It may seem simple, but choosing baby toys that are age-appropriate, educational and entertaining is not as straightforward as you might think. From birth your little one is engaging with the world around them, so it’s important that their toys are providing a lot more than mere distraction.
There’s so much choice out there for one thing; trying to ignore the trends and sticking to what you think is right can be a challenge – especially when faced with a temper tantrum! And whilst it’s easy to be swayed by the media, it’s important to recognise that you – as a parent – are the expert when it comes to your child’s needs and wants. We’re here to help you forget the fads and get straight to the facts, so you can feel confident knowing that your baby’s toys are going to fully support their development.
Helping your child to learn through play
Play contributes towards a child’s cognitive, physical, social, emotional, creative and communicative development – it’s one of the most important (and fun!) ways that your baby or toddler reaches those crucial developmental milestones. Play encourages babies to explore, experiment, discover and problem solve; it’s one of the earliest and most instinctive learning methods. From building their most basic senses to formulating their social skills, play is at the heart of their development from the get-go.
In their book, Toy Tips: A Parent’s Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices, authors Marianne Szymanski and Ellen Neuborne highlight the fact that education begins long before a child enters the classroom. ‘Learning,’ they say, ‘begins at home during play.’ It stands to reason, then, that the type of toys they’re given to support playtime can seriously harness – or hinder – a child’s development. Think about it like this: if a child is encouraged to partake in prosocial play, rather than combative or confrontational play (such as violent video gaming) then the effects are likely to be more positive. There has been lots of research to back this up; children who have established violent play patterns are more likely to develop antisocial behaviours. The opposite is true for those children who were given toys that encourage social interaction and sharing earlier on in life. As Szymanski and Neuborne put it, ‘parents need to look at play and toys as part of a child’s moral development process…it’s more than just laying down rules. It is letting our children know what we stand for.’
Different types of play
Today, experts recognise 6 main types of play that follow a child’s developmental trajectory. These were identified by sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall, which is why they’re also known as ‘Parten’s stages of play.’ The 6 stages of play are as follows:
- Unoccupied play. This is when a child is not playing, but only observing. People tend to associate this kind of play with young infants; if your baby is moving their body and looking at the world around them – completely free to think and move – then they’re engaging in unoccupied play. And though it might not look like much of a game, this type of play is crucial for your baby’s sensory development. In fact, the 5 senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste) develop faster during the first 12 months of life than at any other time later on.
- Independent (or solitary) play is when a child is playing alone, taking no notice of what other children or adults are doing. As much as social play is important, independent play sets children up with the ability to be comfortable on their own too.
- Onlooker play is when a child is watching other children play without actually playing themselves (though they may engage in different forms of social interaction – like talking about the play without joining in). Though it’s more common in younger children, onlooker play is an early step towards social maturity.
- Parallel play. This is when a child is sitting with others, often mimicking their actions, but continues to play separately. This type of play is seen as a transitional one; it helps children to progress from a socially immature type of play, to a socially mature one that’s associative and cooperative. It’s what sets them up for social interactions at school and beyond.
- Associative play is where a child plays with other children, but their play remains uncoordinated. In this type of play, the children involved aren’t working towards a shared goal; it includes plenty of interaction, but the activities aren’t in sync. This type of play is key at around 3 years of age; as infants begin to experience longer attention spans, they enjoy socialising with other children as never before.
Cooperative play is the start of proper teamwork and – in terms of play goals – the final stage of your child’s development. It’s when children start to play with others to achieve a common goal. The activity is organised, and everyone involved has an assigned role. Here, children will experience self-identification with the group, and a group identity may arise. Cooperative play usually happens as children start to reach school age; it’s an exciting time for parents, who can identify this as one of their child’s most important milestones. Cooperative play sets up children for social success throughout life.
When buying toys for your baby, it’s important to choose something that’s just right for their skill level. Pick a toy that’s too simple and your tot will get bored; get one that’s too advanced, and they’ll only get frustrated. An age-appropriate toy, however, will provide your baby or toddler with hours of education, exploration and enjoyment. So, let’s take a look at the best toys for your baby at every stage of their development.
Age 0-6 months:
At this stage, you are your baby’s favourite plaything. Since they’re constantly developing their senses, interaction with your face and voice is really important.
Alongside this, you can enhance their sensory development with things like cot mobiles, rattles, bath toys, soft toys and teddy bears, baby-friendly books with simple, colourful illustrations in them and activity centres.
Age 6-12 months:
As your baby’s senses continue to develop, you should also begin to focus on interactive play with your baby. Simple games that use hand-eye coordination (such as ‘peek-a-boo’) are fun ways to engage with your little one.
At this stage, your baby’s toys should continue to stimulate their senses; choose noise-making or musical toys, as well as those that encourage creativity – soft blocks that can be stacked, or filling and dumping games are ideal for babies around this age.
As they begin to crawl, and then walk, you should also think about toys that encourage physical activity. Baby gyms and bouncers are ideal for younger babies; once they reach about 9 months old, invest in some push/pull toys that are going to help your little one as they start learning to walk.
Age 12-18 months:
Once your child begins to master movement, their toys should encourage exploration and help them to further develop their fine-motor skills.
Trikes and ride-on toys are great for nurturing a sense of adventure and encouraging physical activity. You can also keep your tot moving by showing them toddler-friendly videos and music; sing action songs together and teach them the right movements to improve their hand-eye coordination.
Nesting or sorting toys, simple puzzles and blocks will help to develop your child’s problem-solving and motor skills.
Age 18 months to 2 years:
By the age of 1 ½, children usually begin to use their imagination in play (typically in the form of make-believe). This supports their creative development and problem-solving skills; toys at this stage should be all about hands-on play. Fancy dress costumes, playhouses and construction toys all promote imaginative play.
As your child is learning to grasp the idea of story-telling and make-believe, you should start to (if you haven’t already) introduce bedtime stories. Research has shown that children who are read to before bed tend to master language more easily. Develop your child’s communication skills by familiarising them with stories and reading at an early age.
Age 2-3 years:
Around the age of 2, your toddler will be focusing on their fine-motor coordination. At this stage, children can begin to play simple board games and puzzles. They’re also likely to start playing with other children at this stage, so activity usually becomes more structured. Train sets, cars or trucks and dolls are all examples of toys that can be enjoyed at this stage.
At this age, you can introduce your child to art materials too. Help them to create figures and shapes out of modelling clay or draw and paint with them at the kitchen table; put together a craft box to encourage their imagination and creativity.
Age 4-5 years:
The best toys for pre-schoolers are those that will prepare them for their formal education in the classroom. Continue to nurture their creativity and imagination with craft materials and make-believe games or role play. Simple jigsaw puzzles or flash cards will help to develop the problem-solving and logic skills that they’ll also need at school.
The key thing to remember is not to over-complicate things; your child is likely to have an idea of their favourite toys, games and activities at this stage, so listen to them (and your parental intuition). It’s all about building on the skills that they’ve already learned; try not to get too worried about getting them to ‘a certain point’ before they start school – they’re learning every day!