What Can an Infant's Play Tell You About Her Physical & Cognitive Development?

By Stacey Chaloux
Activity mats can help infants learn about hand-eye coordination and cause and effect.
Activity mats can help infants learn about hand-eye coordination and cause and effect.

Your baby is amazing to watch. While she is playing, you will be able to see all kinds of development happening, if you look closely. What may seem like a game to you is actually a sign that she is learning new things all the time. Offering her opportunities to develop her physical and cognitive skills while she plays will help her learn even more.

Spatial Relationships

Infants are often putting objects to their mouth or exploring their toys with their hands and eyes. These are some ways they discover spatial relationships. As a newborn, your baby might track your face or a favorite toy with her eyes as you moved in front of her. She is learning about how people and objects move in space. By 5 months, she might turn toward a sound a toy makes or watch as a ball rolls away, which are also ways of showing she understands the objects' position in space. Around 8 months old, she might begin putting toys inside containers, and then dumping them out, beginning to understand which toys will fit inside another. This is a great time to let her explore in your kitchen with plastic bowls and containers. By the time she is 1, she will have enough understanding of spatial relationships that she may go behind furniture to look for a toy that has rolled under it, rather than following the path of the toy. To help her develop this understanding, show her how the toy car comes out on the other side of the couch when you roll it, or put a small ball through a paper towel tube and show her how it comes out the other side.

Cause and Effect

Babies begin experimenting with cause and effect as newborns. She will cry when she is hungry and learn quickly that is causes you to feed and comfort her. Then around 4 months old, she will begin reaching for and grabbing toys. If she shakes them and they make a noise, you may see her shake it again to see if the effect will be the same. She will have to test her understanding of cause and effect many times, so around 6 months old, you will see her begin to bang, throw and drop toys over and over just to be sure she knows what will happen. Around 8 months, it will be fun for her to watch you build a tower of blocks and then knock them down. The more noise they make and the more animated you are, the better the effect will be for her. You may also see her try to get you to play favorite games, like clapping her hands because she wants to do "Pat-a-Cake" or touching your hand to make you wind up her favorite toy again. This shows she is developing an understanding that she is the cause of that fun.

Object Permanence

By 8 months of age, most babies have developed an understanding of object permanence, which is the idea that objects still exist even when she can't see them. Peek-a-boo becomes a favorite game once she has developed this understanding. Hide a toy under a blanket and watch her lift it to look for the toy. At first, you will have to do this while she is watching, but by around 10 months, she will have a better understanding that the favorite toy must be around there somewhere, and she will look for it even if she's not sure where you put it. Object permanence is an important skill because it means your baby is able to hold an image in her mind, which will be important as she develops language skills. For example, now when you say "ball," she knows what you are talking about, even if she can't see it.

Imitation and Symbolic Play

Babies begin imitating their caregivers from a very early age. You may see her stick out her tongue after watching you stick yours out. Clap your hands and watch as she begins to imitate you. She will watch as you push the button to make a toy work, and then understand that she can do the same. As infants get closer to 1 year old, they begin to understand that objects have functions because they have watched those around them use those objects in particular ways. For example, now your baby might pick up the toy phone and instead of banging or chewing it, she will put it to her ear like she has seen you do. This is the first step in symbolic play, which as a toddler and preschooler, will develop into pretending and make-believe.

About the Author

Stacey Chaloux is an educator who has taught in both regular and special education early childhood classrooms, as well as served as a parent educator, teaching parents how to be their child's best first teacher. She has a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Missouri and a Master of Education from Graceland University.