What you need to know

  • For babies, play isn’t about toys and games, it’s all about connecting and interacting with others and learning about their environment.  
  • Having fun together is a great way to connect with your baby.
  • Follow your baby’s cues of when they want to play, and when they’ve had enough.
  • Play helps babies learn about their emotions and how to express them.  

Why play is important

Babies are born to learn and their brains develop through use, forming connections as they watch, listen, play, experiment, and explore their environment. You’re their first teacher, and they keep learning from you as they get older.  

Connections are made in the brain as you interact and play with your baby. Simple “serve and return” interactions - where your baby connects with you by ‘serving’ a movement, facial expression, or sound and you ‘return’ by responding to them and then waiting for their reaction - help make strong connections in developing brains. 

Serve and return

For babies, play isn’t about toys and games, it’s all about connecting and interacting with others and learning about their environment.  


  • helps you and your baby get to know each other, teaching your baby to trust and depend on you  
  • helps your newborn feel loved and secure, and the bond between you and your baby gets stronger    
  • gives babies different physical, sensory and cognitive experiences, and those experiences build connections in their wee brains  
  • helps them learn to understand words, and helps them learn to talk 
  • helps them learn what their bodies can do as they experiment with movement. 

By playing with your baby, you help them learn about themselves, you, and the world around them.  

Watching your baby and seeing how they play and react to play can teach you about their personality. Some babies will watch you with raised eyebrows and a serious face when you’re making funny faces at them, others will clearly find you hilarious. Their reactions will show you what they like.  

Follow your baby’s cues of when they want to play, and when they’ve had enough. Babies have different states of being alert. The best time to play with them in when they’re in a quiet alert state. If they become unsettled or look away, give them some time to calm and then they may be ready to play again.  

Playing together

Between three to 12 months, your baby develops and changes a lot. They become more mobile and active. Keep: 

  • making funny faces, smiling, poking out your tongue 
  • playing peekaboo 
  • sing, chat, tell stories, enjoy nursery rhymes/oriori together 
  • reading to your baby 
  • tickling, blowing raspberries, counting fingers and toes 
  • giving your baby things they can touch that have different textures, sizes, shapes and colours 
  • giving your baby different things to look at – outside, inside, different people and different places 
  • giving them time on the floor to play 
  • supporting them to explore their environment by being there to help them if needed, and to welcome them back for comfort.  

Try introducing them to safe sturdy furniture, balls, toys, and boxes  - they can help your child learn to crawl, stand, and walk.  

Baby play and emotions

Play helps babies learn about their emotions and how to express them.  


  • talking about emotions when you play “that toy is fun, it looks like you’re really happy!” or “I can see you’re trying really hard to put the block in there – I can see it’s making you feel frustrated” 
  • using touch when you play with your baby. Cuddles, tickles, stroking their skin or gentle massage can help your baby express emotions of joy and happiness when you tickle them, or anger if they don’t like it! Use words while they’re reacting – “that makes you happy!” or “oh dear, that makes you sad" 
  • making music with your baby can help them express their emotions. Banging on a toy drum is great 
  • playing with messy things like paints, goo, water, mud, and sand is a great way to get your baby used to the way different things make them feel. Babies can splash happily in the water, or smash sand castles. 

Babies learn by trying something over and over again, and they will get frustrated as they learn and as they move from activity to activity. Be guided by them when they’re ready to move on. Providing toys that aren’t too hard but aren’t too simple will help with their learning. Help them when they need help, but try not to take over! 

Imaginative play

Play helps babies get creative and develop their imagination through experimenting and experiencing new environments, activities and feelings.  

Babies are fascinated by faces – especially those of the people they love the most. Your expressions, voice and touch help them learn – and spark their imaginations.  

  • At around five months, play with them in front of a mirror. They’ll love watching their own expressions change, although they won’t understand they’re the baby in the mirror until they’re a bit older.  
  • When you read to your baby, choose books that have lots of bright pictures. Pointing to the pictures and talking about what’s in them helps your baby learn that those pictures relate to things in the real world – that, for example, the cat in the book is like their pet cat. 
  • Once they start crawling, your baby’s into everything, exploring all around the house – under beds, in cupboards, anywhere they can get into. When they do this they’re imagining what they might be able to find there and what they can do with it. 
  • At five to six months, babies put everything they can get their hands on into their mouths. Exploring through touch and taste is another way they expand their imagination.  
  • You might find your baby starts getting louder around this age too, seeing what happens when they use their voice, bang things together, or copy you when you make sounds 
  • Provide lots of simple toys to play with – pots and pans are great. 

All children are different, and they all develop at their own pace. If you’re worried about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to talk with your Plunket nurse or GP, your child’s early childhood teacher or educator.