Smart Start

10 brain-building games to play with your baby

By Malia Jacobson

Playing with your baby yields more than sweet smiles, squeals, and coos. According to researchers and child development experts, simple, everyday games can boost your baby’s brain development, fostering growth in language, science, math, and organizational skills (called executive functions) along with social and emotional learning.

Babies at play are learning about themselves and their world, says Sarah R. Lytle, Ph.D., director of outreach and education for the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). “Babies are these natural scientists. They’re always playing games that are actually experiments. Every time a baby drops their spoon off their high chair, they’re figuring out their world and how it works.”

Here’s how to help your little scientist along with games that benefit cognitive development from birth through age 1.

Quality interactions with loving caregivers are vital to cognitive development in general – things like responding to babies’ coos and cries, gazing into their eyes, and making silly faces. “In a high-quality interaction, you want to see a true back-and-forth exchange between a parent and a baby. When the baby babbles, the parent responds like they’re having a conversation,” Sarah says.

By 4 to 7 months old, babies begin developing object permanence, or the knowledge that something still exists even when it’s not visible. Simple games like moving a cup just out of sight and asking your baby “Where’s the cup?” help your baby toward this memory milestone.

No, you don’t need to take your baby to spin class. But physical activity – think tummy time, crawling, scooting, walking practice, or parent-child swim – can boost brain growth. Researchers have found that physical activity benefits cognitive development, especially executive functions and language skills, in children from birth through age 5.

When your baby hands you a toy and looks at you expectantly, they’re initiating a game that develops social and emotional intelligence, says Sarah. Play along by responding with delight (“Thank you so much!), waiting a beat, then handing the toy back, and keep the back-and-forth going for as long as your baby stays interested.

Exposing babies to music introduces the concept of rhythm, which benefits mathematical skills, says Sarah. Encourage this learning with mini dance sessions as early as the newborn stage (holding your baby, of course), spending 5-10 minutes bouncing and swaying to the beat of songs you know and love.

Reading books filled with rhyming words, like The Cat and the Hat, help your baby develop phonological awareness, an important component of language and literacy, says Sarah. “Books work well for this because as parents we don’t normally speak in rhymes. And we tend to get into verbal ruts and use the same words over and over again. Books expose babies to words and rhymes you might not normally use.”

Just hours after birth, babies show a preference for gazing at faces, which boosts visual development and cognitive growth. Stanford researchers found that by 4 months old, babies facial recognition skills rival those of adults. A simple game like placing your face 10-12 inches from your baby’s face, then switching with another person or even a stuffed animal and waiting for your baby to respond, can help babies hone this important skill.

That shape sorter you may have received at your baby shower is great for developing spatial awareness and mathematical ability, says Sarah. Once babies get a bit older, building blocks can help continue that development. “With blocks, babies are testing their environment and really getting into some complex concepts related to math, like volume, distance, and how structures work,” she says.

“Parents sometimes think that in order to build language skills they need to ‘fill their baby’s bucket’ with a lot of words,” says Sarah. “But the back-and-forth interaction is what really benefits cognitive growth.” Try responding to your baby’s early coos and first words with a hearty laugh, a squeal or a surprised face. The sillier the better, since babies are often delighted by these responses and more interested in keeping the interaction going.

Playing together provides opportunities to boost social and emotional skills by helping your baby understand and process emotions, says Sarah. “When your child becomes frustrated, talking about the emotions they’re feeling is important. When parents say ‘I understand why that made you upset,’ they’re scaffolding (or supporting) important social and emotional concepts.”

Focused, attentive interactions with loving caregivers are the best brain-builders, says Sarah. When caregivers play with babies, they can make the experience even more beneficial by focusing on their baby and tuning out their phone and other distractions. “To create a high-quality interaction, it’s important to be fully present and really focus your attention on your child.”