Article at a Glance

  • It is possible to find toys that are educational, hold your child’s attention, and don’t cost a fortune.
  • Toys should build imagination, foster social skills, and educate, as well as entertain.
  • It is important that toys match your child’s developmental level.

With last year’s toys either broken, lost, or making your family room look like an episode of Hoarders, sometimes it can be hard to get excited about Christmas shopping.

But all toys aren’t created equal. With a little help you can find toys that will hold your child’s attention, encourage learning, build new skills, and don’t break the bank. And if you are lucky, don’t include fifty million little pieces that hurt like crazy when you accidentally step on one!

Before you begin shopping, it is a good idea to step back and think about the role that toys play in your child’s life. Ideally toys should build imagination, foster social skills, and educate, as well as entertain. In fact, toys are a great way to teach children that learning can be fun. And your example and participation are vital. Toys are a learning tool, but you are essentially the teacher. Children will take cues from your enthusiasm, input, and encouragement.

When parents play with their children, their children are able to develop more complicated play patterns. Children also become more intellectually advanced and emotionally sensitive.

It is important that toys match your child’s developmental level. Playing with your children can help you gauge where they are in their mental, physical, and social developmental. It can also give you insight into what their interests are. Toys should also be well made and safe for the intended age. If you have a variety of age groups in your house, you will also want to make sure that the older children’s toys are either safe enough for the younger ones or stored out of reach.

Generally children are more likely to play with toys if you limit competition from things like TV or video games.

Although each child develops at a different pace, here are some guidelines for each age group.

Babies (Birth to 12 Months)
That first year of life is a miracle. It is amazing how much babies learn in such a short period of time. They are busy using all five senses to figure out the world around them. This phase involves a lot of experimentation: How does this taste? What does it feel like? What happens if I drop it?

As babies get older, toys can help them develop their motor skills as they learn to pass toys from hand to hand and pick things up.

At this stage, your interaction is especially important as babies start to understand cause-and-effect and language.

Our Top Picks For Toys:
Stacking rings and nesting cups: These great toys evolve with your child. Little babies love to suck on the rings and are attracted to the bright colors. Once babies get a little older, they can practice fine motor skills by placing the rings on to the cone or stacking the cups. They are also a great way to learn about colors, sizes, and counting. And nesting cups make perfect bath toys.

Mobiles: Your baby’s vision isn’t fully developed yet and a mobile is a great way to provide visual stimulation. Babies like sharp contrasts, with newborns preferring black and white, and older babies preferring bolder primary colors. Be sure to take the mobile down once your baby can reach up and grab it.

Mirrors: Babies love the instant gratification of seeing their own reactions in the mirror. It will take awhile for your baby to realize that it is just a reflection, but once she does it will be a great way for her to learn about her body parts. For safety, be sure to only use unbreakable mirrors as toys.

Books: At this age, toys and books are indistinguishable. Sturdy board or cloth books with simple, bold pictures are a great way for your baby to learn about the world around him.

Push Toys: That first step can be nerve-racking for both babies and parents. Push and pull toys allow babies to develop the balance and motor skills needed to start walking. Avoid baby walkers as they can actually delay walking and pose a serious safety hazard.

Toddlers (12 Months to 2 Years)
Anybody who has ever watched a toddler knows that they are movers and shakers. While still interested in observing, they are also very, very interested in being involved and making their own mark on the world. What will mommy do if I throw this? How does this phone work? What happens if I turn my bowl upside down?

At this age, children also start to become interested in role-playing: whether it is making car noises or pretending to cook.

Our Top Picks For Toys:
Simple puzzles or shape sorting toys: These toys build hand-eye coordination and encourage problem solving.

Blocks: Blocks build coordination and can also be used in role-playing when children become interested in building castles and fire stations. They also teach about gravity, shapes, and balance.

Balls: Balls encourage hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills, and agility. Playing catch can also teach how to take turns and corporate with others.

Role-play: Toddlers love to imitate. Toys like kitchen sets, telephones, doctor kits, dolls, stuffed animals, and tool kits let little ones learn how things work and how to relate to others.

Tricycles and ride on toys: Tricycles and ride on toys help develop coordination and gross motor skills. They also contribute to a sense of independence and are an excellent way to keep your little one active.

Preschoolers (3 to 5 Years)
It is at this age that the imagination really starts to heat up. Fantasy play is very important because it helps children work through their emotions and fears. Preschoolers are also more interested in interacting with their peers and are better able to handle cooperative play. And they are very interested in testing their physical abilities—like jumping, running, kicking, and throwing. Your preschooler might even be ready for a bike with training wheels.

Our Top Picks For Toys:
Puzzles: At this age puzzles can become a little more complicated and are a great way to teach about logical thinking, spatial relationships, and patience!

Role-play toys: Although preschoolers are more grown-up, they definitely haven’t outgrown those role-playing toys yet. But their pretend play will start to become more gender specific and complicated.

Art and crafts: Now is a great time to get your children used to holding crayons and using scissors. Building those fine motor skills will help a lot once they start to learn how to write. It also fosters creativity and a sense of accomplishment.

Age specific sports equipment: Balls, bats, and basketball hoops are a great way for your children to hone their gross motor skills, learn how to play with others, and follow rules.

Elementary School Children (Six Years and Older)
At this age play becomes a lot more complicated. Children like games that require strategy, skill, and coordination. Children also seem to hone in on certain interests—whether that is reading, sports, music, or crafts. Action figures and dolls also become a popular way to act out grown-up behaviors.

Because your child may be more interested in playing with peers than you, it is important to carve out time to spend together. You can do this by setting aside a certain time or cultivating shared interests.

Our Top Picks For Toys:
Board and card games: Games are a great way to teach sharing, patience, how to take turns, social skills, and strategy. Many are also designed to teach skills like number, letter, color and shape recognition; grouping; counting; and eye-hand coordination. They can also lengthen your children’s attention span and help them learn how to lose (and win) gracefully.

Craft, construction, science, and model kits: Kits like these can encourage problem solving, creativity, mathematical skills, spatial skills, communication skills, and coordination. They are also a great way to foster an interest your child might already have in things like spaceships, robots, construction, jewelry making or other crafts.

Sports equipment: By now children are able to handle more grown-up versions of their favorite sports. It will be important to make sure that they always wear the proper protection while playing sports.

Music: At this age children might be interested in learning how to play a musical instrument. It is a great way for children to learn patience and how to follow directions. It also helps foster a lifelong appreciation for the arts.

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Our Age-by-Age Toy Guide

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