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Child Development & Parenting: Infants (0-2)
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Toys, Songs, and Games as Learning Tools

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Another way you can show your baby love and affection is through providing them with toys and other fun playthings. As mentioned previously, toys do not have to be the most electronic, most complicated, and most expensive items on the store shelf to provide the best educational opportunities. In fact, the opposite is often true. While store-bought toys are often fun, the most versatile and interesting toys can typically be made at home with basic household and recycle bin finds.

boy and trainInvestigate your house with a baby's mind. What makes an object a great educational toy is its ability to attract and involve your baby's sense of hearing, smell, touch, sight, and taste. Different sounds, colors, textures, and even scents increase the knowledge absorbed into small, but quickly growing brains.

Using mirrors in games and songs can help babies' self-awareness and sociability bloom. You can also use blankets for swaying and swinging songs and games to help your baby gain a sense of balance and trust. Plastic dishes, such as bowls and clean margarine or whipped topping tubs, can serve as drums, tambourines, or stacking and building toys. Plastic and wooden spoons can be used as drum mallets and rattles. Hearty ribbons tied securely to a wooden or plastic handles can help with hand-eye coordination and grasping skills. Older babies can develop fine motor skills by putting stationary wooden clothes pins into a clean plastic milk jug. The added bonus of the rattling noise and ability to repeat the activity over and over (dump out the clothespins and start over) can be especially entertaining.

As infants get older and start playing more independently, you can make toys that build on abstract concepts like colors, letters, and numbers. Make color containers by filling a shoe box or other open container with safe objects of that color. For instance, a "red box" could simply be a basket with a red comb, a red toy red apple, a square of clean red velvet, etc. These items help reinforce applying abstract thoughts into real-life examples and help children compare and contrast.

You can also use magnetic letters and numbers that are large enough that babies won't choke on them to create words and thoughts on the refrigerator or other magnetic surfaces. Make your own books or use books from the library with a combination of connected letters, numbers, and pictures. You can also make albums of the important people in your baby's life by labeling pictures with names and titles, (for example, write "Annie" and "big sister" under a picture of your toddler's big sister).

Another way to allow toddlers to learn while they play is to let them really get down and dirty in a medium. Finger paints, whipped cream, homemade play dough, and sand are all inexpensive creative tactile (the sense of touch) outlets. Obviously, make certain that materials are non-toxic and not dangerous if accidentally ingested. Babies and toddlers will love the different textures slipping and goo-ing between their fingers while they practice their fine motor skills and creativity.

Other wonderful educational "toys" are games, rhymes, songs, poems, and stories. Age-old games like "patty cake" and "London Bridge" can help develop language, motor, and social skills. Plus, these games allow you to shift gears and act silly for a willing and appreciative audience (the sillier you act, the more your child will laugh). You can develop new games by mixing your own movements and sounds in your interactions with your baby, or go to your public library or local bookstore for ideas.