Learning takes place from the very beginning of an infant’s life. Having a plan to help babies learn is an important part of caring for them. Infants, however, learn very differently from older children. Therefore, you should offer activities that are carefully tailored to their methods of learning.

Teaching Through Caring
Much of an infant’s day involves caregiving activities such as feeding, diapering, and holding. Infants learn a great deal during these routines. You can foster language development by talking to infants as you change or feed them. You help them learn that they can affect others through your reactions to their facial expressions. When you smile and touch them softly, you are helping them learn to trust others and to feel good about themselves.

Learning Through Exploration
Playing with objects and people around them is another significant way that infants learn. When the baby is awake and alert, provide equipment, materials, and activities that encourage the baby to explore. Wait a minute, you say! How do you plan activities for babies? What materials and toys do you use?

To answer these questions, you will need to carefully watch the infants in your care. Observe them as you care for them and while they are playing. Watch what they are doing with their mouths, their fingers, their bodies, and the things around them. Then plan activities that will help them practice these skills. Keep in mind that each baby is different from the other. Two infants the same age may be at different stages of development. Therefore, it is important to watch each child carefully.

To decide what materials to provide for each infant, ask yourself these questions:

  • What objects interest the baby most?
  • Are there things the infant tried to do but couldn’t because they were too difficult?
  • Will the materials be challenging enough to attract the baby’s attention?
  • Are the materials, equipment, and toys safe?

Suppose you observe these children in the following situations:

Laura loves tapping a spoon at lunch time. She taps the high-chair tray, her bowl, and her cup. Laura is learning about the world through her sense of hearing. Help extend Laura’s learning during playtime by fastening wooden, metal, and plastic bowls to a board with tape. Give Laura a big spoon so she can bang on the objects. Enhance language development by saying the words that go along with the sounds she makes, “tap tap,” or “bong, bong, bong!”

Charlie also plays with bowls, but in a different way. He likes to pick them up and handle them. He touches the cool metal bowl to his leg. His fingertips stroke the grooves along the rim of the plastic bowl. He suddenly spies a place on the back of the plastic bowl where a piece of tape containing your name had been. It is still a little sticky. Charlie touches the sticky surface again and again.

Charlie is learning about the world around him through his sense of touch. He will especially enjoy a texture walk. Arrange fabrics with different textures – soft, furry, and slightly rough – on the floor. Glue a strip of contact paper to a heavy piece of cardboard so the sticky side is up. Place it on the floor. Add an old cookie sheet with smooth edges. Watch as Charlie crawls and walks over the items, experiencing the different feelings. Talk to Charlie about what he is feeling. Say, “Yes, it’s sticky,” or “That’s cold,” or “The fur is soft.” This will promote cognitive and language development.

Manuel is an older infant. He is developing the ability to co-ordinate the muscles in his arms and legs by trying to climb up your stepstool!

Respond by creating a safe, low climber. Make a ramp from sturdy cardboard or boards. Pad the edges with foam or a folded blanket. When Manuel has mastered climbing up and down the slightly inclined board, challenge him by increasing the slope (angle) of the board. Enhance his problem-solving skills by asking, “How can you get up that ramp? How can you get down?” Allow Manuel to solve the problem of getting up and down the ramp on his own through trial and error. But supervise him closely. Be ready to quickly lend a hand if he gets into trouble!

Chris is older still. She is trying to fit some shapes in a sorting ball, but is frustrated by the small openings. Chris needs a less challenging task to help her develop the small muscles in her hands and her eye-hand co-ordination. Make her a shoe-box sorter. Find some large peg-like objects, such as the bottoms of plastic film containers.

Make sure the edges are smooth. Cut some holes in the top of a shoe box large enough for the pegs to fit through easily. When Chris succeeds in getting the pegs in, enhance her self-esteem by saying, “Very good. You did it – you got all the pegs inside.” When dropping the pegs into the sorter is no longer a challenge, line the openings with some foam rubber. The foam will provide resistance when she is pushing the peg through. This task enhances muscle development and further develops eye-hand co-ordination. Because the task is now more challenging, Chris will continue to be attracted to the sorting box.

Safety First
Safety should be the main concern when determining what toys, material, and equipment to provide. Look the materials over carefully. Toys given to infants should be at least 1 5/8″ in diameter. Provide toys and materials that are easily sanitised. Make sure they have no small pieces or sharp edges. Never use balloons as toys. Many children have died from suffocation after inhaling a piece of a popped balloon.

Wooden toys should be checked continually for any splintered corners or surfaces. Items that are made of small, easily-swallowed pieces, such as a string of beads, should be tested often to make sure they will not come apart. Also, be aware of materials, such as paint or styrofoam, which could flake off or crumble when they are mouthed or chewed.

The key to providing quality activities for infants is close observation as they interact naturally with their environment. By responding to their interests and abilities, and by monitoring the safety of the materials you have provided, you are creating a healthy and challenging environment that will promote physical, mental, social, and emotional growth.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Powell, J. and Smith, C.A. (1994). The 1st year. In *Developmental milestones: A guide for parents*. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State