I've been working in a toy store from almost a decade, but no one has taught me more about toys than my two-year-old daughter. Since she was born I've been caught in the typical parental anxiety of trying to find toys that will help her grown and develop in the best way possible. All of my toy industry knowledge, it seems, flew out the window the moment she wouldn't play with toys the way the smiling children on the box did. What was I doing wrong?
Nothing, it turns out. Understanding what toys are best for a toddler's development can be difficult. Toddlers are like mini, very curious, Hulks. They are interested in everything and interested in throwing everything down the stairs to see if it breaks at the bottom. They think everything is a toy, including whatever they can dump out of your bathroom drawer.
At the same time, however, toddlers are at a very critical stage in development. They are exploring the world around them, imitating your behavior, and developing motor skills that will later allow them to write their name, pitch a softball, or play the piano. So what types of toys will allow them to thrive?
A note on age markings: Age markings on toy packages reflect the lowest age the product was safety tested for. Products marked 3+ should never be given to a younger child as they might contain small pieces that could cause a child to choke. On the flip side, just because a toy is marked 1+ does not mean that it is too young for your 2 year old. Each child develops differently and most toys are marked for the youngest child that could possibly use the toy, not the age of child that will learn the most from it.
Blocks are one of my all-time favorite toys for toddlers. Make sure to find blocks that are easy to stack or connect so that the child will not get frustrated. My favorite brands are MegaBlocks® and Lego Duplos®. MegaBlocks® are typically suited for the building block beginner because they are very easy to take apart and put together while Lego Duplos® are more suited for a slightly older child because they are better at holding a budding architect’s favorite designs.
If you want to go for blocks that don’t have connectors, find something soft (Small World Toys Knock Knock Blocks are great!) or plastic (not wood!). The favorite shape a toddler like to build is a tower and crashing wooden towers can cause ouchies.
Toddlers are primed to imitate and the person they love to imitate the most is you! Baby dolls, tool kits (I love this one by Green Toys for girls), trucks and cars, cell phones, and more. Whatever they see you do, they want to do it too. One of my daughter’s favorite jobs is putting her snack wrappers in the trash can ‘just like mommy’.
I feel like this is a section of toddler toys often overlooked. We play classical music for our infants, but a toddler’s love of music and making music (of all types!) is boundless. We know that music enhances cognitive development, and there are plenty of toys that will allow toddlers to be mini Mozarts. My favorite brand for musical toddler toys is Hape. Their wide range of toddler-sized musical instruments allows for maximum play while still giving you maximum durability. Check out the Mighty Mini Band, my favorite go-to for toddler birthday presents.
One of my favorite moments with my daughter happened last weekend during ‘toddler band practice’. She and I had been playing the tambourine and recorder, but she couldn’t quite grasp how to play the recorder. She knew that I blew at it and made sound, but she didn’t understand that she had to blow into it so she was waving the recorder and humming instead. I showed her several times how to blow into it, but it didn’t seem to click. Finally we moved onto another activity. The next day when I came home from work she met me at the door proudly tooting away on her recorder. She must have been practicing! There’s a music student in the making.
Toddler toys can be frustrating to pick out and even more frustrating to play with. If a toy seems too complicated for your child, try putting it away for a few weeks and going back to it. Toddlers using toys for purposes other than intended, such as using a block for a hammer or a drumstick as a microphone, is perfectly natural as they learn and experiment with the world around them. Playing with a toddler can be a fun and challenging experience!
Jillian Wahlquist, Tom's Toys Team Member
Data Source: Szymanski, M., & Neuborne, E. (2004). Ages and Stages. In Toy Tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.