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Children have a natural instinct to play and discover the world around them, quite simply because this is their original way of learning. The good news is that this drive to play is so strong, so engraved in them by nature, that no matter what we actually do, we simply cannot stop it. Children in the first years have their very own curriculum, and they are set out to complete it with a force of an earthquake.

This is exactly what happens when you see a baby chewing on the edge of the carpet instead of her new, expensive multifunctional rattle. Or when you find a toddler rambling through the kitchen drawers, or maybe catching him always hiding or sticking things in unthinkable, or even annoying or scary) places – like behind the radiator or in the electric socket! It might not look like it at first, but they are just actually completing a lesson: they instinctively find materials and opportunities around them which satisfy their basic urge to discover and learn.

Of course, only because they can do it by themselves, it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t have a role when it comes to their play – beside covering those electric sockets, of course. If we have a little understanding of how our children play, if we could get a glimpse of their hidden curriculum, it would be so much easier to set up an environment and provide them with materials which can make these experiences not only safer but also richer!

So, from time to time, we do like to bring up the question on the blog or in our conversations with you: how do our children actually play and learn? Of course, we don’t think, this is something we can answer briefly. We do realise that play and child development is a much more complex topic that goes way beyond a simple blog post or two. But we believe even just a little knowledge about it can go a long way: information can be, quite literally, a game changer! It can influence the way we look at our children’s play, and we can pick and adjust their toys and materials more consciously.

Three Stages of Play Under Three

While aspects of play can be complex, an educational psychologist, Anita M. Hughes – whose book, Developing Play for Under 3s* is probably as earmarked as any toddler book in our house – offers a very simple way of looking at play in the first three years of a child’s life. She invites us to take a closer look how children manipulate objects, and how it evolves over time. Children go through three very distinct stages under the age of three when they engage with the materials offered to them. The focus of their exploration is characterised by a very different question in these periods, and they look at and interact with objects in very different ways.

In the beginning, their focus of exploration is: ‘What is this object like?’ (4-10 months)

Then their curiosity shifts to: ‘What can I do with this object?’ (10-20 months)

And then, just around 20 months onwards the predominant interest is: ‘What can I turn this object into?’

In the first 20 months of their life, play is almost something that we, adults would call simply discovery, and it is after this time only when they start interacting with objects that we would more traditionally refer to as ‘play’. But let’s see how these stages evolve! In this post I will focus on the first stage (between 4-10 months), and in the second part of the series, we will take a look at the other two stages. I will also try to give some practical advice in choosing toys and materials for these months, too.

Age 4-10 months: time for sensorial discovery

Life for a newborn is purely a sensory experience. From the very first day on, baby uses her senses in getting accustomed and slowly making sense of this brand new world. She relies on smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and her slowly developing vision to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar, as well as to bond with her mother and father. After the first few weeks, when she has adjusted to life outside of the womb and feels secure that her most basic needs are met, she is ready to turn towards its immediate environment.

Somewhere between 2-3 months comes the first wonderful discovery of her life. She realises that she is equipped with the best tools she is ever going to have: her hands. She makes it her first plaything, and starts building some initial control over those chubby little fingers. As she is able to reach out and get hold of things more and more, and slowly develops an intentional grasp, she takes her first steps towards consciously exploring the surroundings.

When a child of 4-10 months age comes into contact with the object, her main question will be: What is this object like?

This is the stage, that Anita M. Hughes calls the ‘mouthing stage’ – so yes, pretty much that time when most of the things will find sooner or later their ways into your baby’s mouth! Many of us assume that it is something happening quite simply because of teething – and surely those sore gums have something little to do with it, too! But there is so much more to baby’s mouthing things than that! At this stage the discovery continues to be guided exclusively by her senses, and she tries to extract and absorb as much useful information as possible through them. Beside her skin, the tongue or lips have loads of nerve endings, and it becomes baby’s best tool to “read” things.

In this period, from 4 to 8-10 months, children mostly try to discover physical characteristics of objects, with a growing complexity:

How does it taste like? How does it smell? How does it feel like? What shape does it have? What is the texture like: smooth or rough? Is it soft or hard, cold or warm? Is it heavy or light? How does it sound like?

Just let’s imagine, you come across something new and peculiar for the first time in your life – for instance an exotic new fruit. What do you do? How do you react? Most probably you touch it, hold it in your hands, try to feel the texture, squeeze it a little bit, smell is, and if you are brave enough, you will even lick it or have a bite. To our newborns every single thing in their environment is new, like this exotic fruit, so this is going to be their way to get to know these things.

Picking your first toys

When you turn to us for advice to pick your very first toys, for the way children discover objects, we always suggest picking things simply imagining you are blindfolded. We, adults are tempted to buy things for how they look: we pick things because they have an appealing design, colour or a cute pattern. But for our very young learners it means absolutely nothing! They rather need toys and materials that are going to engage their senses. When you try to choose a toy, close your eyes for a second and ask yourself: does it have a smell, taste, temperature, texture, shape, natural sound? Is it something different what my child already has?

Unlike plastic toys, which tend to be cold, rigid and therefore somewhat dull from this perspective, toys made out of natural materials will quite naturally nurture the senses of a young child. At this age, children don’t need a lot of toys – one or two at her reach will be perfectly enough! But changing them, and offering a variety of materials – like wood, wool, cotton, silk, metal or natural gum –  textures and shapes will bring versatile experiences to them and a lot of opportunities to learn through playing.

Of course, as babies start sitting up and slowly moving about, pieces of clothes, graspers and rattles won’t be enough to feed their little minds. All of a sudden, they realise there is a whole new world opening up and a lot of interesting new things picking their interest and tempting them for a discovery. Of course, they are still mostly dependent on us bringing the world to them. At the second part of this developmental stage, around 7-10 months, treasure baskets, filled with everyday objects that babies see around them all the time, might be truly an exciting and satisfying experience for young minds. It is also a tool that will also help them transition onto the next developmental stage in their play.

Whenever they come across new things, their first question will still remains ‘what is that object like?’, but this physical discovery phase is going to be shorter and shorter over time. Around 10 months the emphasis will start shifting, and they will start exploring things in a more sophisticated way.

A little note on safety

Safety should be always a concern when it comes to our children and their toys, but – because of the way they interact with them – it is especially true for the very first year! We shouldn’t restrict the way they discover materials or stop them fully exploring and mouthing things. It would mean depriving them of important learning opportunities. But that’s why we should also make sure that whatever we offer to them or is within their reach, is 100 % safe.

When choosing a toy, always look for age recommendations, which are not only developmental recommendations by the manufacturers, but also your reliable guide what these toys are safety tested for. They can have small parts or more easily break if not handled correctly, which might pose a choking hazard to younger children. Make sure that the toys come from a trusted place and the materials used to make them are safe: in case of wood, for instance, they are made of untreated, certified wood, and painted with water-based, non-toxic, saliva-resistant stains and oils. Toys which are rigorously tested should always bear the “CE” mark within the EU.  If you are unsure, just ask the manufacturer or the retailer if they have the certification – it is better to be safe than sorry!

Photography: Thank you for making us this lovely set of pictures, @biczofruzsi (Instagram). They show so wonderfully how children play at this stage! All rights reserved. 

*Please note this is an external Book Depository link, by clicking it you will leave our website.