats and other accessories. Encourage your child to experiment with different options and check the results in the mirror.

You can add to the excitement of mirror play by letting your child draw on the mirror. This allows them to observe how altering the reflective surface changes their reflection, which adds another layer of enjoyment to the games. Bath crayons, suitable for use on tiled surfaces, will usually work on mirrors without leaving permanent marks, but it's best to test a small area first.

Finally, while all of this is fun and helpful for your child's development Dr Ginni stresses that the most important aspect of this, as with any play, is the interaction. "The biggest thing is that you're spending time playing with your child in a unstructured way," she says, explaining that having time together where you're simply enjoying each other's company is important for both of you.

Aptamil Toddler has not influenced the content of this article.