Toys for the Young Child

Child playing with colorful toy blocks

The gift-giving holidays are upon us! Families are beginning to think about and purchase gifts for their children.  It’s great if we can help families choose gifts that will enhance their children’s play and learning.  Here are some considerations you can share with them as they look for toys that their children will be excited about and will use to enjoy and learn into their future.

  1. Is the toy safe? Is it sturdy, with no small pieces to break off?  Will it be dangerous in the wrong hands?
  2. Will the toy last? We buy disappointment for children when we give them toys that break in a couple of days.  Children will see that they live in a throw-away world; find things that last…that they can depend on.
  3. Does the Toy Meet A Developmental Need?
    • Physical development by providing experiences in coordination and movement. Examples: balls; toys to push, pull or climb on; toys that fit together; books like button books that ask wrists and fingers to manipulate objects.
    • Cognitive or mental development. Toys that encourage children to reason, solve problems and think creatively such as puzzles, games, and blocks, and, of course, books.
    • Language and social development. Toys that encourage imaginative play and things to talk about…that encourage children to try words and situations on for size with books, dolls, puppets, cars people, dress-up clothes.
    • Creative expression and experimentation. Examples: open-ended art materials…crayons, markers, paint; magnets, magnifying glasses and color viewers; natural toys–water, mud and sand.
  4. Is the toy appropriate for the age of the child?
    • The Infant (0-1)–is learning about herself, learning how to control her body and user her senses. She responds to touch, sounds and smells.  Infants need safe, simple toys that they can master; toys that are easy to hold onto that they can touch, feel, and watch.  Suggestions:  mobiles, rattles, teethers, board books with texture, water, musical toys, baby mirrors, and washable stuffed animals and dolls.
    • The Toddler (1-2)–has learned about himself and feels confident in learning about the world around him. He is especially interested in learning how to control his world.  He recognizes others but is still self-centered and prefers to play alone.  This is a time of development of large muscle control and learning to imitate sounds and actions of others.  He needs toys he can safely push, pull, climb on and take in and out.  Suggestions:  wooden blocks; sand box with scoops; small cars, trucks, and people; large durable trucks to push and walk on; water toys; simple dress-up toys such as hats, scarves; balls; books; simple wind-up toys; beginning puzzles; stuffed animals and dolls.
    • Pre-Three (2-3)–concerned with self-expression, beginnings of socialization. Suggestions:  same as the toys suggested for the toddler except she can now use small riding toys (not a trike); table -top easels; creative materials such as paper, crayons, watercolor felt marking pens, play dough; rhythm instruments; records; puzzles; books; play phones; small wagon.
    • Preschool (3-5)–concerned with senses, coordination, self-expression, and has more of a social awareness of others. Suggestions:  any of the previously mentioned toys plus tricycles, wagons, large blocks, balance beams, flannel boards, magnet boards, pencils, paints, scissors, past, collage materials; pounding toys, real tools, nuts and bolts; puppets, dress-up clothes, dolls and doll houses; play centers, hide-aways, sewing cards,. puzzles, learning games, magnets, magnifying glasses, books.
  5. Is the toy nonsexist? Preschool children enjoy all types of toys and should not be limited by gender role toys and expectations.

All of these toy suggestions enhance learning best when an adult is part of the picture, adding to the child’s experience.  This kind of intervention doesn’t always come natural to family members.  Perhaps, in January, after the holidays, you can plan your activities around using gifts children opened at their holiday, focusing on helping families use what they have to enhance learning.

This article was originally published in December 1995 and has been modified for the December 2020 issue of the Early Childhood Express newsletter.

This article was contributed by Mary Perkins for the Early Childhood Express newsletter.