Play gyms, activity gyms, play nests – these words all relate to one item, that is a firm favourite with babies from newborn up to about 12 months.
These play gyms and activity nests mostly come in the form of comfortable, quilted or softly padded playmats, sometimes raised at the edges with a space in the middle for baby (like a ring doughnut).
And these play gyms can be either brightly coloured or in soft, pastel shades. But don’t be fooled by thinking they are just snug and comfy resting places for babies to fall asleep in!
These activity gyms provide a plethora of visual and audio, a well as tactile stimulation for helping to develop young inquisitive minds. You can read more about the stages of cognitive development here.
Often decorated with well known and lovable characters, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, Eyore, or farm and zoo animals as well, they can consist of detachable, hanging parts that small babies can try to grasp. They tend to have parts that are crinkly, soft, scrunchy textures for baby to touch, squeeze and stroke.
Some come with bright twinkling lights and bells and others make funny sounds, or musical sounds, and some even do both.
You will often find mirrors attached to these activity gyms, so that your baby gets to find and see its own reflection, often providing hours of fun for babies and carers alike. All of this is extremely important for developing young minds. Babies are like a sponge, they are ready to absorb whatever information they can and boy – they can’t grasp it fast enough!
A lot of new research points to the first three years of life as being critical to a baby’s developing brain. It is a known fact that during this period, not only does the brain triple in weight but it also establishes thousands of billions of nerve connections. Astonishingly, at the age of three, a young child has twice as many nerve connections as many adults.
Therefore, in your role as a parent, or primary care giver, it is of paramount importance that you recognize this and understand just how much development is taking place inside your young baby’s brain from birth until the age of three.
At birth, children have most of the neurons (brain cells) they need for a lifetime however, these brain cells are not yet linked (or “wired”) together to form the complex networks that are required for mature thought processes to take place. And what happens is that in the early years, young children’s brain cells form these connections, or synapses as they are commonly called, very very rapidly.
One of the crucial ingredients to aiding these connections to form, is experience, and repetition. In a word, the more times you repeat something new, like showing a baby how to scrunch up a ball, the quicker these connections are formed.
Therefore, it naturally follows that the more positive interaction you give an infant or toddler, the more you are helping to stimulate young brains. Baby mobiles are also great for keeping babies stimulated and interested since they emit noises and often have motion too.
This stimulation causes new connections to form neural pathways and strengthens existing ones.
Playing with activity gyms, with all the bells and whistles that they offer or reading to a child, anything which allows a child to have positive, interactive experience, will aid your child’s brain development.
Although activity gyms can be used from 0 to 12 months or more, it is usually at around the 4 month mark, that your baby will start to gain more than just a passive interest in it.
This is because, babies will now start to play with objects (as opposed to just staring at them or the environment around them). Your baby is starting to gain growing control of his body as well as beginning to gain hand to eye co-ordination and increasing perception of the environment around them. So you can watch as your baby begins to enjoy objects by means of rather unco-ordinated handling and mouthing of them.
Later, at about 5 to 6 months, your baby’s relatively well-controlled ability to reach and grasp objects increases her interest in them.
Although your baby may explore them by means of mouthing and handling them, you will find that she starts to shake and bang them as well. This is also the beginning of her understanding of cause and effect, that is, that banging or shaking an object will cause a noise.
By around the 6th or 7th month, your baby’s hands and eyes are working together quite well now so that looking now also becomes part of the exploration process, as well as mouthing and handling, and her interest in toys and other objects is intense. Your baby’s ability to grasp and manipulate objects is developing brilliantly. Her fingers close on an object with decision, and she can lift one hand towards a toy, and bang two objects together. Do not underestimate the importance of these achievements. Reaching to grasp an object involves three joints in the arm and fourteen in the hand.
Initiating a reaching movement involves more than thirteen muscles in the arm and adjusting the hand to grasp an object use more than twenty in the hand.
So, as you lovingly sit and watch your young baby laughing and gurgling on the play mat or under the activity gym – do not underestimate the power of the changes taking place in the brain, all enriching an inquisitive mind and arming it with a plethora of knowledge and understanding.