DURING THE EARLY MONTHS OF THEIR lives, babies learn about play through the games you gently involve them in.
FINGERS, FACES, AND TOES This Little Piggie Goes to Market is a wonderful game that your babies will want you to play over and overusing both fingers and toes. By five months, they love it when you chant "Ah-h-h, boom!" as you lean forward and slowly touch foreheads together.
PEEK-A-BOO! Play Peek-a-Boo games starting when babies are about six months old. Cover your face with your hands as you slowly peek around the edge of a baby's crib. Chant "peek a boo!" as you uncover your face and smile broadly into Baby's eyes. When a baby is familiar with this game, try placing a very light cloth over her. She will pull off the cloth with a smile as you exclaim in delight, "There you are, lovey. Peek-a-boo to you too!"
PAT-A-CAKE At about eight months and onward, try molding each baby's hands into the motions for "Pata-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man." You'll see big smiles as babies begin to clap their hands together enthusiastically to participate as you chant the words.
RIDE WITN ME! Even though your year-old babies cannot reach the foot pedals on a tricycle, gently place a child on a trike, put your hands over hers, and give her a ride by scooting the trike around the floor. And never forget, gentle dancing and swinging in your arms offers just as much special enjoyment.
SING WITH ME! Making up simple chants that describe each game adds to the pleasure of the play. For instance, you might happily chant, "We are going for a ride" over and over as you pull along a couple of babies who are snuggled into a blanket-lined laundry basket. Chanting "Roll, roll, roll the ball" can encourage a baby to try to roll a ball as she crawls after it.
TODDLERS LOVE GAMES-THE ACTION, THE challenge, the fun!
CHASING AND FINDING Toddlers adore playing "You chase me!" Then they love to add the element of "I'll hide and you find me." As you play along looking for your hiding toddler, think out loud: "I wonder where Justin is. Where could my precious Justin be?" He may well call out cheerfully, "I in da cubby!" because, as you know, toddlers usually want to be found. They love a hug and a delighted exclamation of joy each time you "find" them-brave, courageous adventurers-in new hiding places or old ones. And then the game can begin again!
If you have a cardboard "house" in your toddler room, encourage two friends to take turns chasing each other. One can run into the house while the other peeks in the window to find him. Gales of laughter will ensue as the children glimpse each other. And often they'll keep switching turns, exchanging chances to be the runner or the peeker.
MARCHING Make sure you have plenty of pots and pans with covers to bang so everyone can march around the room and children can make lots of noise. Sing a marching song to add to the pleasure of the game. Some toddlers may also enjoy marching along with a push toy, such as a corn popper or a toy car on a string.
WORD PLAY AND HUMOR Toddlers love word games that change old, familiar chants and songs to make a "joke." For example, suppose you have sung "Baa baa black sheep. Have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full," hundreds of times. The next time you sing it, chant the words twice and then on the third time, vary the second line by singing: "Have you any carrots?" Toddlers will look up and smile as they see you grinning. Extend this kind of word play with older toddlers who know some verbal opposites by singing "three bags empty!" at the end of the song. Look joyfully mischievous and your toddlers will catch the joke and giggle along.
PLAYING AND LEARNING In your manipulative-play area, provide a variety of toys that challenge children a bit. (Many may require your participation-for example, setting up wooden train tracks with trestles and bridges.) Pegboards offer great opportunities for play and learning. Some have different shapes that help toddlers learn about squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. Some have identical pegs in assorted colors, and these can be used to create patterns. As toddlers play, call out color names as well as encouraging words.
PRACTICING TENDER CARE Young children love taking care of and nurturing play animals such as teddy bears or a velour monkey. Provide blankets and make a little sleep crib out of an old box so children can give their toy animals or dollies a cozy nap.
BE A LOVING PLAY COMPANION Toddlers will often drag you by the hand to share their toy play. They need your admiring glances for encouragement, your chanting words as play accompaniment, and your reassuring support when nesting boxes or puzzles are hard to manage. They love when you sing "la la la" as they hammer on pounding toys or xylophone keys. Just remember: Don't jump in too soon to help. Provide enthusiastic encouragement as they struggle, and if a toddler's cardboard tower is knocked over by a peer galloping by, be ready to provide a lap and a hug to refuel the frustrated builder.
Most importantly, become a tuned-in play companion. Understand toddler frustrations with a toy that's too difficult, notice which toddlers prefer which toys, and support children's needs to play in particular ways. Your perceptive role as a "play partner" not only enhances classroom harmony: It also makes play time a special "together time."