It’s gift-giving season again -- have you been asked for your wish list yet? Advertisements and commercials may excite parents into considering brand-new digital or screen-based gifts for their children that promise to be fun, educational, and perfect for their child’s developmental phase. While it’s true older children and even toddlers may enjoy their time watching videos or playing games, the AAP cautions that screen time may take away valuable one-on-one time with caregivers, and that tried and true toys like blocks and puzzles are still the most beneficial for kids to play, learn and grow with.
In this guide, we recommend 10 toys and games for four areas of learning outlined by the AAP and HealthyChildren.org -- symbolic and pretend play, books and toys that expand the use of language, physical and major motor skill play, and toys that develop fine motor skills -- that fit the recommendations of pediatricians and the AAP, and enable a warm, bonding experience with caregiver and child.
“[Pediatricians and parents should] recognize that one of the most important purposes of play with toys, especially in infancy, is not educational but rather to facilitate warm, supportive interactions and relationships.”
Fine Motor/Manipulative Play
Fine motor skills will be helpful for kids their entire lives, whether they’re writing their names or getting dressed. Toys that encourage fine motor skills are helpful for all ages, but especially toddlers, who are quickly learning the skills that will help them graduate to living more independently.
There’s a reason rattles have been around since at least the Iron Age. Rattles across history have been made of clay, metal, coral, plastic, cloth, and wood, and are both a sensory toy for a baby to play with and usually a teething device too. Rattles also encourage babies to develop their arm strength and practice grasping.
Toddlers love to stack almost anything, which is why a handy set of blocks is a great multitasking toy for children learning to explore their world. By playing with blocks while engaging with a parent or sibling, toddlers learn social rules like sharing and collaboration, while engaging motor skills and imaginative play as they build towers, cities, or buildings. Blocks with bright images can help them learn colors, animals, letters, and numbers.
Think blocks are only for the littles? A Jenga set is a great way for kids and adults to challenge each other’s problem-solving skills and have some friendly competition.
Similar to blocks but requiring more cognitive skills and fine motor coordination, connecting toys like Legos, Lincoln logs, and other buildable and stackable objects are great options for children learning to spend more independent play time creating their own entertainment. Kids can play by themselves or complete a project with a partner, and have a fantastic sense of pride in a project they made themselves.
Gross Motor Skills/Physical Play
Physical play is crucial for children, building healthy bodies and early lessons in fitness. Ball games are perfect for little and big kids, as well as dancing, running, and climbing, keeping energy levels manageable and encouraging kids to spend time outside.
Play mat/Activity gym
Gifts for babies often include clothing, blankets, and teething instruments, but toys are still instrumental in early development as their hearing, vision, and spatial awareness expands. A play mat is ideal for tummy time, which allows a baby to develop strong neck and shoulder muscles and prevent flat spots in the growing skull plates.
Depending on the child’s age, toys, mirrors, and musical buttons can be attached to arches over the play mat for engaging with curious hands, eyes, and ears.
Sports are a great outlet for kids to manage energy and build teamwork, not to mention keep healthy! For smaller kids or alternatives to sports, physical play can be a healthy and fun way to keep children moving. Play gyms, indoor skating rinks, and trampoline parks are great for a weekend romp or for parties. These kid-friendly locations can also be suitable for children with disabilities or sensory sensitivities when parents inquire ahead. Hiking and walks can present a free and family-friendly activity, as well as playing in snow or leaves, where weather allows. In appropriate locations, important lessons can be imparted by learning to swim and ride a bicycle. Indoor physical play can range from impromptu dance sessions, family room obstacle courses, or helping mom and dad with household chores.
Creativity doesn’t appear out of thin air, but it can be built over a child’s life by encouraging them to express their imagination and personality through play. A 2015 meta analysis of arts integration in early childhood education found that engagement with music, arts, and creative play helps children to express emotions, improve social skills, and reduction in anxiety.
Dress up items
Imaginative play helps kids explore new worlds and learn to self-soothe, entertain themselves, play with others, and enjoy the spotlight. Dressing up with play clothes can be endless hours of fun for siblings or only children designing stories and plays of their own. Choices are abundant and can be selected for a child’s likes and interests, whether they prefer royal attire or dressing for their dream job of police officer, cowpoke, or astronaut. Kids also enjoy dressing their favorite stuffed toys or dolls in appropriate costumes, and many have extended this service to family pets!
However, investment in a costume department isn’t necessary -- families can equally enjoy the sight of kids dressed in mom’s shoes and grandpa’s hat or the genius of a blanket for a cape.
The possibilities in choosing art supplies, much like the art itself, are almost endless. Choosing the right supplies for a child’s development is important. A toddler can safely play with washable markers, stickers, chalk, crayons, and paint under supervision. Art projects for school age kids can range from paint-by-numbers, sculpture, drawing, and popsicle stick creations. The important thing is to encourage creativity and the participation of caregivers.
Play that Improves Language and Social Skills
Communication between a child and trusted adult helps them grow and learn, which means that even simple trips to the store and reading together helps children expand vocabulary and learn about their world. While social skills and trust are built by any sort of play, older kids will find avenues for improving social skills and creativity by learning academic and domestic skills that will last them a lifetime.
Reading to children is a wonderful practice for literacy and bonding between parent and child. When selecting appropriate books for children, parents and physicians can consult with a child’s teacher or refer to AAP recommendations for early literacy. Books are available from donation organizations like Reach Out and Read and of course from local libraries.
Reading aloud can be a great part of a bedtime routine, and engage children in important social skills like listening and answering questions, as well as learning vocabulary words and an interest in reading.
Classes, Groups, and Play Dates
Introducing a child to other kids her age will innately foster social skills, language, and empathy -- for who can understand a toddler like another toddler? Whether kids play with siblings, go on play dates with friends, or attend classes or groups for kids, early interaction with other kids can introduce first friendships and even the inevitable social quarrels that teach valuable lessons.
Play groups may be organized by parenting groups online, through local libraries, through a parent’s network, through religious organizations, or even through the friendly neighborhood pediatrician. Classes such as gymnastics, dance, and soccer bring kids together for fun and social play. Children in daycares will inevitably spend time with each other. The key to successful social learning is both allowing kids the freedom to play together, while guiding them through appropriate lessons in inclusion, empathy, sharing, and teamwork.
Finally: A Pediatrician’s Wish List
Many toys are advertised as educational, but do not engage a child with another person or teach them complex skills. However, remaining wary of “educational” labels on toys and games doesn’t mean that kids can’t have great fun using both the simple and reliable toys that have been enjoyed for generations, as well as new devices like phones, tablets, and video games.
A pediatrician’s wish list may have a variety of toys on it which are sure to thrill patients, but at the top of the list is the wish that with every toy a child loves is a caregiver just as thrilled to play with them.
For more information on literacy and the benefits of reading aloud to children, check out our blog post, which details organizations that help provide books and assists every family in spending reading time together.