How to Boost Baby’s Development With Age-Appropriate Play

It’s never too early to discover that learning is fun.
ByLexi Dwyer
Contributing Writer
Aug 2020
Developmental Baby Toys Teether and Rattle Symphony Croc Plush Toy
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With an infant on your hands, it might feel like all you do these days is feed, change diapers and catch a nap while baby sleeps (if you’re lucky). But while it may seem like baby can’t do much, it’s actually never too early to start playing with your child. In the early weeks and months, she isn’t exactly ready to kick a soccer ball or put together a puzzle, but there are plenty of fun ways to engage with her that’ll have important long-term benefits for her physical and mental development.

"It’s a myth that babies can’t play, even if they don’t seem to be ‘doing much’ yet—they’re still taking everything in,” says Amanda Gummer, a research psychologist specializing in child development and spokesperson for the Genius of Play, a movement to raise awareness about the importance of play in kids’ lives. “Playing is a great way for parents and caregivers to build that vital bond with their baby, while sensory stimulations helps baby’s brain grow.”

When it comes to playing with babies, how much your child gets out of it is directly related to how much time and effort you put into it. “Baby’s development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Rachel Coley, a pediatric occupational therapist who blogs at Can Do Kiddo. “A big part of baby hitting key milestones and gaining skills has to do with the materials, experiences and opportunities to practice that baby receives. By choosing toys and activities that match what your little one is ready to work on, you make the most of your infant’s awake times and set the stage for important early learning.”

Since younger babies can’t exactly wander over to the toy bins and pick out something that catches their eye, it falls to you to select playthings that give baby the chance to practice and refine new skills. Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry. Read on to get age-appropriate play ideas and learn about the best developmental toys for babies at every age and stage.

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Best Developmental Toys for Newborn Babies

Your newborn might look super-relaxed in his swing or bouncer, but it’s important to work in opportunities for movement throughout his day. “While it’s easy to assume that our squishy newborns just need a cozy spot to lounge and watch the world go by, what they really need is time and space to wiggle, stretch and strengthen their bodies in order to master those mini-milestones of early development,” Coley says.

One of the biggest developmental milestones for a newborn in the first month is stretching out of the curled-up fetal position they grew so used to in the womb. “Baby’s muscles are loose and floppy in this first month but will develop more muscle tone in the second month,” Coley says. While his movements are largely dominated by infant reflexes at this point, many of those are setting baby up for tummy time success.

Coley recommends starting tummy time in the early weeks of life, since the earlier you start, the better baby tends to tolerate it—try placing a receiving blanket on a flat, firm surface or a loved one’s chest or lap. “Baby won’t yet lift his head to look ahead, but you might see him briefly lift his head with it turned to the side or remain cheek-down,” Coley says. “This is normal and beneficial positioning for a very young infant.” Although he won’t yet track moving objects, baby may turn his head to find your face or a high-contrast black and white object placed close (about 8 to 12 inches) to his eyes. While on his back, he may also slowly turn toward the sound of a familiar voice or a shaking rattle.

Types of developmental toys to try out

• Activity mats. A lot of play mats come with a whole bunch of toys to hang overhead, but these can be quite over-stimulating for a newborn. For now, remove the clip-on overhead toys and then place the mat on top of a rug to create a clean, comfortable place for practicing tummy time.

• Music-playing device. Baby’s hearing is one of the earlier senses to mature, and music can have both a calming and stimulating effect. Try playing some soothing songs or just sing to her yourself—a mother’s voice will be her favorite (and most familiar) at this age.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy Lovevery

This activity gym comes with (sustainably sourced) wooden arches and hanging toys that can be removed, and a plush mat with different play zones that can be hidden or revealed with flaps, depending on baby’s level of stimulation.

The Play Gym by Lovevery, $140,

Photo: Courtesy of Genius Babies

Black and white clip-on flash cards from Genius Babies “are great for giving newborns visual stimulation that they’re interested in and able to see,” Coley says.

Genius Babies High Contrast Flash Cards for Baby, $11,

Best Developmental Toys for 1-Month-Old Babies

Big changes start to happen in baby’s second month of life—especially when it comes to arm and hand movements. “Babies have a reflex that encourages them to look at their own outstretched hand as they wave and jerk it around like a tiny orchestra conductor," Coley says. As you continue practicing tummy time, baby will begin to hold his head up for very brief periods of bobbing and turning.

Types of developmental toys to try out

• Activity mats with toys. Now you can start introducing toys to help spark baby’s curiosity. Try to position objects away from the center of the activity gym (not just overhead), which encourages baby to turn her head and check out her outstretched hand.

• Mobiles. Since babies don’t start to really see color until about 3 months of age, look for a mobile that has high-contrast, black-and-white decorations.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of The Manhattan Toy Company

The Infant Stim mobile has removable black-and-white and color cards with high-contrast images designed to appeal to babies (such as targets and bullseyes). The cards are labeled by age, and can be easily swapped in and out as baby’s vision develops. An adjustable cord positions them further away as baby starts to see more clearly.

Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson Infant Stim Mobile, $30,

Photo: Courtesy of Haba

Delight baby’s senses with this overhead play gym. The bright colors are eye-catching and the wooden disks create a clacking sound as they swing. And because the toys are dangling from a portable frame, you can set this over baby wherever she is.

Haba Color Fun Play Gym, $80,

Best Developmental Toys for 2-Month Old and 3-Month-Old Babies

As you keep up with tummy time, you’ll see baby holding his head higher and steadier. By the end of month three, he may be able to raise his shoulders and upper chest. He’ll probably roll a few times accidentally if he turns his head too far, but before long he’ll doing it intentionally. (Want to get some rolling practice in? Place baby in a side-lying position.) You may also notice baby kicking a bunch while lying on his back, which helps strengthen the belly muscles needed to eventually roll over. Another fun development? Baby may start to intentionally reach for and grasp toys—but knowing how to let go of objects hasn’t set in yet. Keep in mind that babies at this stage are relying on their senses (sight, hearing, touch and smell) to navigate around the new world around them, so offer up some healthy stimulation.

Types of developmental toys to try

• Linkable plastic rings and lightweight crinkle toys. These help a two- or three-month-old baby practice grasping.

• Unbreakable mirror. A mirror fastened securely to the inside of the crib allows baby to look at his face, which will become increasingly fascinating to him as he approaches the three-month mark.

Our favorite developmental toys

These colorful, durable links can be used individually (they’re the ideal weight for a baby working on grasping) or linked together to form a chain that’s perfect for keeping clip-on toys attached to the stroller.

Photo: Courtesy of Sassy

These colorful, durable links can be used individually (they’re the ideal weight for a baby working on grasping) or linked together to form a chain that’s perfect for keeping clip-on toys attached to the stroller.

Sassy Ring O’ Links, $5,

Photo: Courtesy of Lamaze

With bright colors, intriguing textures and graphic patterns, this clip-on firefly toy from Lamaze will become a diaper bag (or stroller or activity mat) staple. It even includes a textured teether for when those baby teeth start to pop through.

Lamaze Fifi the Firefly, $15,

Best Developmental Toys for 4- to 5-Month-Old Babies

At this point, baby is busy coordinating his emerging senses (such as sight and touch) and motor skills (such as rolling and grasping). He’ll begin to press up during tummy time, first through his forearms and then through straight arms—all of which is preparation for sitting up and (eventually) crawling. With their eyesight getting stronger, babies become especially interested in faces and other circular designs, like spirals and bullseyes. Babies at 4 and 5 months are also starting to learn cause and effect, so he may start to shake noisy toys (think: rattles) and bring them to his mouth.

Types of developmental toys to try

• Teething toys. Although teething usually begins at 6 months, gum pain may start sooner. Some parents may even start to see pearl-like buds poking through as early as 3 or 4 months.

• Rattles.“Next time you see baby playing with a rattle, make note of how she exercises her hand grip and arm strength while shaking it around,” Gummer says. “See how she delights in her discovery that shaking this toy creates a sound.”

• Soft toys that make sounds. Simple, lightweight objects like soft blocks or balls work well for babies discovering cause and effect. Bonus points if the toys have tags or flaps that make them easy to hold.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of The Manhattan Toy Company

It’s a teether! It’s a rattle! It’s both! This rattle-teether combo easily flattens into cool configurations and has colorful beads with a non-toxic finish that are perfect for gnawing.

Manhattan Toy Skwish Classic, $10,

Photo: Courtesy of IQ Baby

You won’t be getting rid of these Knock-Knock Blocks any time soon: The variety of high-contrast colors and intriguing textures are sure to amuse a younger baby, while older toddlers will love stacking them into towers (and knocking them down) and identifying the people and animals in the pictures.

Small World Toys Knock-Knock Blocks, $35,

Best Developmental Toys for 6-Month-Old Babies

Between 4 and 7 months, baby is working on sitting independently. If she’s still sitting with support, you can encourage her to strengthen her trunk muscles (abs and spine) by putting toys in front of her and encouraging her to reach for them. Once baby can sit without needing to put her hands in front of her (called “tripoding”), she’ll be free to use those hands to play with toys and, hopefully, entertain herself for short periods of time (but remember, never leave baby unattended).

Types of developmental toys to try

• Books. Board books and cloth books are not only the right size for little hands, they’re also practically indestructible.

• Stackable cups. Along with helping baby practice hand-eye coordination, these developmental toys can be used to teach baby about object permanence, the concept that items continue to exist even when you can’t see them. You can hide smaller items under the cups (just watch out for anything that might be a choking hazard) and then make a game of lifting the cups up for the reveal.

• Easy-to-hold balls. Hollow balls with holes will be easy to hold, so baby can continue to refine his grasping skills.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of Little Simon

The board book Baby Faces is an adorable collection of close-up photographs showing little ones making all types of expressions.

Baby Faces from Look Baby! Books, $4,

Photo: Courtesy of Fisher-Price

This set of stacking cups from Fisher-Price can be rearranged into towers or individual balls, with each cup forming one half. It also comes with a jingle toy that can be hidden inside or underneath.

Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Stack & Roll Cups, $8,

Photo: Courtesy of Oball

A baby just learning to sit up will love goofing around with the Oball Classic ball. Lightweight and filled with easy-to-grasp holes, it’s made of flexible plastic that bounces back into shape even after being stepped on.

Oball Original, $6,

Best Developmental Toys for 9-Month-Old Babies

By now many babies are crawling and starting to pull themselves into a standing position in preparation for cruising (aka moving alongside furniture while holding on) and walking. Your little one might also be mastering the act of picking up small objects between the thumb and index finger (known as the pincer grasp). At this age, babies are starting to use their memory recall and understand simple instructions. They’re also able to tolerate more stimulation.

Types of developmental toys to try

• Play kitchen items. Babies love to explore at this age. If you have the space, consider dedicating a lower kitchen cabinet to things she can play with, so she can open it and empty it on a whim. Household items such as egg cartons, cereal boxes and plastic food containers are practically a guaranteed good time.

• Activity tables. With their sturdy, supportive legs and array of colorful buttons, these are ideal for entertaining a baby who’s just learned to stand.

• Loveys. Starting around this time, a lot of babies start to grow attached to transitional objects and want to hang on to them, especially when upset or sleepy.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of Angel Dear

The loveys and blankets from Angel Dear (like this cow blankie) are cute, cuddly and machine washable.

Angel Dear Cow Blankie, $13,

Photo: Courtesy of LeapFrog

If baby isn’t standing yet, the beauty of this activity table is that the top detaches from the legs and can be placed on the floor.

LeapFrog Learn & Groove Musical Table, $40,

Best Developmental Toys for 1-Year-Old Babies

The big milestone around the one-year mark is walking, although some babies won’t be ready to take steps without help until closer to around 15 months. They’ll also start to play with objects in their intended use—picture baby pretending to talk on a toy telephone or drinking from a toy cup.

Types of developmental toys to try

• Push/pull toys. Pulling around an animal on a string or pushing a classic “corn popper” will provide tons of amusement for a newly walking toddler.

• Ride-on toys. Wheeled vehicles will encourage 1 year olds to explore their environment more independently.

• Large blocks. These toys can help baby develop the building blocks for future success: Some researchers have linked block play among young children to later academic achievement in math. Either way, there’s nothing more appealing to a toddler than building a giant tower of blocks and knocking it down.

• Cars and trucks. One year olds love the cause and effect of a wheeled vehicle (pushing it, then watching it go). Since cars and trucks are familiar objects, they also offer a chance to experiment with early role-playing.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa & Doug

A safer alternative to a wheeled baby walker, which the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against, this sturdy (and seriously cute) alligator push toy makes a cheerful clacking sound as it moves.

Melissa & Doug Chomp and Clack Alligator Push Toy, $46,

Photo: Courtesy of MEGA

A classic building block set that’ll last you well into the toddler years, the big pieces were made especially for little hands to easily put together and take apart. And with 80 blocks included, there are endless building possibilities.

Mega Bloks First Builders Big Building Bag, $15,

Developmental Toys for 18-Month-Old Toddlers

By 18 months, your toddler’s gait will smooth out, likely making him more interested in on-the-go play—he may even take a stab at kicking a ball around. More refined motor skills means building even taller block towers and enjoying scribbling on paper with a thick crayon. Your little one could also be more into solitary play as he grows and gains new abilities.

Types of developmental toys to try

• Nontoxic art supplies. Finger paint is always a hit—just make sure the drawing tools you choose are appropriately sized for chubby hands: Palm-grip crayons, sidewalk chalk and dot markers are good bets.

• Sandbox toys. Filling a pail full of sand and watching it all pour out can be mesmerizing for a young toddler, not to mention a great way to give him a taste of solo play.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Courtesy of Green Toys

This classic bucket, shovel and rake set is a go-to toy, whether you’re at the playground or on the beach. And you can feel good knowing it’s made in the US from 100 percent recycled plastic.

Green Toys Sand Play Set, starting from $20,

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

Grasping a crayon isn’t always an easy task for tiny toddler hands, but with these specially designed egg-shaped crayons, your child will have full control over their creativity.

My First Crayola Palm Grip Egg Crayons, $5,

Best Developmental Toys for 2-Year Old Toddlers

At age 2, instead of simply imitating the adults around them, kids start flexing their imagination. They’re also getting better at solving problems through trial and error, and their desire for independence is getting stronger, so run with it!

Types of developmental toys to try

• Dress-up items. Costumes and accessories help toddlers begin to explore fantasy and pretend play.

• Musical instruments. Studies have shown that children who are engaged in making music (instead of just listening) use more communicative gestures, which may translate to better language skills as they get older.

• Easy jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles are awesome: They help build hand-eye and fine motor coordination, encourage problem solving and boost cognitive skills, such as spatial awareness. If they’re able to, finishing the puzzle without any parental help will give toddlers a great sense of pride.

• Connecting toys. Links, Duplo Legos, stackable pegs and beads that snap together are great learning toys for a child who can sit down and play solo for increasingly longer stretches.

• Baby dolls and accessories. Whether you have a son or a daughter, taking care of a doll can help your little one develop their nurturing side. A doll can be an especially great teaching toy if you’ve started thinking about bringing a second baby into your family.

Our favorite developmental toys

Photo: Couresty of Lauri

Young preschoolers will love Lauri’s Tall-Stacker Pegs, which snap solidly together and can be stacked high. Kids can also use them to begin to practice counting and sorting by color.

Lauri Toys Tall-Stacker Pegs and Pegboard Set, $12,

Photo: Courtesy of Haba

Help your kid find her rhythm with this fun musical toy, complete with a drum, xylophone, bell and guiro (a percussion instrument). And if your little one is ready for cooperative play, there are two mallets to support a duet.

Haba Symphony Croc, $40,

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