In my job as a Special Educator for Early Intervention, I am often asked what are the best toys for child development. With the holidays fast approaching, I am getting these questions A LOT! So I figured I would break it down here for everyone.
Generically, the best toys are the ones without characters on them, they do not require batteries and require the child to do something with them. Yes I am hearing you say "YEAH RIGHT! Where do I find these?" Looking around the toys stores, all that you see are plastic, light up, noise making toys with show characters on them. I know. But dig deeper. The wooden, no character toys do exist. They may cost a little more, but they will last a lifetime and are worth gold in terms of child development.
And sometimes, what you have around the house is better that what you can find in any store! Sometimes things we traditionally do not see as toys are the best playthings around!
But let's go through them in stages:
Birth to 12 months:
Any toy that encourages discovery - stack rings, stack cups, busy boxes, rattles and rings for little ones. Mirrors are great for all ages. At this age, they are all about 'container play'. This is the dump out a thousand times phase. As annoying as that might be as a parent, it is a crucial part of development. It teaches them to explore, learn about the world around them, investigate, figure out how things work. So lock the cabinets that need to be locked, but keep one open with safe items like tupperware and plastic spoons. Use old wipe boxes as discovery boxes. Put just about anything in them (big enough not to choke on). Don't snap them shut as that might be too hard for them to open. Place them partially under a couch, or partially under a blanket.
Your toddler is on the move and it is all about MOVING! So ride on toys are great. Tunnels for them to crawl through, giant cardboard blocks to build and knock down. Children at this age should start using toys in an imitative way. This is the beginning of pretend play. So cars, dolls, play food, pots and pans, a telephone, play tools...anything that allows them to imitate the life they see going on around them. This play is crucial for language development. You do not need to go out and buy the latest things. Tupperware, an old phone, or your pots and pans work just as well.
The pretend play is kicking into high gear. So dress up is great! I like to go out the day after halloween and pick up costumes at a fraction of the cost for my dress up area. If you have a play kitchen that is wonderful. If not, use old cereal boxes, syrup containers, tupperware, utensils, etc. to create a play kitchen for cheap! Put the dress up near your other play areas. Children this age will start to bring it all together. They will bring their dolls into their play kitchen and wear a chef outfit. They should be telling a story through play. Fine motor skills are getting better too, so art supplies are great for that: big crayons, paints, playdough...the messier the better!
Is winter starting to scare you because you NEED the outside playtime? Bundle them up and send them outside. Even for 15 minutes. So outdoor play gear is great. Don't have a yard? Those small slides and trampolines can fit in almost any room. Make obstacle courses out of couch pillows. Have a basement? Install a tire swing on a beam. Let them bike ride or rollerskate in the basement. Ask grandparents for a membership to a local indoor playspace or children's museum.
Imaginative play is in full swing. Encourage reading in all play areas. Put cookbooks in your kitchen area, construction books near blocks, art books by the art supplies...Worried about learning letters and numbers? Stay away from computer games and videos. READ to your child! A child in a literature rich environment will learn how to read. I bet they already can read familiar store and street signs. Teach letters through stamping, playdough, painting, sand art, shaving cream in the bath. It should be fun NOT stress! It becomes stress when we force tracing letters or worksheets because their fine motor skills are not strong enough for that yet. You can learn without a paper and pencil. I promise!
By now, your child probably has a few preferred activities. However, get them out of their same old routine by offering new things. If your daughter will ONLY play with dolls, buy lincoln logs or other non-traditional building supplies and help her build a house for her dolls. This is a great age for science kits! Explore weather, explode a volcano, make a lightbulb turn on with just a battery....no need to spend a lot of money. many experiments can be found online and done with household items. Boredom is actually a beautiful thing. Let them be bored. Ignore the whining & wait a while. Eventually they will give up and get creative. It works. I do it all the time!
Feel like you can't get your kids head out of that video game device? Yeah me too. Declare a screen free day, week or if you dare, a whole month! Get the family involved. Go explore local parks and hiking trails. Be a tourist in your own town. Go to historical sights, check out what the local college has to offer, take up a sport as a family, join the local YMCA. It is essential that kids this age MOVE and get fresh air. Buy them rollerblades, a bike, cross country or downhill skis, golf clubs. That seems pricey but is so worth all the activity and love of a new sport that it could create! Allow them to get dirty & mess up the yard or the house. Everything can be cleaned up later!
So with the holiday season fast approaching, I hope I've encouraged you to think outside of the box. Encourage family members to do that as well. By offering play experiences that are beyond the 'norm' you will inadvertently create so much learning, creativity and fun!!