How does play lead to learning?
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell
During the first year, there's no distinction between playing and learning. The more baby plays with the 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. Parents can hold out a toy for a baby can reach for and grasp—an accomplishment in and of itself, which deserves your happy congratulations. When you give your baby a sense of recognition and approval, you will see an immediate 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 peekaboo—you will be granting your child a positive self-image. With this sense of confidence and optimism, your baby will grow into a self-assured young child, capable of taking on new challenges with the blink of an eye.
For babies, play really is learning. It is through play experiences that they learn most about the world around them. And exploration is the stimulus for learning. If babies are encouraged at this age, they will become active explorers and learners throughout their childhood. Your baby learns about items by handling them, and the more things are manipulated, the more is learned. When 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 the answers through play.
With each new discovery, fun and learning move to a new level. When toys offer several activities with increasing challenges, babies strengthen and build new skills. These early and sometimes shaky attempts at mastering a new skill require lots of practice sessions. As every new parent will soon find out, babies can push, pull, and grab. But in the beginning, babies often 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 to learn is this: be very careful not to expect too much, too soon—or give baby opportunities that children their age can't be expected to fulfill. If, for example, you give an infant a toy that only a toddler is expected to be able to interact with successfully, that infant will end up feeling frustrated and stymied—not inspired and accomplished. By giving baby age-appropriate toys and activity centers, you'll help your baby create that sense of learning and accomplishment from a very young age.
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.