How does play lead to learning?

By Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell

During the first year, there’s no distinction between playing and learning. The more baby plays with objects in the world, the more baby learns about them. Take shapes, for example: baby learns that some things roll, and some things don't; some things stack into neat piles, and others don't. And size: baby learns that little things fit into big things, but that the opposite isn't true.

As your baby learns more about the world , you'll find yourself feeling proud of the accomplishments you're witnessing—and your baby will start feeling accomplished, as well. This sense of achievement is crucial for baby’s development, and for your own sense of pride as a parent. When you give your baby a sense of recognition and approval, you’ll see a response in the form of a smile or rapid hand motion. As you reward your baby for whatever has just been accomplished—even a simple game of peek-a-boo—you will be granting your child a positive self-image. This sense of confidence and optimism will help your baby grow into a self-assured young child, capable of taking on new challenges.

The more things are manipulated, the more is learned . Baby wonders: “What kind of sound will this make when I drop it in the bucket? How do these funny shapes fit together? My block tower fits better if I put the big blocks on the bottom, doesn’t it?” It’s baby's way of working out answers through play.

With each new discovery, fun and learning move to a new level. Toys with several activities and increasing challenges can build and strengthen new skills. These early (and sometimes shaky) attempts at mastering a skill require lots of practice sessions. As every new parent soon finds out, babies can push, pull, and grab. But in the beginning, they can't manage small and fine motions of the wrist and fingers required for more delicate maneuvers, such as pushing a small button on a touch-tone phone. Those skills will come soon enough.

One of the most important lessons for parents: be very careful not to expect too much, too soon. For example, if you give an infant a toy that only a toddler could interact with successfully, that infant will feel frustrated and stymied—not inspired and accomplished. By offering age-appropriate toys, you'll help your baby create a sense of learning and accomplishment.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.