Parents and other caregivers can use activities to help infants learn during each stage of development. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed that children go through four stages on their way from birth to adolescence. Each stage builds upon another and defines intellectual (cognitive) ability. The first of these stages is the sensorimotor stage, which typically lasts from between birth and 24 months of age, though the actual age when each infant experiences a stage can vary. There are activities that should be done at this stage to encourage learning and development.
Piaget named the first stage of an infant's life the sensorimotor stage because the infant relies on his five senses paired with motor activities to learn how his body relates to his environment. Professor of psychology and author Laura E. Berk explains in "Infants, Children and Adolescents" that within this stage, there are six sub-stages. Providing activities to help the infant develop from each sub-stage to the next promotes learning and growth.
Sub-Stage One: Reflexive Schemes (Birth to 1 Month)
Infants start out by making movements that are based on reflexes, but the caregiver plays an important role in helping to develop higher-level brain activities. Meet the infant's needs of hunger and discomfort by feeding and changing her diaper. Pick up the baby when she cries. Hold, rock or sing to her to help her make the switch from reflex to intentional behavior. A study in "Pediatric Nursing" explains how music encourages non-nutritive sucking in premature infants. Play music to stimulate learning.
Sub-Stage Two: Primary Circular Reactions (1 to 4 Months)
The baby discovers he has control over actions that bring pleasure, such as sucking his thumb or cooing, so he repeats them (circular). The sub-stage is called primary because it encompasses the first motor habits to appear. Provide toys and blankets in a variety of textures, shapes and colors. Provide colorful mobiles over the baby's crib or changing table. Use toys that stimulate multiple senses at once. Shake a rattle, then move it back and forth in front of his eyes to develop tracking. As the baby begins to grasp, place toys in his hand. Interact with your child during feeding or changing, vocalizing each step.
Sub-Stage Three: Secondary Circular Reactions (4 to 8 Months)
The baby begins to discover that there are objects outside of her body (secondary). As in the primary circular reactions phase, the infant discovers that these actions bring pleasure and are worth repeating. Imitation of familiar behaviors begin. She may, for instance, swat at a toy or shake a rattle and then repeat the behavior. When you talk to her, talk face-to-face so that she can see your facial expressions while hearing your voice inflections. Echo the baby's babbling sounds to establish two-way communication. Place an unbreakable mirror within baby's view. Play peek-a-boo with the baby using your hands or blanket to cover and then reveal your face. Provide a safe place for the baby to roll or crawl. Shake a rattle behind the baby's head so she has to turn and reach for it. Give the baby squeaking toys and toys that rattle. Take the baby outside during nice weather.
Sub-Stage Four: Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions (8 to 12 Months)
Object permanence, which is a key turning point toward higher intelligence, is the realization that an object still exists even when it is out of sight. The infant begins to take intentional action and coordinates two or more actions to reach a goal: the beginning of problem-solving. Cover a toy with a blanket. Watch to see if the infant looks for the toy by pulling off the blanket. Provide household objects, such as large spoons and mixing bowls, to bang and explore. Place cushions on the floor for the baby to explore surface levels without getting hurt. Roll a ball back and forth. Practice filling and emptying containers. Touch the baby's nose, fingers and toes as you name each body part.
Sub-Stage Five: Tertiary Circular Reactions (12 to 18 Months)
Building on his newly learned skill of object permanence, his actions now bring about more exploration and imitation. The child will experiment and develop higher level problem-solving skills. He shook the rattle in stage four, but now he may throw the rattle across the room to see if it has the same effect. Through trial and error, he exhibits a strong curiosity and desire to learn and explore new ways to solve problems. Shape sorters and puzzles help the child to discover how different shapes fit into spaces. Play hide and seek with a toy. Watch the child hunt for it in numerous locations. Provide a set of nesting blocks for the child to fit inside each other and to take apart. Play with plastic stacking rings that allow the child to learn size and color patterns. Play in the sand on the beach or snow in the winter. Use a sock as a puppet to help baby transition into the final sub-stage.
Sub-Stage Six: Mental Representation (18 Months to 2 Years)
Internalizing problem-solving and invisible displacement, which is the ability to find an object that has been moved while out of sight, emerges. The child will continue to imitate actions, but will now add to them for the beginning of make-believe play. Expand upon your child's vocabulary by putting her words into sentences. As you read, point out pictures and vocalize words to match. Provide blocks for the child to stack, knock over and re-stack. Encourage the child to sing along with you. Practice pouring skills in the bathtub using plastic cups. Roll large plastic toy cars to experience the difference when rolled on a flat surface, down a ramp or through a tube. Play with soft dolls to imitate holding and feeding.