Play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. Help your child learn about who she is and where she fits in the world.



Right from the start of his life, your baby’s brain is hard at work as he makes sense of the world and himself. Even when it looks like simple play, your baby is learning all the time. Here are some simple and fun play ideas to support your baby’s cognitive development.

About baby play and cognitive development

Play is important for your baby’s cognitive development – that is, your baby’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and work out what might happen next.

Back-and-forth interactions are a key part of baby play. When you interact with your baby during play, you give your baby important information for understanding the world. For example, a simple game of peekaboo helps your baby learn that when you disappear, you come back too.

Also, playing with your baby builds your relationship and sends a simple but powerful message – you are important to me. This message is key to helping your baby learn about who they are and where they fit in the world. And it gives your baby confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world.

What to expect: baby cognitive development

At 3-6 months, your baby will probably:

  • talk to you in ‘coos’ and other sounds

  • listen to you when you talk and try to reply

  • smile at their own image in a mirror

  • reach out to grab things or put things in their mouth.

At 6-9 months, your baby will probably:

  • say ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ randomly

  • imitate talking sounds like ‘ma’, ‘ba’ and ‘da’

  • respond to their own name

  • hold their own bottle or feed themselves finger food

  • look at things when you name them, from about 8 months.

From 9-12 months, your baby will probably:

  • ​say ‘mama’ and ’dada’ at the right time

  • understand simple instructions like ‘Give it to me’

  • make silly faces or sounds to make you laugh

  • enjoy repetitive games and familiar stories.

Also at 8-12 months, babies might start experimenting during play. For example, your baby might:

  • throw a bowl and watch it fall

  • push things off the edge of tables

  • throw toys at the wall

  • test all toys and any objects within reach – cups, saucers and even pets.

This is how your baby learns about cause and effect – that is, ‘If I do this, that will happen’. Your baby probably enjoys cause-and-effect toys at this age too, like a jack-in-the-box.

Play ideas for encouraging baby cognitive development

Here are some fun and simple play ideas for you and your baby:

  • Let your baby take the lead in play. Be a playmate rather than a teacher. Respond to baby’s interests and share her delight in the discovery of new things, however small they might seem. For example, if she’s excited that a plastic cup floats, share this experience and get excited too.

  • Give your baby a few play options to choose from, but don’t overwhelm him with too many. Let him take his time choosing what he wants to do.

  • Help your baby put together basic puzzles from 12-18 months.

  • Provide lots of fun bath toys for dunking, measuring, floating and pouring. Plastic milk bottles and margarine containers work just as well as shop-bought toys.

  • Read books and recite nursery rhymes together. Young children enjoy cloth books with different textures, flaps and puppets. Be prepared for lots of repetition, which helps your baby to learn.

  • Give your baby materials that she can sort – for example, different coloured blocks or balls.

  • Give your baby toys that let him push a button to make something happen, or activities like shaking or banging objects.

All babies are unique and will develop at their own pace. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to visit your paediatrician or General Practitioner (GP). If your child goes to an early childhood education and care service, you can talk with your child’s educators to help you decide whether there are problems you need to have checked out.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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