Activities to Promote Cognitive and Physical Development in Babies

When Ryan was 4 months old he qualified for Early On because of his Down syndrome diagnosis. Early On is a special education program for children aged 0-3 that is provided through our school district. As part of his services he has an Occupational Therapist (OT) and a Physical Therapist (PT) come to our house once a week for an hour each. These amazing ladies use the hour to “play” with him and basically teach me (and sometimes my husband) activities to do with him to promote his physical and cognitive development. I thought I would share some of their tips and tricks for others looking to do the same with their babies.

Tips & Tricks from an OT and a PT

Start with Signals

Babies can understand and use signals long before they can actually say them. So if you want your baby to be able to communicate with you before he has the
words to do so teach him some easy signals.

Trick #1:
To get a baby to raise his arm up —
Softly run your hand down the baby’s arm (from elbow to wrist) and it will automatically raise up due to his natural reflexes

The three we started with were “up”, “hi”, and “bye”. All of these include the baby raising his arms up so the trick to get him to do this is to softly run your hands down his arms (from elbow to wrist) and his arms will automatically raise up due to his natural reflexes. Once you get his arm(s) up, say the word you want him to learn (“up”, “hi”, or “bye”).

So for “up”, run your hands down both of the baby’s arms at once and repeat “up” several times. We did this before we picked Ryan up each time (and had other people do the same) and he now does it whenever we say “up”. He also reaches up when he wants to be picked up without us prompting him occasionally.

For “hi” and “bye”, run your hands down whichever arm you want your baby to use and then once the arm is up, put your hand on his and move it back and forth while repeating “hi” or “bye”. We are still working on this one with Ryan but he does do it occasionally on his own.


Take Turns Talking

Babbling and cooing are a baby’s first steps in language development. In order to help your baby progress from this to saying real words you need to join in the conversation. When he is “talking” act interested and look in his eyes.

Trick #2:
To promote language development —
Have a conversation with your baby and say things like, “really!?”, or “I can’t believe it!”

Then when he takes a break, start talking back (just like you would in a real conversation). Either repeat back to him what you think he is saying or say things like, “really?”, or “I can’t believe it!”. Then once he starts saying a group of sounds (ga-ga, da-da) repeat those sounds back to him a few times and then introduce a new set of sounds (pa-pa) and see if he will say that back. We have been doing this with Ryan ever since he was a newborn and the OT and PT are both shocked at how vocal he has been since they met him!

Use Furniture Instead of “Containers”

We got to a point where we wanted Ryan to sit up and play before he was able to do so independently so we used a Sit-Me-Up Chair to help him. He loved it because he could see so much more than when he was laying on his back, and I loved it because I could see his cute little face while I played with him.

Trick #3:
To help a baby sit up before they are able to do so independently —
Use couch cushions to prop your baby up so that you can play with them

While this chair is perfect for when I want to leave the room for a minute and for feeding him (when we don’t have access to a highchair) the OT and PT suggested not to use it for play time. They said that the chair was doing most of the work for him instead of his muscles learning to do it for themselves. So instead, they suggested I use the furniture to help him sit up. We either put him in the corner of the couch (if we were sitting right next to him) or we bring the couch cushions to the floor and put him in the middle of them. He loves sitting like this to play with his toys and even though the cushions are there if he starts to fall, he is now usually sitting up on his own and not even using them.


Have Fun with a Mirror

Mirrors are great to promote language and cognitive development. When Ryan looks in the mirror he immediately starts “talking” to the baby looking back at him. This is great practice for him (and hilarious to watch)! He is also able to see how his mouth moves when he is making his sounds (or how my mouth moves if I join him in the mirror and talk back to him). This helps him understand that his mouth needs to make different shapes in order to make different sounds.


Play Peek-a-Boo

It is so fun when your baby reaches the age where he can really start to play with you and Peek-a-Boo is one of the first games he will be able to play. In order to help Ryan learn this game the OT first put a burp cloth over his head to see what he would do. The first time he just wiggled around trying to figure out how to get it off. After she did it a few more times, though, he realized that he had to grab it off using his hand. Once he had it off we excitedly said, “peek a boo!” so he realized that it was a game. He now immediately takes the cloth off and smiles because he knows that he has won the game. He will also sometimes hold the cloth over his own face, pull it down, and smile when I say “peek a boo”.

Trick #4:
To help your baby understand object permanence –
Teach them to play Peek-a-Boo with themselves and with toys

The OT then moved on to putting the burp cloth over one of his toys. She started with his favorite toy so that he would be more interested in finding it. So she put the toy in front of him, let him see and touch it, and then placed the burp cloth over it. This version of the game took a little longer for him to figure out but he finally understood that if he took the cloth off his toy was still under it. This really helps to promote cognitive development because it means that the baby is beginning to understand the concept of object permanence and realizing that something doesn’t disappear just because it is out of sight.

Encourage Mimicking

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? This is even true with babies! When you can get them to mimic something you are doing it is really helping to promote their cognitive development. One of the first things I was able to get Ryan to mimic (besides sounds) was clapping. I started by clapping his hands together with him and cheering, “yay, Ryan!” I did this for several days until one day I said it and he clapped all on his own. We then moved on to “Patty Cake” and he’ll now start clapping if I just start singing that song. Other ways to encourage mimicking are playing with a toy first and then seeing if he will do what you did after, making sounds and trying to get him to repeat them, and joining him in the mirror and seeing if you can get him to make the same silly faces that you do!


All of these activities are very simple and use things that are easily found in your home. Some may be things that you are already doing, but hopefully this gave you a few tips and/or tricks to help you the next time you want to meaningfully play with your baby!

What are the best activities you have found to help promote your baby’s cognitive and physical development?

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