7 of the best toys for toddlers

In my last post I shared with you 15 toys for baby’s first year. Babies are great and all, but now it’s time to talk about toys for toddlers!

7 of the best toys for toddlers. Covers all major skill areas developed in the toddler years!

I’ll be honest, this post was a little trickier because kids’ abilities and interests become even more varied at this age, so it’s difficult to put together a definitive list of toys. So rather than share specific toys that toddlers may find appealing (that list would be waaaay too long), I’m going to share with you seven categories of toys that will be sure to entertain them while also challenging their skills and encouraging their development in areas such as fine motor, gross motor, cognitive, language comprehension & expression, social emotional, self-help, and sensory-motor.

As mentioned in my last post, you don’t always have to go out of your way to purchase toys. Many of the best ones can be found right in your own home. However, if what you’re looking for is some direction in your toy-buying, then you’ve come to the right place. This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click over and wind up making a purchase, Mama OT will receive a small commission to help keep this blog running, at no extra cost to you (thank you for your support!). Read my full disclosure here.

Here are seven of the best types of toys for toddlers (ages 1-3):

1. Toys that encourage problem-solving and fine motor skills.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development. Problem solving and fine motor skills often go hand-in-hand…literally. Kids — especially toddlers — learn through hands-on experience and need to be given the chance to figure things out on their own (within reason, of course) in order to promote higher level cognitive and motor skills later on. Some examples include shape sorters, large Duplo blocks, blocks for stacking and balancing, pegboards, basic puzzles with knobs (animals, shapes, vehicles, etc.), and play dough with accessories. Don’t forget that the development of fine motor skills also requires activities that will strengthen kids’ hands, so go for products that will challenge fine motor strength such as those that involve tongs, tweezers, or scissors for snipping (such as play dough scissors). Safety first: avoid choking hazards.

2. Toys that encourage interaction with vertical surfaces.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development. Interaction with vertical surfaces encourages kids’ wrists to bend upwards into extension, which is a pre-requisite for skilled handwriting (and typing). It also strengthens their shoulder girdle area, which is where the majority of their fine motor power will come from as their hands begin to develop the ability to scribble, color, and draw. After that, they will really need those strong arms to be able to support their rapidly advancing fine motor and writing skills. Depending on their age, consider toys such as play cubes, bath tub crayons, foam bath toys, dry erase crayons (my absolute favorite!), magnets to play with, or easels. Use chalkboard paint, chalkboard spray paint, or chalkboard contact paper to turn practically any vertical space into a chalk-friendly surface. Or easily make your own vertical surface simply by tipping a puzzle upright during puzzle play, taping coloring paper to the wall, or tilting a baking sheet vertically in order to encourage magnet play.

3. Toys that kids can ride.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development. Forget the battery-powered Barbie/Spiderman Jeep. I’m talking about ride-on toys that allow kids to propel themselves. Remember those old-school Little Tikes cars that kids would sit in and use their feet to “drive” themselves? Those are awesome. So are other ride-on toys without pedalstricycles, sit & spin toys, inflatable hopping horses, and scooter boards. (Click here for 10 fun scooter board activities from Therapy Fun Zone, such as body bowling!). Just as skilled hands require strong arms and shoulders to support them, they also require a strong and stable core. Strong hands are no good if they aren’t supported by a stable base, and ride-on toys such as these encourage the development of a strong, coordinated, stable base. Oh yeah, and they’re fun, too!

4. Toys that encourage both hands to work together.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development.
Before kids can succeed in tasks such as skilled writing, coloring, or cutting, they need to be able to use both hands together well. Their hands can be doing the same thing at the same time (tossing and catching a ball, pushing and pulling pop beads), or one hand can be stabilizing an object while the other manipulates (velcro ball mitts, Potato Headlarge lacing beads, wind-up toys, toys with zippers or snaps). Though there will be some overlap with the toys from Point One (that encourage problem-solving and fine motor skills), these toys are unique in that they pretty much require the use of two hands in order to successfully operate them, and they are just as important.

5. Toys that encourage pretend play.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development. The toddler years are the golden years of creativity. Embrace them! Toddlers can pretend with just about anything, even if it’s not meant to be a toy. If you’re looking to make a purchase, encourage imaginary play with goodies such as pretend food (especially the kind you can “cut” apart with a plastic or wooden knife), kitchen sets, dress-up clothes (don’t look too far!), baby dolls (for dolls are for girls AND boys!), stuffed or plastic animals (watch out for choking hazards, of course), and toddler-sized brooms, doll strollers, or shopping carts. Have a few basics on hand, and leave the rest to your child’s ever-growing imagination!

6. Toys that feel “weird”.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development. Toddlers learn best when they can use all their senses. Additionally, it’s important for kiddos to be able to tolerate and interact with substances of all kinds of textures, from wet and slimy, to scratchy and bumpy, and everything in between. In general, the more toddlers can use their hands to interact with “weird” sensations early on, the more likely they will be able to tolerate various textures of foods in their mouths (thus alleviating some stress related to picky eating behaviors, read more about helping your picky eater here). Think about it: if you wouldn’t touch certain textures with your hands, why would you put them in your mouth? Some examples include playing with shaving or whipped cream, play dough, glow-in-the-dark slime, simple cornstarch/water mixture, flubbercooked spaghetti, bucket of dry beans/pasta/rice (find hidden toys like puzzle pieces or lacing beads in them), (squeezable) sidewalk chalk, (edible) finger paint, bubble wrap, floamcloud dough, regular sand, Kinetic Sand, or Living Sands. Whew! Though these aren’t really “toys” per se, I really felt they needed to be included because of how important they are for kids’ developing bodies and brains. Buy them or make many of them yourself. Or better yet, have your toddler help you make them!

7. Books.
An occupational therapist describes 7 of the best toys for toddlers that will help encourage their overall development.  It’s never too early to introduce children to books. Kids who are read to from an early age are more likely to become good readers and achieve academic success than those who aren’t read to on a regular basis, regardless of socioeconomic status. But it’s not enough to simply read books to kids. Little ones who become the most successful in reading and academics in late elementary school and beyond are the ones whose caregivers involved them in story time and made it interactive. Point out pictures and words, ask questions about what will happen next, clarify unfamiliar words to develop vocabulary, and check for understanding to develop comprehension. Look for engaging books that encourage rhythm, rhyming, repetition, matching, and/or identification of objects (animals, vehicles, body parts, shapes, colors, numbers, etc.). Give kids chances to improve their fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills by allowing them to turn the pages one by one, and help their imagination run wild as you narrate the story with unique character voices. Just wait: by the time your toddler is three years old, she’ll probably be “reading” and performing many of her favorites stories for you!

For more toddler play ideas, check out The Toddler’s Busy Book: 365 Creative Games and Activities to Keep your 1 1/2- to 3-Year-Old Busy. It’s a real treat.

I hope you keep these seven categories in mind and share them with others as you enjoy (or at least survive) the energetic, exhausting, imaginative toddler years!

And once you emerge from the toddler years, be sure to check out my post about 10 of the best toys and games for preschoolers!

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Photo credit for images one, two, three, four, five, sixseven

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Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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16 thoughts on “7 of the best toys for toddlers

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  10. Thanks, for writing this post – with my (now) 17 month old we’re working on finally transitioning out of all the baby toys (Christmas is coming…!) I wrote a blog post a couple months ago that addressed this, where I talked about how the best toy I found for him (and two months later he still loves it) was a set of 20 small boxes at a yard sale. We open and close these all many times, and pull them out every couple days.

    I know you make suggestions for other to play with, and I would say that a dozen or so small boxes (ring boxes, lip gloss, twist lid…etc) are a really good investment.


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  13. I had to comment over on this one as well. Great list and hands down my favorite is pretend play for toddlers. So many skills are developed from social, emotional and motor skills. But again I would have to add stacking cups to the list – great for water play. I would include water as the #8 toy for toddlers.

  14. First time on this site… Coming to it, I was wondering what the OT was. Being a sports fan, the natural guess was “overtime” and being a Mama, I’m sure “overtime” was quite appropriate. Now I know it means Occupational Therapist!

    I’m a dad of a an almost 3 year old girl. and E has really been getting to the whole pretend-play thing. I’m one who’s very big on imagination so I’m quite ecstatic that she’s into this right now. Her big thing is role-playing where she pretends to either be me, or my wife and I have to be her (role-reversal). Her favorite toys right now are her Disney Princesses (any way shape or form), she’s got about 30+ of these.

    She’s also in love with Peppa Pig, so I started my own online Peppa Pig store in order for her love of Peppa. check it out at http://www.peppaplayhouse.com

  15. What a great resource to remind people of the over arching developmental goals rather than focus on glittery things with batteries which say the are educational,

So, whadya think?