What are the best toys for children?

How to select toys and materials to support children’s development.

Kid playing with blocks

With the holiday shopping season officially in full swing, many parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles find themselves wondering what to buy for children. Store shelves are full of brightly colored and electronic toys, heavily marketed on television and sure to catch young children’s attention. But what toys stand the test of time? What are the things children will go back to again and again? What toys help children learn and grow?

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following five basic categories of toys and materials for your young children.

Blocks and building toys

Block play has been found to stimulate brain development in all developmental areas. In fact, in the study “Block Play Performance Among Preschoolers As a Predictor of Later School Achievement in Mathematics” published in the Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, researchers proved that children who play with blocks regularly when they are 3, 4 and 5 years of age will do better in math, especially algebra in middle school.

There are many fun block and construction set options to consider, including basic large wooden unit blocks, flat plank style blocks, small wooden blocks, blocks that snap together, large cardboard blocks and construction sets. Many children enjoy being able to add items such as small dolls, animals, cars and other props to their block play.

Puzzles and problem-solving toys

Puzzles, similar to blocks, support children’s development in a variety of ways. As children solve puzzles, they are utilizing problem-solving skills, hand-eye coordination, fine-motor skills, shape recognition, memory, spatial-awareness skills and more.

Toddlers ages 2 to 3 will do best with puzzles with four to 12 pieces. Preschoolers ages 3, 4 and 5 will enjoy more complex puzzles with 12 to 20 or more pieces. Other toys in this category include toys with latches, locks, hooks, buttons, snaps, etc. for children to manipulate, blocks that snap together, collections of objects such as shells, keys, etc. and counting bears.

Pretend play items

A dramatic play or pretend play area is a staple in all early childhood classrooms. Children love to be police officers, doctors, construction workers or teachers, but they are also learning a lot while doing so. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC ), the major accrediting body of early childhood programs, stated in a recent position paper, “high-level dramatic play produces documented cognitive, social and emotional benefits.”

It is through pretend play that children first begin to explore their own likes, interests and the world around them. Pretend play gives children an opportunity to work through new, different, confusing or scary life experiences. Children are building their social and emotional skills, supporting complex problem solving skills, learning to read social cues, share, take turns and so much more when they engage in dramatic play.

Toys that support this play include child size furniture, dress-up clothes, dolls, doll clothes, pretend play food, cash registers, transportation toys and any creative items that allow children to pretend. Prop boxes with items to support a theme of play, such as the items needed for a veterinary clinic, can be a fun way to support children’s interest.

Things to create with

In the MSU Extension article “The art of creating: Why art is important for early childhood development,” the author shares that the following are skills children support when engaging in art experiences:

  • Fine motor skills. Grasping pencils, crayons, chalk and paintbrushes helps children develop their fine motor muscles. This development will help your child with writing, buttoning a coat and other tasks that require controlled movements.
  • Cognitive development. Art can help children learn and practice skills like patterning and cause and effect (i.e., “If I push very hard with a crayon the color is darker.”). They can also practice critical thinking skills by making a mental plan or picture of what they intend to create and following through on their plan.
  • Math skills.Children can learn, create and begin to understand concepts like size, shape, making comparisons, counting and spatial reasoning.
  • Language skills. As children describe and share their artwork, as well as their process, they develop language skills. You can encourage this development by actively listening and asking open-ended questions in return. It is also a great opportunity to learn new vocabulary words regarding their project (i.e., texture).

Materials to support open-ended creativity include a variety of writing/drawing tools such as crayons, colored pencils, markers, chalk, paint, watercolor paint, finger paint, paper of varying weights and sizes, safety scissors, modeling clay, playdough, playdough tools, glue and a variety of scrap materials for collages. Musical instruments such as tambourines, maracas, rhythm sticks and xylophones to allow creation of music are other creative arts options as well.

Large motor play items

While many people are aware of the importance of physical activity in supporting children’s health and development, preventing weight gain, etc., it is less commonly recognized that physical activity supports academics as well. Regular participation in large motor activities in early childhood has been found to improve attention and memory, increase academic performance, and improve actual brain function by helping nerve cells multiply, creating more connections for learning. It is important for children to have the opportunity to engage in large motor play.

Materials to consider purchasing to support large motor play include ride on toys such as tricycles, bicycles and balance bikes, large and small balls to throw, kick and catch, climbers with soft material underneath, plastic bats and balls, targets and things to throw at them, wagons and wheel barrows, tunnels to climb through and pounding or hammering toys.

Be sure to take into account children’s age and developmental ability when selecting toys, and continue to inspect toys for safety. A previously safe toy can become unsafe due to normal wear and tear. Items are occasionally recalled as well. You can sign up to receive recall alerts with Safe Kids USA and check previous recalls.

Also, remember that all children grow and mature at their own individual rate and may be interested in toys for a longer period of time or become interested in other items sooner than other children. For more ideas on developmentally appropriate toys, including lists by age, visit the NAEYC Good Toys for Young Children by Age and Stage guide.

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