The Gift of Play: Brain Building and Bonding With Your Baby

‘Tis the season for moms and dads to obsess and stress over which gifts are best for their kids — and which ones they can afford.

But for parents with little ones in the house, it’s important to remember that the best gift is absolutely free. That’s right, moms and dads (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, older siblings…), you are your baby’s favorite toy. Just spending time playing and bonding with your baby — talking, reading, singing, and smiling and making eye contact with her — is a gift with benefits that last a lifetime. And it’s fun!

The importance of play

For babies, playing with you is more than just fun. Your serve-and-return interaction shapes brain architecture, building and strengthening neural connections that lay the foundation for healthy brain development. Alice Callahan, author of The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Yearnotes that watching children play, and playing along with them, is also a window into their social and cognitive development.

This first video, produced by the Australia-based Raising Children Network, shows how playtime helps babies:

  • build confidence
  • feel loved, happy, and safe
  • develop social skills, language, and communication
  • learn to care for others and the environment
  • develop physical skills

On the other hand, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “the persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a ‘double whammy’ for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.”

Three Core Concepts in Early Development, a three-part series of short videos from the Center and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, explains how this happens. Scroll to the bottom to watch the three videos — Experiences Build Brain ArchitectureServe & Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry, and Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development.

Activity ideas for new parents

Playing with a new baby is easy. First 5 California’s parent education campaign sums it up: “Talk. Read. Sing.” See their parenting website for a variety of activities families can do together. Among them: singing along with First 5 California’s Pandora radio station and reading the popular bilingual e-book Potter the Otter.

The Raising Children Network has amassed a treasure trove of playtime activity ideas, tips, and videos. Here is their complete list:

Grow and Learn Together: 0-6 months

Grow and Learn Together: 6-12 months

Grow and Learn Together: 1-2 years

Grow and Learn Together: 2-3 years

Grow and Learn Together: 3-5 years

Grow and Learn Together: 5-6 years

Grow and Learn Together: 6-8 years

If you work with new moms and dads, encourage them to make time for lots of one-on-one play every day. Let us know if the activity ideas above are useful, and which ones are your favorites, by posting a comment below. Do you have an activity that’s not on the list? Share that too!

Three Core Concepts in Early Development

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