The prudent holiday shopper with babies and toddlers on her list may opt for clothes or other necessities. While these items are greatly appreciated for children who need them, I would like to make the case for toys too. Toys are more than mere playthings. And play is more than just play. Play is a keypart of a child’s social, mental, physical, and emotional development. Appropriate, stimulating, and safe toys give children an opportunity to learn important skills.
Some toys are good for almost all ages. Blocks, for instance, may be simple but they offer different benefits as the child grows. For example, infants can hold blocks for muscle development and coordination. A little later, blocks teach object permanence, the idea that an object is still there even when it is out of sight. As the child grows, blocks provide opportunities to learn spatial relationships and language. Blocks can be used to foster imagination and creativity long into school age and beyond.
Most often, the best toy for each child is based on his developmental stage. Aim too high, and the child will miss the benefits. (You’ll have to put the toy away for a while and pull it out when he can gain the benefit.) If the toy is too simple for the child, he may be bored. Here’s a quick guide for choosing the right toy—otherwise known as an important learning tool—for the baby or toddler on your shopping list.
Ages 0 – 6 months. Very young infants have a fascination with movement, sound, and simple visuals. (Toys that offer high contrast black, white, and red designs are easiest for them to see.) Infants in this group are discovering their bodies, working on eye-hand coordination, reaching and working on their grasp.
Appropriate toys include mobiles, rattles, anything they can grasp, squeeze, kick, or shake. Infants also enjoy listening, which provides another great way for them to learn. There are many soft and squishy books that crinkle or squeak. They love to explore and even chew on them, which provides a great sensory experience.
Ages 6 – 8 months. This is the age of “cause and effect”. Six-to-eight month olds learn through the repetition of activities. They begin transferring toys from hand to hand and in/out of containers and buckets. They also begin to use infant toys in many new ways.
Ages 8 – 18 months. Children in this age span learn to foresee results and deliberately make things happen. They experiment with size, shape, and space. Look for push/pull toys, blocks, nesting cups, shape sorters, balls, and simple toys that can be taken apart. They are also interested in exploring their physical environments and their capabilities, so soft items to crawl over and through are very exciting to them.
Ages 18 – 24 months. At this age; children begin to enjoy “pretend” play. This is the time to start introducing dress-up clothes, dolls, kitchen sets, toy cars and trucks, puppets, and animals. They also have a lot of new-found dexterity and mental function. Try puzzles; peg boards; and toys with dials, switches, knobs, and lids.
Ages 24 – 36 months. Children between 2 and 3 years old are learning language, socialization, and motor skills very rapidly. They are also making huge gains, so their skills seem to expand in all directions. Help them continue to build on their imagination and creativity with crayons, finger paints, play dough, easels, legos, construction sets, and child-size chairs and tables.
Noise is also an enticement for this age span. They will love drums, hammer and pegs toys, and musical toys. To encourage their drive to move, think of balls for kicking and throwing, ride-on toys, tents, and tunnels.
Of course there are many, many options in each of the categories. When faced with choosing, why not pick the one you are most likely to enjoy as well? The toy that inspires the adults in a child’s life to take a moment away from all of the other important tasks at hand to play along—to share thoughts and language and build a caring relationship—is the very best gift of all.
Danielle Bacon is a developmental educator with Children’s Integrated Services, Early Intervention for Southern Vermont. She can be reached at 802-447-2768. CIS/Early Intervention offers a playgroup from 10:30 a.m. – noon Mondays at the Bennington Free Library.