Babies as young as six weeks old can develop special relationships with other infants and toddlers. They can even invent games that build social relationships, researchers at Columbia University's Teachers College say.

Dr. Annette Axtmann, director of the College's Center for Infants and Parents, says infants are innately social. She says they have subtle ways of showing interest and affection not only toward one another but toward older children and adults.Researchers at the center have watched babies turn spontaneous interactions into simple games of social exchange. For example, a 3-month-old shakes her foot and looks toward another 3-month-old. The second shakes his foot and returns the look. The actions are repeated. In one instance, Axtmann says, it continued for seven minutes.

Self-invented games are the best curriculum for social learning for they are exactly tuned to what infants understand. "At the Center for Infants and Parents," Axtmann said, "we observe, protect and facilitate the babies' natural interest in one another."

Axtmann and her students also found that toddlers develop games they play only with special friends. For example, one 27-month-old came back to visit after an absence of four months. Just before he arrived, a teacher put down a mat in the center of the room.

The mat was part of a game the toddler had created months before with another toddler, now 25 months old. They would run around the mat and one would flop down. The other would catch up and flop over.

A few minutes after the visitor arrived, he and his old friend were playing the same game at the mat, running, flopping down, hugging and then jumping up to run again.

Videotaped observations at the center show that infants who engage in joyful encounters with peers experience equally tuneful interactions with their parents, researchers found. Infants who do not initiate and maintain effective interaction with peers are engaged in awkward, often inconclusive actions with their parents.

"Clearly," Axtmann says, "learning how to interact with peers is grounded in the baby's first, most important relationship - the baby's interaction with the parent."