During the first months of life, babies need to practice focusing their eye muscles and reaching for, batting at, and grasping toys they see. During the first six weeks, babies need interesting black-and-white visual arrays placed to their side. Objects placed overhead lead to discomfort, since there is a pronounced preference during the early weeks for curling on either the right or left side as the baby lies in the crib.
Provide a safe, sturdy mobile over the crib for 4-month-olds. Make sure none of the parts of the mobile can be pulled off and mouthed. Choose a mobile that will respond easily to thrusting legs that keep the nursery birds in motion. It should also be reachable by little hands that stretch to swipe at the swinging parts.
To strengthen a baby's leg muscles, attach a soft yarn ball to a long string firmly fastened to the ceiling of your room. Place the baby on his back so that his legs can touch the hanging yarn ball. This will give Baby lots of practice thrusting and kicking his legs in order to enjoy the sight of the ball dancing in the air.
Babies need to practice pushing up from their chests. Research shows that babies are not getting enough prone-position time to practice strengthening the muscles required for this ever since the "back to sleep" method was promoted. When you provide frequent on-tummy floor time, some infants, by the time they are 7 months old, will be ready to push up so that their bellies are off the floor. The baby using his muscles to rock back and forth will soon be able to propel his body on his hands and feet!
Babies also need to practice building fine-motor coordination. Be sure to provide soft-cooked, colorful foods on the high-chair tray, so that Baby can improve dexterity. Bits of crumbled yellow cheese, wiggly spaghetti strands, soft macaroni shells, and Cheerios are all grist for a year-old baby with some teeth. Baby can practice grasping yummy foods of different shapes and sizes that are safe to swallow and nutritious, too.
Toddlers need lots of practice coordinating the muscles of their hands and arms. Use a wicker or plastic basket and provide soft toys, such as Koosh balls, plastic nubbly squeak balls, yarn balls, or small fabric cubes, for toddlers to toss into the basket. Toddlers are just learning the skills of pitching objects into a basket and may hurl the toys toward other children in the group. Be sure to use soft and safe toys. Toddlers who are learning to pull up to a standing position and cruise around a room while holding on to a support need special arrangements. A long, sturdy couch is ideal. Place a toy that interests a newly cruising tot on the couch so that she has to go a few steps while holding on to reach it. Clap for her and grin with pride as she reaches for and grasps the toy. Do not drag a toddler around to "teach" her to walk. Often, the scared child will go on tiptoe and cry if an adult tries this. A toddler will try walking when the toddler is ready! Provide sturdy supports to help. A small chair that a toddler can push in front of herself as she moves bravely forward is a wonderful prop.
Introduce a corn-popper toy that newly walking toddlers can pull along and listen to. They will enjoy walking as they hear the loud noises they are creating by pulling the corn popper behind them.
Toddlers who are able to walk without much stumbling will enjoy dancing slowly to music. Choose the "Skating Waltz" song for a slow rhythm. Give tots large, gauzy pieces of colorful nylon to wave and dip in the air as they sway and dance to the music. They are developing grace and surety about their body placement in space as they gently dance together. As their motor coordination increases, you can vary the rhythms. Soon your toddlers will be galloping like ponies, hopping like bunnies, and slithering on the floor like snakes!