Joint play with a warm and caring adult – particularly during the first three years – has been linked to long-term outcomes ranging from improved attention and self-regulation, social skills and even academic outcomes such as literacy and numeracy [i]. Research has also revealed that a lack of high-quality play during this period of infancy has the opposite effect: it is associated with poorer attention, social and learning outcomes. Play also has therapeutic qualities: it is a primary method for supporting children’s healing from abuse, neglect and other trauma [ii].

However, less is generally known about how and why joint-play impacts on so many dimensions of young children’s development and well-being.

A recent study, published late last year, has begun to fill this gap. The research team, led by Sam Wass from the University of East London and including Victoria Leong from Cambridge University, examined what happens to mothers’ and babies’ brains when they play together [iii].

In the first part of their study, the researchers observed 12-month old babies playing with an object on their own. They found that just before looking at the play object, there was a burst of activity in the baby’s brain waves. The greater the intensity of the burst, the longer a baby would look at, focus on and play with the object.

The researchers then invited mothers to join in with their baby’s play. Again, a burst of brain activity would precede the baby looking at the object. This burst was less intense than when the baby played alone.

However, something else also happened.

As their baby looked at an object during play, mothers would subconsciously direct their own gaze to the object as well. This was followed by a burst of theta waves in the mother’s brain, similar to that observed in the baby’s brain when they played solo.

In other words, the baby’s gaze on a play-object influenced the mother’s brain activity. And the researchers found that the more responsive the mother’s brain was to her baby’s cues in any given moment, the longer the baby maintained attention and focus on the play.

The researchers acknowledge this study raises more questions than it answers. For example, are these relationships between adult attention and infant focus the same for fathers and babies, babies of different genders, or between babies and other adults such as childcare workers? Does the relationship between gaze and attention change in different cultures?

It is also, of course, important to remember this study does not necessarily show that joint play is ‘better’ than solo play – both types of exploration and activity may have different – but equally important – benefits for babies. Previous studies on parent-infant synchrony also raise the question of whether the benefits of joint-play arise from the parent looking at the play object in particular, or from the parent’s attunment to whatever their baby’s interest is in that particular moment.

Nevertheless, this is one of the newest studies to show how infant cues influence adult attention and responsiveness at the neurological level. In turn, it also shows how our responsiveness as adults has a distinct effect on a baby’s brain activity and learning. Perhaps most importantly, this study confirms that play-based activities and care in infancy are more than simply ‘a bit of fun’ to fill in the time till children are old enough for so-called ‘real’ learning. The richness, depth and influence of our earliest interactions continues to validate the calls for training and resources that value care and support in the earliest stages of infancy and childhood, as much as those provided for pre-schoolers and older children.

Research-to-practice ideas for early childhood educators, carers and support workers:


[i] Jeffrey Goldstein, Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-Being (Belgium: Toy Industries of Europe, 2012), 5–7.

[ii] Yung-Wei Lin and Sue C. Bratton, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Child-Centred Play Therapy Approaches,” Journal of Counselling and Development 93, no. January (2015): 45–58.

[iii] Sam V Wass et al., “Parental Neural Responsivity to Infants’ Visual Attention: How Mature Brains Influence Immature Brains during Social Interaction,” PLOS Biology 16, no. 12 (n.d.): e2006328.

Alice Campbell

Alice originally trained as a Registered Nurse, and is an Early Childhood Educator. For 25 years has worked with parents, health and early childhood professionals, and organisations to strengthen development and learning outcomes. She specialises in the use of relationship-based practice and early mental health, social and emotional development. Her many achievements have been recognised in child protection, violence prevention, and early childhood education awards.

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