By Sreedevi Nair
Close your eyes for a few moments and think of the best memories from your childhood.
What flashed in your mind’s eye? A trip? Role-play with siblings/cousins? Climbing trees? Playing in mud? A cricket game? Recess at school?
What is common to all these memories?
Strikingly, it is the element of play/playfulness that occupied so much of significance in our childhood. If we are lucky, it still does as an adult.
Mental Model of the World
The most obvious impact of play is visible in the enhanced motor skill development. Babies learn to use their fingers, hands, legs in varied ways that excite them while playing.
Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist noted that the period between 0-2 years lays the foundation of a child’s first attempts at interacting with the world around him/her. Infants use the information received from the environment to form small blocks of knowledge about the world (termed as “schema” by Piaget). The different building blocks are linked together to make a mental representation of the world.
Not surprisingly, most of this is done through play!
Every time a baby uses any of the sense organs, there are tiny connections made in the brain which help them make sense of the stimuli coming their way as well as navigate the world around them (Diamond. M, 2001). For example, infants learn to grasp, to shake objects, or kick a mobile and observe the effects. Eventually, the baby connects these small blocks of information and understands that shaking a rattle will create a sound or that kicking a mobile will create movement and sound.
What we consider as “play” is very serious work for the baby.
Play and Reciprocity
When parents involve themselves in the baby’s active play time, they are helping build additional such brain connections.
The “give and take” between the parent and the baby while playing is a part of “reciprocity”. A simple game of “peek-a-boo” (“Where is Amma? Here she is!”) is a time-tested game that never fails to arouse laughter in babies. In addition to the fun element of this game, from a developmental perspective, it teaches the baby “object permanence”. Object permanence is the idea that objects exist in the world even if hidden from our vision. So if the parent hides behind a couch and emerges, the baby learns that people can temporarily disappear and then come back. Several babies go through seperation anxiety and this can be particularly stressful experience for both parent and baby. When babies learn that objects and people exist even if they are not visible helps the baby to be calm and reduce the anxiety in such situations in future.
Reciprocal relationship can be explained simply as, the baby sending out signals about his needs, using verbal/non-verbal expressions, awaiting a response from the parent, and the parent returning an appropriate response back to the baby. This seemingly casual process is a very satisfying and meaningful exchange. Reciprocity sets the stage for the understanding and expression of social communication in the future.
According to Lev Vygotsky, the social interactions are critical components for cognitive development. The social and cultural influence through the playful give-and-take interactions with the parents, family members, relatives, and friends are essential to baby's language development.
Playful First Year
Play in the first year looks very simple and involves fairly simple activities that are actually hard work for little ones. As a parent, you can facilitate as many opportunities as possible for this to happen.
Below is a handy chart to explain what constitutes play in the first year and why it is relevant for that stage.
Play Behaviour in the First Year
Action: Putting own hands/objects in mouth, chewing on toys/cloth.
Learning: When a baby is mouthing a toy, essentially he understands the texture, taste and size of the toy and this in turn stimulates the brain areas corresponding to tactile (touch), gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) development.
Action: Shaking a toy/rattle.
Learning: This will promote hand-eye co-ordination, ‘fine motor skills’ (small movements of fingers), and the understanding of “cause and effect” relationships. (If I do this, this will happen).
Action: Moving/pushing objects around, inspecting an object, closing/opening a book or toy etc.
Learning: The visual (sight) and kinaesthetic (bodily movement awareness) abilities of the baby improve. Basic understanding of colours, shapes, sounds and movements become clearer.
Action: Stacking and tumbling the stacks.Learning: When babies stack objects/toys they learn about visual and spatial recognition of a certain form; it improves hand-eye coordination, the cause and effect relations when the stack topples over.
Babies need to indulge in a good mix of play activities to develop specific areas in their brain. A calm, stimulating and safe environment with your active presence is a good start!
- McLeod, S. A. (2018, June 06). Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
- Diamond M. Response of the brain to enrichment. An Acad Bras Cienc. 2001;73(2):211-220. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11404783.
- Reciprocity- A two-way Street https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/reciprocity-two-way-street/
- McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05). Lev Vygotsky. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html
About the author-
Sree has Postgraduate degrees in Clinical Psychology and Human Development. She has worked in the field of special education and disability awareness for several years. Teaching Psychology concepts and research methodology to young adults has been her choice of career for almost a decade now. She assures us that her toughest "work experience" though has been trying to train her strong willed Lhasa and parent her 11 year old son!
Image credits: Author’s personal collection.