Developmental Toys

When I was pregnant with my first child a friend said to me, “You know, you don’t need to buy many toys for a child. Just make sure you have some Tupperware, a cardboard box, some plastic measuring cups, and a wooden spoon and she’ll be happy”. I chuckled at the time, thinking “How many toys can one little baby need?”, but by my child’s first birthday I was no longer chuckling. Toys seemed to spontaneously generate in our living room. There were dozens of things that people told me my child needed . Mothers in my play group didn’t ask IF we had something, but HOW MANY we had. I received emails regularly from toy companies touting their latest toys that my child needed to have to develop on target. I conscientiously read all labels, did safety checks, scanned Amazon reviews, and kept checklists to make sure that I got my child what she needed when she needed it and that it was safe and reliable.

Then one day, after I had had my second child and the toy parade had started up its encore, I decided to stop the madness. What did my child really need? I certainly survived childhood (and even came out okay) without all these things to stimulate my left brain, my right brain, my intellect through music, and the many, many electronic items that cause my husband and I to purchase batteries each time we’re near a Target. I took a step back and thought about what we had that we really needed, versus what we enjoyed. The following article covers items that I feel really do contribute to a child’s development. Please note that it is NOT an all-inclusive list. I’m sure there are more things out there, or your own child may have benefited from or loved another item. These are not the “items any mother can’t live without” but my own personal take on “the type of toys that you should invest in since they contribute to a child’s development in his/her first 18 months”. Feel free to add to this list through one of the Mom Advice forums!

For the littlest ones, let’s start with toys that promote sensorimotor development. Rattles encourage reaching and grabbing and help motor skills development. Mobiles encourage visual tracking and reaching. Textures, such as rough, soft, crinkly, etc. give varying kinesthetic responses for your baby. Setting interesting toys just out of reach while on the floor encourages a slightly older baby (4+ months) to reach, roll, or crawl. Having an unbreakable mirror available for “tummy time” is fun for the baby and encourages beginning social skills.

As the child grows, ride-on toys that roll or rock are good for gross motor skill development. Soft balls for throwing and catching are great for outdoors or indoors. A larger, soft ball for rolling, kicking, and throwing with both hands is useful, too.

Language is an area that most parents focus on, and the best way to promote these skills is by talking to your child. (This is even free!). Naming items, talking to your baby whether he or she can understand the words or not, singing, and reading to your child are all important. The importance of reading to your child can’t be underemphasized. However, I have noticed that children’s books are as expensive, if not more, than adult books! The public library can be a super resource for the family. Many libraries also have baby or toddler programs with story time, etc. Books are plentiful and free. Most libraries also hold book sales where you can get children’s books at a bargain. Garage sales and discount websites are good bets, too.

Speaking of books, I’m often asked my opinion on the many electronic books available today. Here’s what I think: they are fun but not necessary. A good, old-fashioned book will do everything you need it to just by being a good story. (I read some interesting research through the International Reading Association recently that suggests that these electronic books are actually a bit of a distraction for “readers”. They are best for preschool and older children who already have the concept of a story (beginning, middle, end, etc.) to enhance the story as opposed to distracting from the language for younger ones).

While we’re on the subject of books, I can’t resist mentioning the oh-so-popular “video board books” that are ubiquitous these days. Do we own them? Yes. Do I like them? Yes. Are they essential for good development? No. There is nothing in these DVD’s that you can’t get from a classical music CD and a good book. (However, I do love how they calm the kids at “fussy time”!!).

This leads me to music, or more specifically classical music. When I was first pregnant I picked up a “brain builder” CD of classical music (for $17.99). I was shocked to see that it was all music I already owned. There was no big secret here. It was basically a lovely selection of classical pieces. Additionally the research on the “brain benefits” of classical music is pretty shaky; however, I’m a big believer in exposing kids to music (not just classical), so a good radio station, or calming CD’s, or favorite digital music station on television is always okay in my book.

As young children develop spatial skills, their cognitive skills develop as well. That’s why is useful to have some simple toys around to build these important skills. Stacking/nesting cups or blocks are usually cheap (mine were $2.99 at Target) but focus on important skills. “Shape sorters” are good, too, to develop cognitive skills and hand-eye coordination. And, I just can’t say enough good about old-fashioned blocks. These can be an essential tool for development that correlates with later math skills (there’s great research out of Boston College on this). I have noticed, though, that it can be hard to find old-fashioned, wooden building blocks, and once I found them I nearly fell over when I saw the price. However, they are a good investment for both boys and girls.

These months from birth to 18 months are key for developing so many skills. Children’s play is largely motor driven at first, and then exploratory. Language is critical, and you want to continue to foster those important language skills with your children through play. By 12-18 months, little ones are ready for a bit more challenge with play, and you can introduce crayons and markers to build motor and spatial skills (and foster creativity!), puzzles for perceptual organization develop, and “imaginary play” items, such as a play kitchen, tool bench, or dress-up clothes.

And, of course, everyone (at all ages!) needs at least one good “lovey”!

Published May 04, 2005 by:

Amy Allen Clark is the founder of You can read all about her here.

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