Ten must-have toys and activities for increasing your toddler’s developmental skills

Choosing appropriate toys, games and activities to enhance your toddler's growth and development.

Consider using these toys with your toddler to help increase child development.
Consider using these toys with your toddler to help increase child development.

Whenever looking for toys, games and activities for toddlers, it is very important to focus on items that will enhance overall skill levels in areas such as motor, language, social and emotional development. There are many options out there to choose from, and children will typically play with just about any type of toy they get the chance to interact with. When choosing what to get for a toddler, keep in mind the aspects of safety, durability and playability. Choose items that offer toddler engagement and the chance for cause and effect learning. Toys and games that offer lots of color, shapes, lights and buttons often increase duration of play for toddlers. Often times, the classic toys of the ‘60s and ‘70s are still being produced and are tried and true examples of helping increase skills for toddlers.

Below you will find a list of ten toys/items in no particular order that work to increase child development in multiple areas.

  1. Traditional shape sorter. One of the best toddler toys is the shape sorter. There are many brands and types of shape sorters out there and they all have different merits for increasing development. The best type of sorter is one that has large pieces without complicated shapes. You should look for a sorter that has no more than four types of shapes with easy access to remove the pieces. The shape sorter helps to define motor, cognitive and social skills.
  2. Three piece puzzles. Puzzles are great to develop social, motor, cognitive and emotional skills. It is best to start with small peg puzzles that have no more than three to four pieces. The toddler will love playing with the pieces, picking them up, looking at them and placing them on the puzzle board. It will take time, practice and focus for them to learn to put the pieces back in their original spots. You will be cheering them on as they learn to hold the piece, turn it in their hand and place it into its proper location.
  3. Blocks. Playing games like stacking blocks creates opportunities to work on multiple skills including motor, language, cognitive and social development. You can discuss the shapes, colors and textures of blocks. Ask your toddler what they are building (never assume you know what they are creating). Blocks are very good for increasing hand strength and dexterity. If you are choosing to give a child megablocks, it is best to wait until after they are 18 months old so they have the chance to learn about stacking without being able to click or push items together.
  4. Bubbles. Bubbles are great fun for toddlers as they encourage them to run, jump and chase them all around. You may choose to purchase pre-made bubbles; however, it is very easy to make them at home. There are many homemade recipes for bubbles online and nearly all of them are safe for children. A quick check of Pinterest and you will find plenty of recipes. Bubbles are great for promoting motor, social and cognitive development.
  5. Picture books. Reading books that have many pictures always makes every time through the book a new adventure. It is not as important to sit with a child and read the words. With toddlers, you want to focus on the pictures and talk about what you see. Discuss the picture on the cover and ask what the book might be about. Ask about all of the pictures throughout the book and get their opinion on what they are seeing. Chances are you will be very surprised with their imaginative responses.
  6. Costumes. Pretend clothing is a great way to build cognitive, social and emotional skills. Costuming, and playing pretend, is a large part of development that allows children to step outside of how they see their natural world to create a new place and time with their growing imagination.
  7. Hula hoop. A great, old-fashioned, original toy that helps to promote gross motor and social development. The hula hoop can be laid on the ground to hop in and out of. You can roll large balls into the hula hoop. It can also be used to help a child learn to walk. Have them hold the hoop with their hands together and have an adult hold the hoop without touching the child’s hands. Walk backwards, encouraging the child the whole time, and have the child walk towards the adult.
  8. Cheerios/Puffs. Not exactly a toy or object; however, Cheerios or Puffs are a great way to work on fine motor skills. Just place some Cheerios on a clean mat or plate and have your toddler place them into a cup to practice their pincer grasp. Gradually make the cup smaller to make the task a bit harder.
  9. Triangle-shaped crayons. Use triangle-shaped crayons to help your toddler develop a good grasp using their fingers. The flat edges make the hand hold the crayon up and down between the fingers and thumb. Also, coloring is an excellent way to promote a child’s imagination and creativity.
  10. Puppets. You can get pre-made puppets or make your own out of socks or paper lunch sacks. Puppets promote motor and language development along with imagination. Use puppets to play and talk with your toddler. Puppets can be used to sing nursery rhymes and read stories. They are also a great way to copy facial expressions and express different feelings and emotions.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following resources which offer more options and ideas for increasing your toddler’s overall development.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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