“I need you to soothe me when I’m upset, but I also need you to make life interesting for me. Toys are great, but the best toy in the world for me is… you!
When you stick your tongue out at me I copy you, and connections build in my brain linking together controlling my tongue and communicating. That will help me learn to speak.
When you pull faces at me I copy you, and connections in my brain make links between the expression on my face and communicating. That will help me to understand feelings.
When you play counting games, or singing games, or action games, my brain builds connections that help me to make sense of the world around me and to have fun.
As I get older, playing with me and helping me to play on my own or with other children builds connections in my brain that make it possible for me to think and plan, to make sense of the world around me, and to develop social skills.
And whenever I smile and you smile back at me I feel happy. Happiness fills my body with chemicals that help my brain to grow.”

Some suggestions:

  • Follow your child’s lead – if you join in their game, you are telling them that their ideas and decisions are important.
  • Try to ensure you spend some time outside every day. The outside world is full of interesting, exciting things for your baby, and being able to look across long distances is very important in helping their developing vision.
  • Get down on the floor for creative play – with models, dolls, blocks or just pieces of paper.
  • Explore shapes, colours and textures with your child. You could look at picture books together, or make simple toys and pictures with pens, paper, fabric, etc.
  • Encourage your growing child to play pretending games. Who will they be? Where will they go? What will they do there?


  • Play works best when you are on the same level as your child – on the floor together, sitting together at a table, etc.
  • As your child grows older they will need more time to play by themselves and invent their own games – but they will always love to have some special time with you.

At every opportunity during the day when a young child needs stimulation, play can provide it. For young babies this can include wakeful times after feeding, during and after nappy changes, and at any time when the baby is actively seeking stimulation.
Older children thrive on play, and love it when parents are playful without being intrusive.
Play can also be used for soothing, especially by stepping down from high-stimulus interaction through gentle play to full relaxation.

    • Play involving facial expressions builds brain patterns for recognising feelings in self and others. As the adult follows the lead of the baby, and then alternates leading and following in copying facial expressions and accompanying gestures, this also develops turn-taking and the ability to take part in conversations.
    • Tongue play (wiggling the tongue, blowing raspberries, and so on) builds brain patterns linking together tongue control, human communication and pleasure. This is pre-speech, making the baby more ready to develop speech and language.
    • Physical play builds motor brain function. This can include finger play, hand play, balancing games, dancing, crawling, jumping, running, ball play, skipping, and climbing.
    • Matching, counting, hiding, and giving-and-taking games all build pre-cognitive patterns in the brain. These patterns will underpin later cognitive function, so that the child will be able to think more effectively.

Research shows that face play induces neurotrophins in the baby, which activate growth of dopamine neurons, and dopamine promotes cortical growth. In addition such play produces reciprocated activation of the opiate systems in both adult and baby with elevated levels of beta endorphins – in other words, it is pleasurable for baby and adult.

It is very important that play is not confused with having toys. All sorts of ordinary objects can be used in play. And most importantly, play involves interaction between people. Resources for play can include, for example:
    • toys, books, musical instruments and puzzles.
    • everyday objects in the indoor environment, such as pans, wooden spoons, cloths (for playing peep-bo or tug-of-war games)
    • everyday objects in the outdoor environment such as sticks, stones, leaves, shells, flowers, and so on


Nicola Theobald, Lead for Early Years Partnerships

Kate Hubble, Early Years Improvement Officer

Kate Irvine, Early Years Improvement Officer, Early Years Consultant

Beth Osborne, Early Years Consultant

Ali Carrington, Early Years Consultant

Anna Morgan, Early Years Consultant

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