3-12 months

Right from the start of her life, your baby’s brain is hard at work as she makes sense of the world and herself. Even when it looks like simple play, your baby is learning all the time. Here are simple and fun play ideas to support your baby’s cognitive development.

About baby play and cognitive development

Babies are active and curious learners, busy watching, thinking and trying to work things out. They learn and grow through new experiences, especially new play experiences.

Through play, babies develop the skills to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and work out what might happen next. These skills are all part of your baby’s cognitive development.

For babies, play is mostly about back-and-forth interactions with you. When you interact with your baby during play, you give your baby important information that he uses to understand the world. For example, a simple game of peekaboo helps your baby learn that when dad disappears, he comes back too. 

What to expect: baby cognitive development

Your baby is likely to:

  • look at things when you name them, from about eight months
  • talk to you in ‘coos’ and expect you to respond
  • be fascinated by older children
  • enjoy repetitive games and hearing the same story over and over
  • recognise people that she sees at least once a week
  • respond to your facial expressions – for example, if your baby sees a new toy and you smile, this tells her that the toy is safe and fun
  • explore new objects by putting them in her mouth.

From 8-12 months, your baby might look like he’s experimenting during play. For example, he might throw a bowl towards the floor and watch it fall, push over the rubbish bin, or throw toys at the wall to figure out how things work. He’ll test all toys and any objects within reach – cups, saucers and even pets.

This isn’t being naughty. It’s your baby learning about cause and effect – that is, ‘If I do this, that will happen’. It’s not surprising that your baby enjoys cause-and-effect toys – playing with them means she can push a button and something happens.

If your baby has lots of opportunities to test out the environment, he has the chance to learn more and more every day. If you set up a safe environment and always supervise your baby, he can roam and learn with freedom. 

Play ideas for encouraging baby cognitive development

At 3-6 months
Here are some fun and simple play ideas for you and your baby:

  • Read books, sing songs, and recite nursery rhymes together. Babies enjoy cloth books with different textures, flaps and puppets.
  • Teach your baby how to hold, drop and roll different balls. This helps your baby learn about how things move.
  • Play with rattles, bells and other toys that make noise.
  • Put toys around your baby to encourage her to move.

At 6-12 months
From this age, you and your baby can explore more ways to play:

  • Provide lots of fun bath toys for dunking, measuring, floating and pouring. Plastic milk bottles and food containers work just as well as shop-bought toys.
  • Give your baby toys that let him push a button to make something happen, or try activities like shaking or banging objects.
  • Play with stacking blocks and toys that your baby can roll or push across the floor.
  • When reading with your baby, use different voices for different characters or make the sounds of different animals.

You can give your baby a few play options to choose from, but don’t overwhelm her with too many. Let her take her time choosing what she wants to do.

It’s also good to step back and give your child the chance to work things out on his own sometimes. You can still help your baby’s learning by describing what he’s doing. For example, ‘That pot makes a big noise when you bang it!’

It’s also good to respond to your baby’s interests and share her delight when she discovers new things, however small they might seem. For example, ‘Wow! Look how the little red boat floats in your bath’.

All babies are unique and develop at their own pace. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to visit your child and family health nurse or GP. If your child goes to an early childhood education and care service, you could also talk with your child’s educators.

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Last updated or reviewed
23-05-2018

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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