Fostering Interactive and Independent Baby Playtime in the First Year

During the early weeks of parenting, it sometimes seems like baby will never let let you put them down and certainly will never play with toys. Yep, your newborn is most interested in you. This will gradually change (at least by the time they are a teenager) and baby will build stamina for independent play. 

The first step to building independence is tuning into your baby. This enables you to both respect baby’s focus so you don’t interrupt them when they are concentrating and judge when they should be allowed to struggle to achieve their goals vs when they need your help. 

Tuning in involves communication and respect. Narrating our actions helps baby feel secure, transitions between activities, and sets the stage for communication. Asking permission when we doing things to baby communicates respect and encourages parents to pay attention to baby’s communication signals. There will be times when baby is allowed to communicate no, not now – “Would you like to do some yoga with me?” – and other times when they won’t – “I’m going to pick you up now and then it’s time to change your diaper.”

Building independence involves supporting practice opportunities. If baby is swaddled or held all the time, they will complain when you put them down. Unfamiliar things can be scary. Parents can help baby build up tolerance slowly and it is appropriate to offer lots of positions and free movement time as well as moments of awake independent play (or world observation) right from the beginning.

Hard things can elicit frustration. If baby is working in tummy-down time or wants something they can’t quite reach, they may complain. Not every sound means baby requires immediate parental rescue. Adults grumble when we are frustrated too. Calmly acknowledging baby’s effort may be the encouragement they need to keep trying, but of course, parents help when needed.

You can get started by offering baby uninterrupted play time with you very near by. Just observe baby and don’t interrupt their concentration. Let baby tell you when it’s time to interact again. This may be very short at first, but playtime will gradually grow and you may be able to move further away and get some of your to-do list done during playtime. Expect that for many months, you will measure these independent play times in minutes, but they can, and should, be offered multiple times per day.

Finally, baby really wants to be part of your world and that will be true for many years. Time spent watching you cook, wash dishes, fold laundry, or accomplish other household tasks can be quality time with baby. A baby carrier can be useful for some tasks, but for others baby might be in a seat or a on the floor. Eventually, your child can help with household toys and, as baby is capable of holding things, you might let them play with objects related to your task (Note: I Throw It; You Pick It Up is a game many babies enjoy. Usually parents tire of that one first).


Your Newborn

Play for your new baby will involve observing the world and experience new sensations.

Be the Narrator – Baby loves to hear your voice and explaining what you are doing for baby both entertains and promotes language development.

Change the Direction – Changing the head-toe orientation of baby in the crib, bassinet, or play-yard can encourage more balanced movement. If your baby’s bouncer or swing can be placed in different locations in the room, that will also discourage baby from always looking the the same direction when using them. Encourages baby to vary head and body position.

Change the View – Every week or so, move and change the toys or objects hanging on play gyms or mobiles. Keeps things fresh (remember mobiles are only safe over cribs before baby is pulling up to sit). Encourages baby to vary head position and point of focus.

Dance – Turn on your favorite tunes and dance with baby – fast or slow. Babies are wired for movement and music soothes as well. Soothes and stimulates, good mood changer.

Face Time – Baby is wired to want to look at faces and a favorite game may be simple conversation time with caregivers as well as trying to mimic you making silly faces and sounds. Supports social emotional and communication development.

Let’s Look at Stuff – Collect a few high contrast household items, hold them about a foot from baby, and look at them together. 

Name that Body Part – Gently touch baby’s body and name the body parts or just make silly sounds as you touch. Tactile input helps baby create a brain map of their body, naming supports language development.

Peek-a-Boo – Position baby so they can see your face. Cover your face with your hands or a scarf. Then uncover your face and say “peek-a-boo.” Variation – Cover baby’s face. Helps baby develop play and memory skills.

Texture Play – Stroke baby’s face or body with different fabrics and objects that have interesting textures.

Tummy Minute – Start working tummy time into your day by attaching a minute (or more) of tummy time to routine tasks such as diaper changes. You are working up to 1 hr over the course of the day by 3 months. Builds back, neck, and core strength; a precursor for many motor milestones. Variation: Get Down on the Floor – Tummy time for everyone! 

Baby Yoga & Play

Yoga & Massage – The activities taught in Baby Yoga & Play and Infant Massage are appropriate right from the beginning, but most babies are ready for class at around 6 weeks. Younger babies will spend a lot of time eating and sleeping during a class, but most activities are repeated over the series so parents can catch anything they miss. Too many benefits to list.

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Toys to Look at or for Parents to Demonstrate

Babies this age can’t manipulate, or even hold, toys, but they enjoy looking at shapes or having parents manipulate toys that make noise.


Your 3-6 Month Old

Continue games from the newborn stage and consider adding in a few more.

Cause and Effect -Turn lights on and off, play with the faucet. Exaggerate your actions and react to the the light or water. Baby will be captivated by the change and start to learn what caused it.

Little Art Aficionado – This is a great age to check out art museums, if only for short visits. Museums make for interesting visual stimuli and most museums allow baby to ride in a front carrier. 

Little Sight See-er – As vision improves, the world just becomes more and more interesting. Outings are a great way to engage baby and a baby carrier positions baby for a great view.

Noise Makers – Offer baby toys that make noise when they shake, drop, bang, or press on them. Often, household items like pots and pans are just as interesting to baby as toys with lights and buttons.

baby playing with hollow ball with circle holes
flickr user uzi978 / cc license

O-Ball – This toy is great for motor and sensory development.  (We must like it since it’s the only toy that get’s a stand alone recommendations).

Story Time – It’s not to early to break out picture books with baby. 

Supported Jump: Similar to supported stand but with baby straddling your leg, feet planted firmly on the ground or your chair. As you bounce your leg up and down, baby will practice jumping. It’s good exercise and sensory input for the legs and feet.

Supported Stand: Hold on to baby’s trunk in a standing position on your lap. Lift them slightly up and down to help them try to put weight on their feet. Some baby’s really love to jump. Helps baby learn what it feels like to stand.

Baby Yoga & Play

Take a Class – If you haven’t signed up for Baby Yoga & Play, music, or another baby class, now is a great time to try one. Baby’s attention span is longer and a 45 minute activity is much more doable for them. They are also more social and really enjoy seeing other babies and parents (grownups enjoy this too). You’ll learn activities in class that can be repeated for the rest of the week. So many benefits.

Teething Time – While actual teeth may or may not appear soon, babies this age like the mouth toys. Give baby teething rings that have different textures, e.g. bumpy or smooth. Gives baby a new sensory experience.

Touch play –  Blow raspberries, walk fingers up baby’s body, play tickle games, and make noises while you play. Baby’s sense of touch is very well developed and funny feeling and sounds will make them smile and giggle. 

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Toys to Grab, Bat At, or Shake

Baby’s ability to manipulate toys is limited, but they are working on it. Give them interesting objects that are easy to hold and encourage them to grab for toys just out of reach or kick objects with their feet. Once baby has a hold of a toy, there’s the tactile reward of touching and exploring the object, but they also love being able to make noises with toys.


Your 6-12 month Old

During the second half of that first year, your child may be a very busy little person. As they get mobile, museum visits or hanging out at a restaurant with friends may be more challenging because baby is always on the go. Try some of these games and play opportunities with your older baby:

Clap Back – Baby will learn to clap somewhere around 7-8 months. Play clapping games where you clap patterns and you follow baby’s pattern. Try doing the same pattern several times in a row and then change it. Does baby notice?

I Do What You Do – Whether banging blocks or rolling on the floor, this game allows baby to direct the play. When baby does an action, repeat it. Helps baby develop their joint attention and social connection with you.

Finger Play Songs and Rhymes – This is a great age for simple songs and with physical actions. Some like, Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, you probably already know. You can learn more in Baby Yoga & Play or music class or check out jbrary.com for ideas. Builds rhythm, pitch recognition, and language skills.

Not a Hat – Your older infant has begun classifying objects and one of the earliest jokes they enjoy is one we call “not a hat.” Anything that is not a hat doesn’t belong on your head and putting it there is therefore funny.

Obstacle Course – Use tunnels, cushions, yoga mats, toys under blankets, and even your own body to create interesting places to crawl around. Supports gross motor skills.

Rough Housing – Lap bounces, baby airplane or roller coaster, rolling, tickle* plays, and other horseplay or rough housing is fun for babies.  Pay attention to baby’s cues so you can tell when to slow down or stop. High energy physical play helps build proprioceptive awareness and motor skills. Communication during this type of play teaches about respect and consent.

Unwrap-it Why are presents only for special occasions? Babies usually enjoy the unwrapping and opening much more than the gift itself. You can wrap up anything – books, toys, rattles, Just keep an eye out for paper-to-mouth hazards. Build’s fine motor and cognitive skills.

Water Play – Bathtime becomes way more fun at this age because baby can sit up and reach for water toys. They enjoy splashing but also pouring water 

Yes Space – In studio classes, we work hard to make sure our toddler spaces don’t have hazards or things that need to be defended from little hands. That creates a relaxed environment where the answer to “can he touch that?” is always yes. As baby becomes mobile, baby-proofing household hazards and setting up a yes space allows you to continue fostering independent exploration and play.

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Manipulative Toys

Motor skills are really taking off right now. Babies this age enjoy clapping blocks and other objects together, stacking rings, putting things in holes, buttons, levers, and making things happen. Toys can be simple household objects or improvised like play scarves stuffed into a tissue box. Toys that represent animals, buildings, vehicles, and common objects are not yet used for pretend play, but can be useful for parent-child play and building naming skills. As baby starts to cruise and walk independently, push and pull toys are fun.

*Be careful with tickles. It’s very easy for tickling to cross the line into coercion. Many people giggle when they are uncomfortable and not everyone enjoys the sensation of being tickled.


More resources for baby play:

More ideas? Gymboree 1001 Fun Ways to Play: Quick, Easy Activities for Your Baby and Child (affiliate link, but East City Books carries this too).

Montessori in Real Life has a nice article on setting up play spaces and fostering independence.

Parent educator Janet Lansbury discusses this topic quite a lot. Full disclosure: I have mixed feelings on Lansbury and mentor Magda Gerber. I love their mindset of respect, communication, and fostering independence and confidence in baby’s. I just find their “method” a bit too rigid. I recommend familiarizing yourself with their tips, but that you can take what works for you and leave the rest.

Image copyright: Unless noted, the pictures in this post are of Jen’s daughter. Photos (c) Jennifer Mueller / Breathing Space.

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