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Learning through play

When babies play, they are learning about themselves and the world around them. Play encourages social growth, language growth, problem solving, and imagination. In this section you will find exciting ways to encourage your baby to use play to explore the world. Toddler with blocks

From bubble blowing to blocks, from stuffed animals to stacking toys, babies love to learn through play. You can help your deaf baby encounter the language that children with normal hearing experience as they learn from their play. You will find ways to expand everyday activities into creative play, and ways to support your baby's first attempts at exploring fantasy and imagination.

Play IS learning

Babies spend lots of awake time exploring the world through play. To adults, it might look like the baby is "just playing around." In fact, the baby is learning many new skills. For a baby, play is the best time for learning.

What is a baby learning while she mouths a toy or kicks her mobile over and over again? By the end of three months, a baby will make a little game of reaching and swatting at a mobile or hanging object. She discovers how to coordinate her hands and eyes to reach it. She learns that she can make the movement happen. These are big discoveries that stimulate her thinking skills. Let's look at some more examples...

Baby taking off sock

Great! When I get this off, I can chew on it and play with my toes!

What does baby learn?

  • The feat of finding his feet! This takes coordination of the eyes and hands and problem solving.
  • A baby's mouth is a "touch centre" that has lots of nerve endings. Mouthing tells a baby a lot about what he puts in his mouth
Baby playing with toy bucket

How am I going to get all these toys in the bucket? If I turn it over, can I dump them all out?

What is he learning?

  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Thinking skills as he solves new problems
  • That his actions cause things to happen
Baby under blanket

If I pull my blanket over me, I bet somebody will play peek a boo with me!

What does baby learn?

  • To start up games with others
  • That she can socialise with others
  • That she can take turns with family members playing "peek," smiling and laughing.
  • Conversations are a game of taking turns too, so she is learning to take part in conversations.
  • That people are there even when she can't see them.
Baby playing with keys

Wow, I leaned over and picked this toy up. When I shake it, it makes sounds! I can do it again!

What is he learning?

  • Large muscle skills
  • Balance
  • That his actions cause things to happen
  • That if he tunes in and listens, he can hear the sounds with his hearing aids or cochlear implant


For all babies, play is chock full of learning opportunities. When a baby has a hearing loss, families can use play to encourage the three L's...

  • Language
  • Listening, Looking & Communicating
  • Learning

The next sections will provide some guidance for the three Ls.

Play is a part of everything your baby does

Look at life from your baby's point of view. Everything is discovery and excitement when it is new. You are the tour guide, remember, and the interpreter. Now you are the play partner. What a lot you have to say to each other!

Toddler eating from jarPlay is eating. Mothers and fathers use games such as "Open the garage, here comes the car," to make eating into play. While eating and playing, your baby learns that cars and airplanes have places to go, that cars go Beep! and airplanes go Zoom! When your baby is using amplification, those sounds are natural and important. The ideas that go with the sounds also are important. Babies will initiate play at eating time, too, although a baby's idea of play may be different than yours. Your baby may find the sight of the bowl of spaghetti hitting the ground very satisfying, and the sight of someone cleaning it up even more entertaining. Remember to be the tour guide and interpreter. You may not feel like using language such as "Uh-oh, fall," and "Mommy will clean it up" at such a time, but your baby is paying attention, so take advantage of the opportunity.

Play is communicating. Every parent-child interaction, from "Peek-a-boo" to "Pat-a-Cake," from knee bouncing to lullabies, comes from a love of communication games, face to face, enjoying one another. If your child is signing, play these baby games anyway, and learn the signs that signal what will happen: "Want to play bounce?" "Let's play pat-a-cake." Early lipreading, mouth movements, rhythm and facial expression are learned during communication play. If your infant or toddler is learning spoken language, these games let you call her attention to meaningful sounds. This is a first step in learning to listen. For example, you pull the blanket over your face, wait a moment and then start calling, "Bailey....Bailey....Peek a Boo!" As this game becomes familiar your baby will be alert when she hears her name. A little later she will pull the blanket when she hears the familiar pattern of "peek-a-boo." Her reward for listening is your smiling face and chances to keep playing the game. A finger-play song like pat-a-cake has a special pattern or rhythm that your baby will start to recognise after you play the game many times. After you have played the game many times, try asking your baby, "Want to play pat-a-cake?" Wait a moment and see if the baby responds by showing excitement or moving her arms. Babies begin to show they understand around 10 to 12 months of age.

Play is bath-time. First your baby loves to just splash. Then come the floating toys, and finally the cups and sieves and bottles for filling up and pouring out. Water goes in and out. Cups are full and then empty. Your baby pours, and the water splashes. What a lot of concepts you have to label when water is the toy. "You are wet. Cup's empty. The water is all gone. Fill it up. Pour." Even though your baby will not wear his hearing aids or cochlear implant in the tub, keep talking. You are close by at bath time, and it is a special time for babies and parents. If your baby is signing, she will enjoy watching your animated expressions, gestures and signs as you talk about the feel of the water, the splashes, and the rubber ducky, and what fun you are having.

Play is hugging. Loving contact between you and your baby is just as important as loving words. The vibration of your body when you sing or speak supports your baby's understanding of sound, either by complementing what she hears from her hearing aids or implant or by feeling your voice. The safety in your arms lets your baby claim you, look around at other people and things, and know that you will be there. Babies love to be touched. Many experts suggest that massages can be a satisfying way for mums, dads and babies to get to know one another in the first three months of life. Beyond the soothing skin-to-skin contact, touch is a relaxing and nonverbal way for you to socialise with your baby. It can be calming for you both. Anne Krueger of Parenting Magazine points out that young babies use touch along with other senses to learn about their surroundings. Deaf mothers and fathers of deaf children often use touch to connect and communicate with their infants.

Play is riding. Bouncing on a knee, riding piggy back on shoulders, travelling safely strapped into a wagon, a stroller, a shopping trolley or a car seat lets your baby see whole new parts of the world. Moving from place to place is the beginning of "Where?" and "Let's go to the...?" and "Go again!" Think of all the places that you can name. If you are encouraging your baby to listen with new hearing aids, try using riding games. Here are some examples: Baby bouncing on Grandad's knee

Long ago mothers used the following rhyme during bouncing games:

Gonna trot trot trot to Boston (bounces)
Gonna trot trot trot to Lynn (bounces)
Watch out little girl/boy (moves baby side to side)
Cause you might fall INNNNNN. (gently moves baby down over knees and brings her back up)

Babies love the changing motor actions that go with this rhyme. They will anticipate getting to "fall back" and they listen for the exaggerated pitch change in "INNNNNN." You can hesitate a moment before the final line and final action to help your baby listen and anticipate what is next.

Horse back rides can be adapted to encourage listening. You can be in position for a bouncy ride and wait expectantly for a moment. Then tell your baby, "Let's go!" Make fun sounds like a horse or say "whee." When the action stops, stop the sound. Your baby will begin to notice that sound starts and stops. She will notice that the fun begins when we hear the sound.

Many movement games can be accompanied by sound or music to give your baby lots of chances to listen during play.

Play is watching and helping. Mum is washing dishes. Dad is folding laundry. Big sister is putting away groceries. The distance between watching an interesting activity and wanting to help isn't very big. Pretty soon, the baby who watches from a bouncinette will be the toddler who applies a plastic screwdriver to a cupboard hinge, sweeps the floor with a tiny broom, drops the carefully measured amount of fish food into the tank under close supervision, and stacks the toilet paper in the linen cupboard. All those objects and actions have names and qualities. "The floor is dirty. The hinge is broken. The clothes are clean. I am washing the car. Let's feed the fish." Whole sentences come from watching the family work. Be sure to talk about what you are doing, and the little one will begin picking up the language for these interesting ideas.

Play is creeping and cruising. When your baby can move independently, play becomes discovery of anything within reach. Your job and your language are those of a play partner and of a policeman. The language of limits as well as the language of discovery is important. "No, no. Don't touch" are part of learning, but they will probably not be enough. You will have to work at getting your baby to look at your language, when the objective is much more interesting and the idea of giving it up is distasteful. So now is the time for you to learn about the language of distraction: "Look at that!" "Here is something new." "Let's play with this." Redirecting the infant or toddler to a new idea or game can help her forget about the TV knob or the plant dirt (at least until the next time it gets her attention!)

Play is settling down to sleep. Bedtime is for sharing books and for experiencing lullabies that include familiar melodies, rocking and closeness. Even when a baby cannot hear lullabies, they can still be enjoyed through movement and vibration. Bedtime is for requesting a favourite stuffed animal and giggling when it comes flying down to tickle and cuddle. Bedtime is for crooning and gesturing to a special cot friend after the overhead light is off and parents are gone. Long before any of the words that go with bedtime, the comforting routines are there to build words on.

Everything can be a toy

Although babies don't play with each other at very early ages, they watch older children play with toys. What is a toy? Toys are what we play with.

Mum and Dad are definitely toys.

Toys are toys. When babies are in their first year, appropriate toys change with every month. From mobiles to keys to stacking cups to sorting boxes, your baby wants more and more challenges.

Safe household objects are toys. Big plastic lids and washed out plastic bottles can be as much fun as commercially made toys. Children playing with water

Water is a toy. Outside in the wading pool (with you right there!) or in the bathtub, water is fun from a very early age.

Grass, rocks and leaves are toys. When you go outside, your baby can see new and interesting objects from the stroller or baby backpack. You can choose what to pick up and bring closer, or maybe you just want to point them out and touch, but someday those sticks can turn into horses, and the rocks can become little houses on a cleared spot of earth, as your baby grows into a creative child and begins to pretend.

Clothes are toys. Nothing is quite as much fun as popping your baby's head out of the neck hole of a shirt as you say or sign, "Where are you? THERE you are!" Hands, feet, and whole bodies disappear and reemerge during dressing and undressing, and everyone knows that shoes and socks are designed to be taken off. This can be a good time for learning the names of clothing and body parts. As your little one grows, clothes will be fascinating toys for dress up and make believe.

Your baby already gets something special from play

Your baby is learning through every sense during play, even before you begin to participate with conversation. Early play is about feeling the textures of woolly blankets, smooth sheets, fuzzy bears and bumpy carpets. It is about looking at edges, bright colours, stripes and movement. It is about becoming aware of as much sound as your baby can hear and relating sounds to their sources. It is about smelling stinky things and making faces, or smelling wonderful things and trying to get them.

Your baby gets to communicate during play, because you are your baby's favourite toy. Your facial expressions and actions as well as your speech and/or sign say, "This is fun! This is exciting! What do you think?" And, your baby's expressions and actions tell you the same thing.

Early play provides reasons for feelings. When the ball rolls out of reach or the mobile stops turning, your baby feels frustration as well as relief when you retrieve the ball or wind up the mobile again. When a toy is very interesting, your baby feels contented. When it is hidden, your baby gets curious. It is not too early to talk or sign about those feelings ("Oh, you are curious. Wind the mobile. Make it go." or "You can't find your ball. You are upset. Mummy will help.") Feelings come naturally from play, and when your baby gets bigger, those feelings will be reflected in play with dolls, animals and action figures, along with the language associated with them. Later on, understanding the feelings of others will come partly from the chance to pretend during play with toys and with other children.
Children riding on dad's back
Play is the basis of problem solving. If the circle block won't go into the square hole, your baby will learn to try a different hole, then to match the shapes before trying, and eventually to name the shape he needs. If a toy disappears, your baby will learn to look for it, move the box or paper bag it is hiding under, or ask for it. Later on, as children play together and disagree, they learn to use their language to reach a compromise.

Play is the beginning of creativity. Although right now your baby seems to have only one use for a toy, putting it in her mouth, soon there will be doll houses, play dough, construction toys, dress up and block and truck centres. When the stuffed pig snuffles at your baby's tummy and the stuffed dog "barks", your baby is discovering the exciting possibilities of pretend.

Most of all, play is experience. Experiences in early life, especially exciting, interesting, or calming play experiences, give your baby things to talk or sign about. The language that accompanies play will become the language of the family, the language of the community and the language of school.

Planning play can add richness and variety to your baby's development

Although babies do a lot of playing on their own, some of the time you can plan their play. If you choose activities and toys appropriate for your baby's age and development, you can create special playtimes that stimulate your baby's development of communication and thinking skills.

There are plenty of books that can give you ideas about what your baby might be able to do at various ages, including the following:

  • Your Baby's First Year Month by Month, by Alison Mackonochie, is an exciting mix of pictures and information.
  • Baby Games: The Joyful Guide to Child's Play from Birth to Three Years, by Elaine Martin, organises games and toys by type and appropriate age.

Of course, most baby books are written for children with normal hearing in mind. But you can use the information for your own needs and those of your baby by following just a few, practical steps:

  • Think about the language that normally accompanies play. The books usually include that part.
  • Make as much of that language accessible as you can. Use your face and body, speak naturally and close to the child, learn the signs (if your baby is signing), quiet the environment and make sure the implant or hearing aid batteries are working. Use the language as you play. Give your baby opportunities to do the same. Try to be encouraging without being too demanding.
  • Choose just a few toys at a time for special playtime and alternate them to keep the toys and the language interesting.
  • Choose experiences and routines where games play a natural part.
  • Provide a lot of repetition. Babies enjoy it.
  • Provide variety by alternating experiences or by adding something very small that is new.

Your planning gives your deaf baby wonderful opportunities to learn through play.

Play changes as babies grow older

Babies go through changes in their play. When your baby is very small, toys and objects are things to touch and taste and grab and hold. By 3 months of age, your baby will recognise favourite toys, and will begin to reach for them. Pretty soon, toys with large parts that move or bend or make noise become fascinating. By 8 months, your baby is playing with toys in special ways: pulling, stacking, and pushing them back and forth with you. Before your baby is 1 year old, sorting toys with holes of different shapes, big single shape puzzles, and balls that roll away from you and come back are all a lot of fun. Soon, toys that look like real objects, like toy doctor kits, Toddlers watching some ducks dishes, and plastic work tables, will let your baby copy the actions he sees in the world. Before long, as a toddler, she will be making up sequences of actions: building a house, taking care of a doll, cooking a meal or planting a garden. Later on, as children begin to play together, the language of play will be very important. Children tell each other what they are doing and what roles they will play in their creative world of pretending. Early in the development of play you will want to provide and encourage the language that will be needed later.

  • When your baby can sit up, there is a world to see and sound to call attention to. When your baby shows interest in something she sees, talk about it. Suppose your baby looks up at you because she hears a sound. Maybe she can't tell yet what the sound is or where it is coming from. Tell her, "You hear that. That's the phone ringing. Let's go see who it is."
  • When your baby can stand, hands are free and there are things to reach for. They all have names. Tell or sign the names for things that capture your baby's attention. Deaf mothers often bring the sign into the baby's visual space by signing right on the toy.
  • When your baby can walk there are places to go and lots of language about getting there. Babies who start walking are interested in movement. Talk about what he is doing and where he is headed. You can also point out the uh-ohs for the spills he takes.

Your conversations will be about different topics, but the rules of the learning game stay the same. Make the language fit the play. Keep the conversation going. Don't hog all the turns. Have lots of fun.

More information from

Information supplied by:
Boys Town National Research Hospital and
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). 
Reproduced with permission. logo

Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.

15-Aug-2022 1:51 PM (AEST)