Buying baby toys can get pretty overwhelming these days, considering just how many options are out there. Many of them are light-up, flashing, singing toys that come with elaborate bells and whistles—not to mention a hefty price tag. Toys are essential for kids’ cognitive, language, physical and social development; many pediatricians are now even writing prescriptions for play to underline its importance. But when it comes to picking out the best toys to support your child’s development, fancy features don’t really make playthings any more valuable. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently came out with a report saying electronic toys by themselves don’t provide the parental interaction that’s critical for healthy development. Even if they teach the ABCs, they might not be teaching kids fundamental skills that are key to success, like impulse-control, imagination, how to regulate emotions and navigate social interactions. At the end of the day, classic, hands-on toys you and your children can play with together are the ideal.
So if digital media-based gadgets aren’t the best for stimulating your child’s development, what kinds of toys should you get your kiddo? Here are the five most important types of toys to choose for your little ones, and how to transform basic household items into fun, educational (and free!) playthings.
1. Toys That Encourage Pretend Play
These are the ultimate toys for children—and usually completely free, since you can literally use anything you have on hand to pretend with your little one. Pretend play encourage kids to flex their imaginations and creative thinking skills as well as use more sophisticated language to communicate with their playmates and agree on rules that govern the scenario they’re acting out. Need some ideas for play activities that lend well to pretend play? Here are some of our favorites:
“Cooking” with pots and pans
Fill a bottom kitchen cabinet with pots, pans, wooden spoons, whisks and cups for your toddler to play with. While you’re cooking, encourage your little one to pretend to cook their own meal too, and talk about what you’re both making. (Bonus: It helps entertain your child while you get your chores done!).
Running a pretend restaurant
Pretend you and your little are running a restaurant. Write out a menu together (or use a favorite takeout menu as a prop). Using an old shopping bag, pretend to source your ingredients from the “supermarket,” where each room in your house is a different food aisle (frozen, produce, packaged goods, etc.). Once you have your make believe ingredients, pretend to cook up the meal and serve it to your child’s favorite dolls and stuffed animals.
Playing imaginary games with dolls
There are tons of ways you and your child can engage in pretend play with their favorite toys. Dig into some old clothes around the house to create costumes, and then put on a play from your child’s favorite storybook using their dolls and stuffed animals as an audience. Pretend to be veterinarians together and take care of your kiddo’s stuffed animals. Prepare for the arrival of a new sibling by feeding, burping, rocking and changing their dolls. Imagine you’re both doctors and try your hand healing boo-boos (which also helps prepare for real doctor’s visits). Either way, not only does pretend play with dolls make for hours of free fun, but it also promotes symbolic thinking, social-emotional development, language development and helps little ones cope with their feelings and situations they’re going through in real life.
2. Toys That Hone Fine Motor Skills
Some great toys that help kids develop their fine motor skills—aka the ability to make movements using the small muscles in their hands, wrists and fingers—include classic toys like blocks, shapes, trains and puzzles. Trust us, they’re timeless because kids never get tired of these tried-and-true favorites!
Building with wooden blocks
Babies love to bang wooden blocks together—not only does it create fun sounds, but it also helps build coordination. Toddlers can build giant towers out of wooden blocks (they’re always fun to then knock down) and older kids like to create intricate buildings, structures and towns. All these levels of block play can help with fine motor and spatial skills. No blocks on hand? No problem—improvise! Baby’s first blocks can easily be made out of old cardboard shoe or tissue boxes.
Puzzle sets with a few large pieces for toddlers and lots of smaller pieces for older children promote fine motor skills, spatial development, problem solving and patience skills. Plus, they’re also great for first math lessons (“How many pieces do we have? How many are left?”). You can buy beautiful puzzles for pretty cheap, but you can also go the DIY route: Glue some favorite pictures to a piece of cardboard and then cut them up into shapes your little one can put back together again. A personalized puzzle of a loved one is sure to become a prized possession!
3. Arts and Crafts Toys
As any new parent who has found their newly painted walls covered in marker knows, kids simply love making art. Young children get a kick out of learning by exploring and getting their hands messy—so things like crayons, finger paint, markers, clay and playdough make for perfect toys. Not only do arts and crafts activities help build fine motor skills, engage the imagination and encourage creativity, but artwork can also be given away as gifts to build pride and self-confidence. Best of all, making art doesn’t have to be expensive: Plenty of great projects can be done with common household items. Local children’s museums, libraries and bookstores also often host free hands-on art activities for children to enjoy.
Your child can color or paint beautiful works of art, or use found objects to create a cool collage, gluing pieces of macaroni, feathers, leaves and more to pieces of cardboard. Another fun activity is decorating big cardboard boxes, transforming them into houses, barns, rocket ships, buses and more. You then have the perfect homemade toy for imaginary play!
Making DIY projects
Lots of families enjoy easy DIY projects like making natural playdough (all you need is flour, water, oil, salt and cream of tartar). For those who like to keep it clean, you can also make rainbow soap foam bubbles using dish soap, water, food coloring and a mixer. Browse around online to find a fun recipe.
4. Toys That Boost Language Skills
We often see toddlers and even young babies playing with apps on phones or electronic toys that talk, have flashing lights and make loud sounds. But electronics shouldn’t take the place of human interaction with caregivers, which is essential for a child’s development. Engaging with your kids, like reading books out loud together, teaches them about facial expressions, emotions, gestures, body language and voice intonations that promote social development.
Playing board games
Simple card or board games (and not the app versions of them) give kids the chance to interact with others and develop language and early math skills, learn how to take turns and engage in reciprocal play, exercise self-control and hone their attention, listening and problem solving skills. These simple games will also help children become graceful winners and figure out how to deal with losing. Electronic toys are less likely to offer these benefits.
To help with these goals, we love the library for the endless supply of books for toddlers and free story times to help promote language development. Fun books for toddlers are those with pages with different textures and colors, big flaps to turn and find hidden objects, or beloved themes such as trucks, animals, and favorite people. Board or card games without words, such as memory, guessing or charade like games, are fun for both toddlers and adults alike. Making a once a week game night, where a child can pick his/her favorite game to play with caregivers, can quickly become a beloved family tradition!
5. Toys That Promote Physical Play
Kids of all ages need to run around and play! Toys such as balls (of all different sizes); large trucks and cars; age-appropriate bikes, scooters and ride-on toys; push toys and toddler basketball hoops and soccer nets all promote gross motor development. Not only does physical play strengthen important muscles and burn off energy, but playing games that involve basic rules—like kicking or throwing a ball back and forth—also helps kids develop self-control and social skills.
Setting obstacle courses
Even if it’s raining out, there are plenty of ways to get your child up and active. Transforming large cardboard boxes into cars, trains or ponies that can be pushed around is one great option; you can also arrange those boxes into a system of tunnels that your little one can crawl through. Another idea is to make a safe obstacle course with boxes, pillows and more and have your kiddo race through it or drag their toy wagon around it, delivering their dolls and stuffed animals to the other side.
Playing tag games
Age-old favorites like Duck Duck Goose, Tag, Simon Says and Red Light Green Light are all fun games that can be played indoors or out and are fantastic for getting little bodies moving. They’re also perfect opportunities to practice cooperatively playing with others, listening to directions, following rules and exercising self-control.
Meet Dina DiMaggio, MD, and Anthony F. Porto, MD, MPH, official spokespeople for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the co-authors of The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers. They write about the latest AAP guidelines, studies and seasonal issues affecting babies and toddlers. Follow them on Instagram @pediatriciansguide.
Published January 2019
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