‘Tis the season for gift-giving! Whether you are browsing a toy store or searching online, the options for toys are truly endless. How do you choose the best one for your child? Many toys are electronic and loaded with lights and sounds. While these toys are labeled as developmental, often times they provide less opportunities for creativity for the child as he or she simply watches and is entertained by the “show” put on by the toy. The more the toy does means the less your child has to do.  The best toys are ones that actively engage your child both physically and intellectually. When playing, a child develops essential critical thinking, language, motor, and social skills as well as creativity and self-confidence. It is important to provide toys that will support your child’s development in these critical areas. The more your child has to problem-solve and use his or her imagination, the more your child will learn through play. Keep reading for tips about choosing toys that will challenge your child, nurture his or her development, and continue to grow with them as they advance through their young years. Check out the sections that pertain to your child’s age, and skip ahead to know what to look for in the coming years!

Birth to 6 months: Choose toys that arouse your infant’s senses.

  • High contrast black and white board books are visually engaging. Books with photographs of other infants or a mirror to look at themselves is also a great resource to visually engage your child. Books with rhythmic nursery rhymes are great for auditory stimuli.
  • Pick toys that the child can reach for, hold on to, suck on, shake, and make noise with. Ideas include small rattles, large rings, soft dolls or animals (small enough to be held by an infant), and textured balls/toys. The Sophie la Girafe toy is a popular and fun infant toy that stimulates your baby’s five senses. The Oball brand of infant toys are easy for young children to grasp with bright colors for visual engagement. They are also great teething toys.
  • Toys should support interaction —find toys that do less for your child and allow more room for you to interact with your child (for example, making animal noises or singing).

Sophie La Girafe- Gift set Award   O Ball Gift Set, Roarin' and Rollin'   Look, Look!   Sassy Floor Mirror, Blue

7 to 12 months: Active toys are best for infants on-the-go.

  • These infants are starting to move more and more! Active toys such as push and pull toys and large balls are great for learning and gross motor development. One personal favorite is the Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker.
  • Older infants love to place things “in and out”. Plastic bowls and hand-sized toys (balls, blocks) can provide hours of entertainment. Shape sorters may be a bit advanced at this age, but purchasing ones that are box-shaped and can be opened wide is a great toy that will grow with your child. Initially the infant will play with it as a “drop in and out” toy, but as the child grows he or she will learn how to manipulate the shapes to place them in the appropriate spot—which is an excellent fine motor and visual-motor skill.
  • Visually engaging books, such as board books with simple pictures or “real-life” images are excellent for learning simple words.
  • Since these babies are interested in exploring, consider introducing your child to water toys. Simple stacking cups for emptying and filling can be great fun.
  • It is not too early to introduce toys for pretend play with such as dolls, vehicles, and play food.
  • Toys for stacking (large soft blocks, wooden blocks, stacking cups, large pegboard toys) are great fun to begin working on visual-motor skills.

VTech Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker - Blue - Online Exclusive   The First Years Stacking Up Cups   Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Baby's First Blocks   First 100 Words

 Toddlers: Find toys that help your child explore.

  • Choose toys that are “open-ended”, meaning they can be used in a variety of ways. Toddlers love to take things apart, change things, and add to structures. These toys help develop your child’s problem solving skills and provide opportunities for adult interaction in play.

Ideas: blocks, Legos, magnetic sets, and pegboards.

Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks Set - 100 Blocks in 4 Colors and 9 Shapes   42 Pieces Mini Magnetic Building Blocks Toys Set, Educational Magnet Bricks Tiles Construction Stacking Kit For Kids | 5 Different Shapes Block Set   Learning Resources Stacking Shapes Pegboard

  • Introduce materials they can create with—think non-toxic washable markers, crayons, and dot paints. Children love to explore with different art-mediums. Just make sure they are safe materials in case your child brings it to their mouth.

    Crayola Pip-Squeaks Washable Markers Kit, Art Tools, Over 65 Pieces, Includes Markers, Paper and Durable Case   Do A Dot Art! Markers 6-Pack Rainbow Washable Paint Markers, The Original Dot Marker   ALEX Jr. Tots Art Start

  • Choose toys that promote imagination. The toddler years are when children really start to think imaginatively. There are many great toys that support imaginative play and can grow with your child. Whether they play with you, siblings, or peers it all promotes social interaction.

Ideas: Dress-up clothes, trains and trucks, kitchen/play food, doctor kit, beauty salon toys, animal toys, and puppets.

Learning Resources Pretend & Play Doctor Set   Melissa & Doug Cutting Fruit Set - Wooden Play Food Kitchen Accessory   Schleich World of Nature African Animals Series 4

  • Find toys that promote exploration and problem-solving. Toddlers are curious and love to explore and learn new things. With a little guidance, toys can facilitate exploration and problem solving.

Ideas: puzzles, craft supplies, objects to sort (by size, shape, color), busy boards (with hooks, buttons, locks, snaps), lacing beads, kinetic sand, and water toys.

Melissa & Doug Latches Wooden Activity Board   Learning Resources Beads and Pattern Card Set   Spin Master - Kinetic Sand - 1.5lb - Brown

  • Find toys that can grow with your child. It is disappointing when your child is bored with their new toy within a week or two. Finding toys that can grow with your child through multiple developmental stages is a great bonus. For example, toy animals can be used during the early toddler years to learn animal sounds, and in later toddler years the animal can be used in imaginative play to act out a story.

Ideas: dolls/dollhouse, toy vehicles, cash register (initially simply pushing buttons for cause and effect learning, later playing ‘store’). 

Adora PlayTime Baby Flower Vinyl 13" Girl Weighted Washable Cuddly Snuggle Soft Toy Play Doll Gift Set with Open/Close Eyes for Children 1+ Includes Bottle   12 Pcs Wooden Train Cars & Emergency Vehicles Collection Fits Thomas, Brio, Chuggington   Basic Fun Fisher-Price Cash Register

  • Choose toys that look like “the real thing.” At this age, children are very interested in learning how things work, such as your cell phone, car keys, or the vacuum. Kids love toys that look like “the real thing.”

Ideas: play cookware, toy phones, cleaning toys (mop, vacuum, broom), strollers, musical instruments, child-size lawn mower.

    Liberty Imports Metal Pots and Pans Kitchen Cookware Playset for Kids with Cooking Utensils Set   Melissa & Doug Let's Play House Dust! Sweep! Mop! 6-Piece Pretend Play Set   Mommy & Me My First Doll Stroller 9318   Fisher-Price Bubble Mower

  • Find toys that keep your child active. The toddler years are important for developing both fine and gross motor skills. Providing toys that keep your child active and opportunities to develop or refine their skills is very important.

Ideas: tricycles, various sized balls, child-size basketball hoop, hula hoop, bean bags, sports equipment. 

Radio Flyer Red Rider Trike    Little Tikes Easy Score Basketball Set - 3 Ball   Set of 4 Soft PU Mini Sports Balls for Kids (Football, Basketball, Soccer, Baseball) by Liberty Imports   Franklin Sports Air Tech Soft Foam Baseball Glove and Ball Set - Special Edition

  • Consider “getting ready to read” toys. Magnetic letters are a fun way to help your child become familiar with letters and identifying the sound each letter makes. Books are always a great option for gifts. Craft supplies can also be used in creative ways to help your child practice drawing and writing. Early board games can be fun and educational, as well as providing early opportunities for reciprocal social engagement and learning how to take turns.

EduKid Toys 72 Magnetic Letters & Numbers (Tote) 1.25" - 1.75"   Monsters Love Colors   Educational Insights The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game

Pre-school to age 8: Help your child imagine, learn, and have fun.

  • Invest in toys for constructive play—Constructive play develops many important skills including imagination, perseverance, an understanding of spatial relationships, and fine-motor skills. Children also develop a sense of accomplishment through their success with creating elaborate structures.

Ideas: Blocks, Legos, Lincoln Logs.

LEGO Classic Medium Creative Brick Box 10696   LINCOLN LOGS - Horseshoe Hill Station - 83 Pieces - Ages 3+ Preschool  Education Toy   Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Solid-Wood Building Blocks With Wooden Storage Tray (60 pcs)

  • Collect household play toys—Children love to imitate their parents and adults around them. These toys provide them opportunities to “practice” and engage in hours of imaginative play.

Ideas: Kitchen items, play tools, cleaning toys, baby dolls, fishing equipment, dress up clothes.

Black & Decker Junior 14 Piece Toy Tool Belt Set   Learning Resources Pretend & Play Fishing Set   Dress Up for Boys Hero Adventure Trunk

  • Use equipment that encourages physical activity—Physical activity is crucial for children, and with increasing “screen time”/time spent on electronics, many children lack the competence and confidence for activities because of limited experience.

Ideas: jump ropes, balls, hula hoop, baseball glove, zip-ball, skates, a bicycle, scooter. 

32" Snap Together Detachable Kids Hula Hoop for Playing     Toy Cubby Zip and Zoom Ball Family Game Slider.       OxGord Scooter for Kids - Deluxe Black 3 Wheel Glider with Kick n Go, Lean 2 Turn, Step 4 Break- 2016 Newly Designed Models

  • Find sturdy animals, dinosaurs, and vehicles—Think farm animals, zoo animals, household pets, dinosaurs. All of these animals can pair well with the building blocks, allowing your child to design elaborate scenes making farms, jungles, and zoos. 

Schleich World of Nature Farm Animals Series 2   Schleich World of History Dinosaurs   Toy State Caterpillar Tough Tracks, 3-Pack (3" x 1.5" x 2") (each item varies in size)

  • Gather art materials—The options are endless when it comes to craft supplies. Children this age love finger paint, glitter, scissors, glue, stickers, wikki stix, crayons and markers, stencils, colored paper, and the list could go on. Don’t forget play-dough with cookie cutters or a rolling pin. 

Creativity Street Glitter Variety Pack, 0.75-Ounce Jars, 12-Pack, Assorted Colors (AC8710)   Wikki Stix Re-Usable Creative Fun Wax Covered Yarn Stix, Primary & Neon Colors, 96 Piece Mega Pack in Resealable Bag   Play-Doh Starter Set

  • Play simple musical instruments—A musical instrument set, rhythm sticks, a ukulele, or drums can be great for teaching interest in music and helping your child develop an understanding of rhythm. 

Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap! - 10-Piece Musical Instrument Set   Janod Ukulele Music Set, Mixed   Click n' Play Set of 2 Musical Wind Instruments for Kids - Metallic Silver Saxophone and Trumpet Horn   Remo Rhythm Club Bongo Drum - Rhythm Kids, 5"-6"

  • Choose a sturdy dollhouse—If possible, provide enough dolls to represent your family or those close to you, as well as some basic furniture. You do not need to purchase the expensive wooden dollhouses. You can create a family project putting together sturdy cardboard boxes, cutting out windows, decorating walls, and gluing on scrap fabric for carpet. 

KidKraft Chelsea Doll Cottage with Furniture       Melissa & Doug Fold and Go Wooden Castle Dollhouse With Wooden Dolls and Horses (12 pcs) Creative Dollhouse Coloring Activity Kit

  • Play simple board games and card games—age-appropriate games can teach cooperative play and social skills, as well as encouraging problem-solving and promoting learning.

Zingo Sight Words   Peaceable Kingdom Hoot Owl Hoot! Cooperative Board Game   Peaceable Kingdom Feed the Woozle Award Winning Preschool Skills Builder Game

With all that said, electronic and light up toys are not terrible, and I don’t want to burden you with guilt for owning them as I have such toys in my house as well. I would say, though, that some toys are more “developmentally dense” than others, and my hope is that these suggestions kick-start your thinking as you begin gift shopping. Evaluate what toys encourage exploration, creativity, motor development, problem-solving, and social interaction. Remember, play is the “work” of childhood, and good toys can help children learn many valuable skills. Lastly, don’t forget to get in there and play with your child! There is nothing better for your child than engaging in conversation and actively playing with them.


Of note: In order to provide images of favorite toys while obeying image copyright laws, Carrie became a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.