Ask I-LABS Outreach: How Do Babies Play?


We explore the ways that babies play and how you can join them in this installment of “Ask I-LABS Outreach.”

baby playing with toy

Imagine a child playing: what images come to your mind?

Perhaps a child running and giggling, or stacking blocks one by one, or crafting an elaborate game of make-believe?

But what about a baby? What do you think of when you imagine a baby playing? You might be thinking—DO babies even play?

Children play to test out ideas and to learn new skills, to try on new roles, and to build relationships. During play, children push at the edges of their capabilities and attempt new and difficult tasks. They take the time to puzzle out problems that they might not want to do in other contexts. For children, play is self-directed learning.

And no one has more to learn than a newborn infant. Babies are surrounded by a strange and wonderful universe, full of fresh sights, sounds, textures, touches, and smells. A world of new things to see, do, and learn through play.  

We explore all the wonderful ways that babies play in this installment of “Ask I-LABS Outreach.”

Born Playful

Within hours of birth, many babies are capable of imitating simple facial expressions. They may copy you when you stick out your tongue or when you open your mouth. Infants are born ready to learn from social interactions.

These back-and-forth exchanges are some of the earliest forms of play. By imitating others babies are learning that they can communicate and be part of the conversation—and that it’s fun.

Being part of the conversation from the earliest days of life helps babies to learn that they are part of a supportive, social community.

Learning Through the Body

How do babies imitate our actions from such a young age? Recent research from I-LABS shows that infants have a sensory map of their body represented in their brain. The sense of touch, I-LABS researchers suspect, helps babies connect with others.

Games that involve gentle touch or movement are fantastic ways to play with infants. Sing a song, recite a rhyme, or tell a story while tapping out the beat on your baby’s belly or gently giving his hands and toes a squeeze. Engaging your baby’s whole body will help him as he gets ready for bigger movements and full body play later in life.

Babbling Babies

By 8 weeks of age, many babies begin to coo and gurgle, and may be offering up their first smiles. Their communication skills are growing, and so can their play.

Imitate their sounds, and build on them. If your baby says “bah” you might say “that’s right, you have your bottle!” Or “yes! Let’s read a book!” Speak in full sentences and use infant-directed speech, or parentese. I-LABS research shows that this sing-song, exaggerated tone of voice can give babies a boost as they learn the sounds of language.

Musical Babies

As babies grow, rhyming and clapping or bouncing games, especially ones with music, helps them learn rhythm and pattern. Recognizing patterns is a precursor to language and math skills, and it also helps with body coordination and social interactions.

Baby’s Eye View

In the first 6 months of life, infants enjoy looking at new and interesting objects. Anything that is colorful or has a fun shape or pattern can be a great toy.

Try holding an object just within reach of a baby. Do she stretch out her hand and grab it? Around 4 months of age many babies begin to be able to hold rattles and other toys. At 6 months, while playing on the floor, try placing a fun toy just out of reach to see if your baby will reach or roll to get the toy.

You’re giving baby a chance to develop her eyesight and motor skills, while also having a fun interaction with you!

Baby Scientists

Almost as soon as they can grasp hold of an object babies begin to shake it, bang it, and mouth it. They’re eager to figure out how things work.

Exploring new objects with your baby is a great way to support their learning through play. Babies delight in figuring out how to make something move with the push of a button, or that they can put one thing inside of another. Follow your child’s lead, and let them do the exploring. Then share in their excitement when they figure something out.

In their exploration of the world, they are gaining motor skills, but also building confidence as they solve problems and learn that they can make things happen. 


About the Author:

Amelia Bachleda, Ph.D.

Bachleda is an I-LABS Outreach Specialist. She has B.S. in neurobiology from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where she studied how the brain and sensory regions develop.

About “Ask I-LABS Outreach:” This is an occasional series based on discussions the I-LABS Outreach team has with parents, caregivers, educators, and others interested in the science of early learning and how it applies to everyday interactions with children. Suggest a topic by emailing

See Previous Posts

How Can I Make My Child Exceptionally Smart?What’s the Big Deal About Screen Media?
How Similar is Theater to I-LABS Research?
How Do Babies Learn Two Languages at Once?
What are the Benefits of Reading to Babies?

Finding Surprising Moments to Read to Kids

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Links to Resources:

About Ask I-LABS Outreach:

Newborn Imitation paper

Infant Body Maps:


Amelia Bachleda, Ph.D.