As you’re making your Christmas gift selections this year, we have some tips to finding toys that are fun and help kids develop important developmental skills. Occupational Therapist Laurie Braswell, OTR/L, and Physical Therapist Africa Cook break it down by age group. Read on to learn about great toys that can promote learning.

Infants

When selecting a toy for an infant under a year of age, simpler is often better. Babies are learning to explore the world around them using their different senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch), so toys should appeal to at least one of their senses.

A crib mobile can help a baby learn to watch and follow with their eyes. Try toys that have a variety of textures for the baby to touch – soft, fuzzy, bumpy or crinkly.  Infants love putting toys in their mouth, so be sure that the toys you pick do not have small pieces.

Infants are also learning to coordinate their movements. Rings and rattles are great for babies to learn to grasp with their hands. Play mats and toy arches give babies the chance to learn to reach and roll.  Boppy pillows are great for cradling newborns, but can also be used with older babies to help support their bodies while sitting or for putting under their chest to make tummy time a little bit easier. Tummy time is important for babies when they are awake so they can learn to push up on their arms, strengthen their neck and back, and eventually learn to crawl.  Giving a baby a mirror or a light-up toy to look at can encourage them to lift their head or roll to where they can see it.

Toddlers

For toddlers, there are a number of toys that can promote new skills. A simple rubber ball can encourage a child to run, throw the ball, roll the ball, or begin to catch. Toddlers enjoy toys that include cause and effect – pushing a button and having an animal pop up, for example, or hitting a drum to make it play music. A toddler activity table has several different buttons and switches that can be pushed, and is a great way to work on standing and balancing too!

Preschoolers

Preschoolers are at an age where they begin to play pretend, so any kind of toy that helps them use their imagination is a good choice. They may like a kitchen set, dress up clothes, or a toy tool box.  Preschoolers will enjoy beginning to work with crayons or finger paints, and this will help prepare them for school. Construction/building sets (such as Duplos or Legos) or play dough are also a good way for a child to learn to use their hands and be creative.

School-aged children

School-aged children can keep working on their coordination by using bicycles or scooters – be sure to start them in the habit of wearing a helmet early on!  Start using a bicycle with training wheels or an assist bar. Any toy that encourages movement, like a jump rope or a throw and catch set, is a good idea at this age. Craft projects are a great way to work on fine motor skills and creativity. Board games are not only a good way to work on problem solving and following directions, but they can be a fun way to get kids (and parents) playing together. 

Toys that can span all ages

In general, try to look for toys that can be used for several different things.  For example, a child could use a container of colored blocks to work on learning colors, or to work on stacking and building, or even as pretend “food” while playing house. Books are great for children of all ages – starting with just looking at the pages, then touching the pages, turning the pages, following along, picking out favorite pictures or items on the pages, and eventually reading on their own.

Remember, children will learn the most when they are DOING something as an active participant rather than just watching from the sidelines!  A child will learn more from putting together a puzzle, bouncing a basketball or playing a board game than they will from watching TV.