A takeoff on the mobile, activity gyms typically feature a charming, brightly colored floor and hanging detachable toys that make sounds, play music, and sport tantalizing textures.
👋What Babies Learn: Like rattles, activity gyms help babies explore their environment through their sense of sound, touch, sight, and taste. Their motor skills also get a tune-up when they kick at, bat, reach, and grab for toys. When you put your baby down on his tummy, you'll also give him the opportunity to develop his upper-body and neck strength, a prerequisite for rolling, crawling, and other physical feats.
👋Game Plan: Newborns will start their mat-time fun on their back, gazing up at the toy charms. If your baby doesn't like being put on his stomach initially, "distract him with the gym's lights, music, and crinkle toys until he gets used to it," says Kristina McMorris of Clackamas, Oregon. She says her son, Tristan, 5 months, "loves tummy time now." You can also detach baby's favorite toys and hold them out so he can reach for them. At first, your baby might just make general movements toward objects. Eventually, he'll be able to reach out and pull objects forward.
👋A warning: Your baby might find her activity gym so entertaining, you'll be tempted to park her there. That's okay once in a while, but your baby learns best by interacting with you and other caregivers, says Goldberg.
😜4 to 15 Months
👋The Big Bang
Shaking, throwing, dropping, and especially whacking toys against a surface is how your baby experiments. "Babies love to bang," says Maureen O'Brien, PhD, director of child development at The First Years corporation in Avon, Massachusetts.
👋What Babies Learn: Crashing two objects together reinforces the concept of cause and effect: If your baby hits them hard, they make a loud noise; if he hits them lightly, a soft noise. But that's not all. "Experimenting with sound effects also helps children understand what's big and little, heavy and light, and rough and smooth, as well as spatial concepts, such as 'up' and 'down,' 'next to' and 'around,'" says Goldberg.
👋Game Plan: Think outside the toy box. Fill a bottom kitchen drawer with toys and household objects that your baby can safely beat and batter, such as pots, golf balls, and wooden spoons. Of course, the sound of pounding is often not music to Mom's ears. "I couldn't stand the bang of the pots and pans so my twins got Tupperware," says O'Brien.
😜1 to 2 Years
👋Fill 'er Up
Turn your back and you're likely to find your toddler emptying the salt shaker or overturning the dog's dish. "My daughter loves to take the wash in and out of the laundry basket," says Katrina Blauvelt of Marietta, Georgia, mother of 1-year-old Eva.
What Babies Learn: Filling and dumping enhance hand-eye coordination and teach basic spatial concepts such as "in" and "out," as well as what things look like separately as opposed to all together; how big an area objects can cover; and whether objects will bounce or slide when dumped out.
Game Plan: Bath time is perfect for filling and dumping by adding toy cups or a plastic shampoo bottle to the tub so your child can fill and pour. Cardboard boxes are another boon -- babies can fill and empty them over and over again.
Sandra Gordon is the author of Consumer Reports Best Baby Products (2004).