Stimulating development – how household items help your baby learn

Baby play at home - learning to walk holding on to sofa

Babies love to explore.  For babies the home environment is their playground.   Family are their favourite playmates and items in their home are the props.  
It’s not a surprise then that recent research suggests that the humble household items could affect your baby’s physical and mental development.  
Professor Priscila Caçola from the University of Texas studied the effects of household items on babies' motor skills development.  

Motor skills – what they are and how they get acquired

Motor skills are any activity your baby does, that requires the use of muscles.  There are two types of motor skills, fine and gross.
Gross motor skills are larger movements your baby makes with his arms, legs or his entire body. So crawling, rolling over, and standing up are all gross motor skills.

Fine motor skills, also called dexterity, is the coordination of small muscle movements of the hand and fingers and the synchronization with the eyes.

Development of gross motor skills affect your baby's IQ.  This is because being mobile allows your baby to explore a wider world.  Your baby has now to make assessments of risk and remember to apply what he has learned before.

Fine motor skills show the ability to put thoughts into action and are also linked to mental development.

This is what Professor Caçola says about motor skills:

The development of motor skills occurs from the top down - first neck, then arms, then legs.  And from the centre out - first neck, then shoulders, then elbows and wrists, then fingers.


Genetic factors vs the environment

It is true that genetic factors affect motor skills acquisition.  All babies develop at a speed that is pre-determined by biological factors such as ethnicity, birth weight and size. 

It is your baby’s genes which determine how quickly he loses body fat and gains muscle mass and how fast parts of his body develop. These factors therefore influence when your baby is ready to acquire any motor skills.

But besides the genetic predisposition, the environment provides the opportunities to develop the motor skills that your baby is capable of.  A stimulating home environment will allow your baby to reach his full potential.

It can encourage your baby to engage in independent play.


The home environment is a place of learning through play

Don’t underestimate household items.  A home environment which provides space for physical development will also enhance the IQ.

The latest research highlights that many parents are unaware of the impact of the home environment.  The lead scientist says: "When parents buy toys, they're rarely thinking 'I wonder if this is going to be great for my child's fine or gross motor skills”.

But the study found that particularly providing enough space for the baby in the home to play or move around freely is of importance.

Ideally there should be a special space for toys where the child can choose what to play with and get it without help. 

But parental involvement is also required.  The study showed the positive influence parents exhibited, that regularly played  games with their baby.  Games included clapping hands, waving and singing action songs like “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”.   These activities helped practice movements and stimulated gross motor skills.

Baby entertainment: action songs help motor skills development


Household items that can help your baby develop motor skills

We thought it would be useful to compile a list of household items and the way they can be used to support your baby’s motor skills.


Gross motor skills

  • Floor padding for babies: Babies spend a lot of time of the floor because it’s the safest and most natural place for a baby to be.  Consider factors like comfort, slipperiness and temperature when choosing a suitable surface to play on.
  • Soft furnishings: Once your baby is able to crawl confidently, create a mini assault course from sofa cushions, pillows and duvets.
  • Cot bed: This is usually the first place babies learn to stand up by themselves, make sure everything is out of reach for the big day you find your baby standing in the cot.  Remove any toys and cot bumpers from the cot to prevent your baby getting entangled or tripping over.
  • Coffee tables are the perfect height for a baby that can walk but hasn’t yet mastered the art of balancing unaided.  Make sure the corners of tables are rounded or protected and the table is free of clutter.  Babies don’t understand that magazines slide off when they hold on to them.
  • Sofas provide a great squishy surface for cruising and climbing.  If the distance between coffee table and sofa is right it might be the first walk which your baby tries to attempt alone.
  • Puffs and footstool are great fun for climbing on and leaping off.  Make sure they are sturdy enough to not topple over and create a landing surface which is cushioned and free from clutter.


Fine motor skills

  • Cheerios are great for practising the pincer action of the fingers.  Cheerios can be picked up and eaten as a snack.  They can be transferred from a pile on the table into a bowl.  Or my favourite: they can be used with spaghetti stabbed into an apple as mini stacking rings.
  • Strips of coloured paper can be ripped into small pieces.  This action is easy for an adult but requires significant coordination for your baby. Collect the bits of paper and glue them onto a sheet of paper later to create a pretty collage.
  • Ice cube trays are great for sorting small items.  Mix up different cereals or pasta shapes and let your baby sort them.
  • Envelope windows: small babies enjoy the sound these make when they squeeze them in their hands.
  • Measuring cups: great for figuring out how they fit together, can even be stacked.
  • Colander and pipe cleaners: great for improving hand-eye coordination.
  • Cotton balls and empty Kleenex boxes are great for babies that just love posting things.
  • Ribbons and baking rack are great for learning how to weave.

Cheerios make great mini stacking rings

Simple household items can provide lots of stimulation for your baby.

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