PLAY IS THE PASSION OF YOUNG CHILDREN and the way they learn about the world of people and of objects. They become aware of body boundaries, of what works (balancing a small block on top of a much larger block) and what doesn't work (trying to pour all your water from a large pot into a small cup without spilling any). Play is essential for brain growth and development. As babies and toddlers experiment with toys, actions, responses, sounds, and explorations in their play space, their brain synapses get wired for understanding concepts such as space and time.

Teachers as Play Partners

Respond to a baby's burblings with delighted, encouraging words as you play "This little piggy went to market" with each precious wiggling toe. Babies learn turn-taking skills as they coo or babble bad and forth with you. They learn that despite being small creatures, they can have control over play situations as they thrust out their fingers or toes to signal that they want you to play the game again.

Games With Infants

Up and Down. Young babies who are not mobile will love it when you grasp their hands gently and firmly and lift them from a lying-down to a sitting-up position. Sing "Up and down, up and down" and slowly lift them up and lay them back down again.

A-Boom. Prop your baby of about 5 to 7 months old into a sitting position facing you on your lap as you slowly lower your head and gently touch foreheads while intoning "ABoom!" at each touch. In time, the baby will anticipate the game by leaning forward before your foreheads meet.

So Big. Babies and toddlers love it when you lift both of their arms up very high and exclaim delightedly "How big are you? You are so big!" Once they have learned this game, toddlers may well want you to lift your hands up high and let them stretch their arms upward as you exclaim, "So big!"

Pat-a-Cake. Between 7 and 9 months, babies learn to clap both hands together at the body midline. "Pat-a-cake, pata-cake, baker's man" is an excellent game to play with babies. They grin with joy as they enter vigorously into imitating the clapping of palms together.

Peek-a-Boo. Learning "object permanence" (that objects out of sight still exist and can be searched for) is an important cognitive task for the first year of life.

Games With Toddlers

As toddlers gain language, and you play interactive games with them, they will often call out, "More!" as soon as the game is finished. Their delight in you as a special playmate who is attuned to their understandings and their favorite games enriches their emotional relationship with you as well as their knowledge of interpersonal games.

Ring-Around-the-Rosey. Action games in circles are such fun for toddlers. Help toddlers learn to hold hands and keep the circle intact as you move slowly while chanting.

Hide and Seek. Turn a large cardboard box into a "playhouse" with an open door and a "window" cut in one side. Toddlers can chase one another in turn: One goes into the house and watches for the other to peek into the window. Then they switch roles and giggle as they go.

Sandbox Time: Toddlers enjoy playing side by side with a playmate, even if words are never exchanged. The sandbox is the perfect place for this kind of play as toddlers dig holes, fill pails, and enjoy the sandy experience!

Group Games

As you do group-time chants and songs, encourage toddlers to act out the story lines with gestures. Toddlers particularly enjoy "The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round" and "Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed." They practice "pretend" actions and increase hand dexterity.

Play is the intellectual food of young children that promotes their early learning. Your careful choice of toys and your own playfulness enhance children's early pleasures in play.