Choosing the Best Toys for Your Child

by Lauren George, Family Support Specialist

Children are explorers and inventors who learn by doing. Play gives children an opportunity to develop and practice new skills at their own pace by following their unique interests. With hundreds and hundreds of options in the store, and thousands online, choosing toys should be easy, right?  The toys and non-toys your child engages with can shape his/her development in important ways while also keeping them entertained and exploring for hours.  If you are anything like me, the real question is knowing which toys will spark my child’s interest, support their imagination, and won’t be broken in a week!  Below are some ideas for choosing toys that will grow with your child, challenge them, and nurture their overall development – their thinking, physical, language, and social-emotional skills.

Open-ended toys that can be used in a variety of ways

Choose toys with no “right” or “wrong” way of playing that spark your child’s imagination and help her develop problem-solving and logical thinking skills:

  • Blocks
  • Cars & trucks
  • Animals
  • Building materials 

Toys that will grow with your child

Plan ahead for your child’s development by looking for toys that can be fun at different developmental stages and by children of different ages.  I often choose first birthday gifts this way, thinking about what a toddler would need rather than buying something for “now.”  These could include things like the open-ended materials listed above or:

  • Outdoor toys
  • Train sets
  • Oversized trucks
  • Larger investment pieces like a doll house or play kitchen

Toys that encourage exploration and problem-solving

STEM is a buzz word you might have heard before; it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Toys that promote STEM encourage exploration, problem-solving, and trial and error.  Choose toys that give kids a chance to figure something out on their own—or with a little coaching. Look for toys that build their logic skills and help them become persistent problem-solvers. These toys help children develop spatial-relations skills (understanding how things fit together), hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills, which is all about using the small muscles in the hands and fingers. These skills are all essential for school success! Look for:

  • Puzzles
  • Shape sorters
  • Magnetic builders
  • Interlocking blocks
  • Art materials

Toys that spark your child’s imagination

Toddlers are beginning to develop pretend-play skills, and by age three your child’s imagination has taken off.  For my son, he LOVED lawn tools.  Choose items that will spark their imagination and let them take on “real world” roles. Pretend play builds language and literacy skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to sequence (put events in a logical order). Look for things like:

  • Pretend mower and power tools
  • Kitchen set
  • Baby dolls (Yes, even for boys)
  • Costumes
  • Real items like old phones, keyboards, pots, and pans

Toys that encourage your child to be active

Children are developing A LOT in the first five years of life, doing all kinds of physical tricks as they become stronger and more confident with their bodies. Look for toys that help your child practice current physical skills and develop new ones. These toys can also help your child develop early writing and reading skills.

  • Books
  • Magnetic alphabet letters
  • Play dough
  • Magnadoodles
  • Art supplies like markers, crayons, and fingerpaints
  • Real-life” props like take-out menus, catalogs, or magazines

These toys fun for your child to look at and play with; and they also build familiarity with letters, text, and print.  Avoid things like flash cards or early reader books—choosing materials your child can explore and use with their hands! 

Toys based on your child’s age

Looking for more ideas for your child, based on his age? Check out these options!

Parlakian, Rebecca. 2020. Zero to Three. “Tips for Choosing Toys for Toddlers.” Accessed December 8, 2020.

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