Toys aren’t just fun. They’re learning power tools for your child’s brain–even if they’re not marketed as “educational.”
Just think: When you choose toys and activities that track with your child’s age and stage, you’re speaking your baby’s language and helping him develop cognitive, emotional, social and physical skills he can build on. Yeah—by just playing.
The inside story: Every time your baby plays with a toy—zzzt, zzzt–brain connections are made. In Consumer Reports Best Baby Products, I interviewed Roni Liederman, PhD, who said it best: If you could see inside your child’s brain when he’s playing, “it would look like a Christmas tree, with thousands of sparkling lights going off.”
Playing paves the way for the sandbox of life too. According to The Power of Play by child psychologist Rachel E. White, PhD, “The skills children learn through play in the early years set the stage for future learning and success from the kindergarten classroom to the workplace.”
You’re a Key Player
Of course, toys can’t get all the credit. You’re a key player in the process because babies and toddlers are attention junkies. They crave the one-on-one interaction and the security playing with you and other caregivers provides.
So, just so say no to “phubbing”—snubbing your baby with your phone by texting or answering e-mails when you’re supposed to be playing together. Everyone knows the feeling: You’re with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend or colleagues and they’re on their phone when you’re trying to get their attention. Wah!
Which toys should you buy for your baby? Read on for a game plan for now with help from Parents magazine and Dr. Toy.
Top Toys to Buy
Reality check: In the U.S. toys are a $22 billion industry. That amounts to lots to choose from and decipher on store shelves. To help you buy the best toys for your baby or toddler, Parents magazine editors and kid testers they recruited spent all summer testing toys by playing with them and .
Toys that got the thumbs-up from parents got a yes to these questions:
–Does the toy hold my child’s attention?
–Is this a toy I would want in my house?
–Does the toy easy to put together? (Too many pieces = deal killer.)
–Can I store it?
–Is the toy fit in my diaper bag? (for portable toys)
Parents can’t fit more than eight baby toys on a printed page. Needless to say, the toys they ended up selecting were highly curated. “I’m very proud of the list we came up with. It’s 49 strong toys,” Hartshorn says. Here, the toys that made the Parents cut for babies from birth to 12 months:
Birth to 12 Months:
More Great Contender Toys
Here are more best toy ideas for babies and toddlers :
Melissa and Doug Geometric Stacker; 25 colorful wooden pieces, for kids 24 months and up.
Puzzingo Kids Learning Puzzles; it’s a free download, for kids 18 months to 5 years
Craft-tastic Yarn Tree Kit; 8 months to 12 years
Mon Premier Bebe Calin Christmas Tales; a doll for kids ages 1.5 to 3 years
Luca and Company IVI 3D Play Rugs, for ages 0 to 7
Music Together Hey Diddle, Diddle singalong song book, for ages 1 to 8 years
Music Together Mr. Rabbit, singalong song book, for ages 1 to 8 years
Music Together Two Little Blackbirds, singalong song book, for ages 1 to 8 years
Oribel PortaPlay Convertible Activity Center, for 5 months to 5 years
Tubby Table Toys, for kids ages 1.5 to 4 years
Whistlefritz Spanish for Kids: The Ultimate Collection, for ages 1 to 7 years
Up the Fun Factor
All kids can be can be surprisingly fickle with toys. Even with the most engaging toy, their interest can vanish faster than a dollop of whipped cream on a cup of hot chocolate. To keep toys in play longer, try these tactics:
- Buy according to your child’s age. Take the manufacturer’s recommended age range on the toy package seriously. “Don’t buy up,” Hartshorn says. “Buying a toy that’s months older than your child’s age won’t make him smarter. Instead, he won’t get out of it what he’s supposed to or be able to play with it easily.” In addition to play value, age grading can alert you to a possible choking hazard, the presence of small parts, and other dangers. Try not to buy toys with small parts for a child older than 3 if you have a baby in the house. Your baby will find a way to get it.
- For kids age 3 and up: Look beyond the logo. Some of the season’s most popular toys tie in with TV, book, or movie characters. But—good news–these toys aren’t on your baby’s radar yet. “When your kids are really young, you can stay away from licensed characters and go with more inexpensive toys,” Hartshorn says. But once your baby hits age 3 or so, there’s no getting away from them. “They get their favorites soon enough,” says Hartshorn.
When you get to that stage, even if a licensed character toy tops your child’s holiday or birthday list, ask yourself a key question: “If I took your child’s fave character off this package, what do I have?”
“If a toy has nothing to offer beyond the character, don’t buy it,” says Richard Gottlieb, a toy-industry expert in New York City. Toys with low play value are destined to get ditched extra early. A better bet for older kids: Select toys that require creativity. “Building blocks, nontoxic art supplies, educational video games, musical instruments, and sports equipment last longer with kids than toys that have limited uses,” says Jed Baker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of No More Meltdowns.
- Rotate toys. If your baby/toddler/preschooler/older child get loads of toys this year, don’t let her have at them all at once. Instead, set aside some of the bounty for later. After that group has lost its luster, bring out the sequestered toys, and so on. Toy cycling helps constantly refresh your child’s interest. What’s old is new again.