When you visit the Play Space, one of the first things you might notice is a space designed for babies and their families to enjoy playing together. An area we call the “baby circle” has mats enclosed by a low wooden barrier and an adjoining "soft" area with mats and a pull-up bar with mirrors. In the corner is a comfortable glider perfect for feeding babies, and a shelf of baby-friendly, developmentally enriching toys is close by. We know that babies are born ready to learn, and that playful interaction with loving adults is how they learn best.

We are excited to share that play time for babies at the Play Space is about to get even more exciting! Through a generous grant from the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York, the Play Space is gearing up to launch a new initiative called Baby Play focusing on families with babies from birth to one year.

There’s a lot going on in babies’ minds in the first year of life, and their early experiences in the world affect how their brains grow in ways that can last a lifetime. All that babies are taking in and learning during daily interactions with the important people in their lives helps nurture a child’s healthy development. Research continues to confirm that early experiences lay the groundwork for ongoing development, including language, thinking and social-emotional skills. All of this growth and brain development is supported by responsive and playful interaction.

Beginning in mid-May, babies born in our county will receive a special invitation from their health care provider for a free visit to the Play Space to learn more about our Baby Play initiative. On this first visit, they will have a 1:1 orientation to the Baby Play area and also receive a very special gift to welcome their baby. We are delighted that Auburn Internal Medicine & Pediatrics, Auburn Pediatrics, Summit Pediatrics and Children's Health Specialists are partnering with the Play Space for this initiative.

The Baby Play program will center around a series of Baby Play boxes, each designed to support the emerging development of babies. Each box will have a collection of toys and activities chosen to meet and extend the ongoing physical and emotional development of the baby, and to give parents some tips on what their baby is working on and what to expect next. Playing with babies involves a lot of watching and learning about who this little person is, what interests them and what they like and dislike. Parents of young babies are like detectives watching and listening to cues from their babies and learning from them about what they want, what they find interesting or what helps make them feel content. The Baby Play boxes will encourage parents to watch and be curious as they use the toys and activities and let their baby teach them! We are confident that parents and caregivers will enjoy the simple, “self-serve” collection of fun and easy-to-use activities. Families will be encouraged to drop in during designated Baby Play hours, or to call for an appointment to receive a special orientation. In addition, families will be welcome to attend special Baby Play times at the Play Space. We anticipate that other activities will be developed in response to the needs and interests of the families.

Although the time of a baby’s birth is one of great joy and optimism, many parents often also feel isolated and overwhelmed. In addition to providing enriching play activities for babies, an equally important goal of the Baby Play initiative is to provide community and social connections for parents. In the past, families have stated that they “were waiting until their babies could walk” or “got older” to visit the Play Space. We want families to know that they are welcome to bring their babies early and frequently, to play and make friends and to get support during the often challenging first year and beyond. It really does take a village to raise a child, and the Play Space is happy to be part of each family’s village right from the start!

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Elizabeth Stilwell is the director of operations at ABC Cayuga's Play Space. For more information, visit abccayuga.org or playspaceabc.com, or visit the Play Space at 63 Genesee St., Auburn.