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 toddlers!
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.
Here are seven of the best toys for toddlers (ages 1-3):
1. Toys that encourage problem-solving and fine motor skills.
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.
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, or easels. Use chalkboard 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, taping coloring paper to the wall, or tilting a baking sheet vertically in order to encourage magnet play.
3. Toys that kids can ride.
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 pedals, tricycles, sit & spin toys, inflatable hopping horses, and scooter boards. (Click here for 10 fun scooter board activities 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.
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 Head, large 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.
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 knife), kitchen sets, dress-up clothes (don’t look too far!), baby dolls (for girls and boys), stuffed or plastic animals, 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”.
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). 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, flubber, cooked 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, floam, cloud dough, and sand. 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!
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!
[Update: Be sure to check out my post about 10 of the best toys and games for preschoolers!]