Gift Guide | Toddlers

Toddlers are busy.

Testing and toppling, rummaging and rampaging, these lovable rogues can be a handful.

It’s hard work coming up with new ideas to keep them occupied.

But what if I told you the secret to a happy and engaged toddler was to offer less, not more?

What if you only offered the right toys, those that matched your child’s development?

That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

Understanding Toddler Development

In order to offer the right toys, we first have to understand how toddlers think and what they are capable of.

Toddlerhood, typically defined as the period from one to three years of age, is a stage of tremendous growth and development. During this time, your child becomes increasingly independent and capable.

Physical Development: At this stage, toddlers start to refine their motor skills. They graduate from crawling to walking, running, and even jumping. They begin to develop finer motor control, learning to hold things in their hands, scribble with a crayon, stack blocks, and feed themselves with a spoon.

Cognitive Development: Toddlers are growing not just physically but cognitively as well. They begin to understand cause and effect relationships (e.g., when I drop this toy, it falls), and they start solving problems through trial and error. They move from sensorimotor play, which involves exploring the world through senses and actions, to symbolic play, where they start to use one thing to stand for another (for example, pretending a block is a car).

Language Development: This is also a critical time for language development. Imagine being a toddler without the vocabulary to label and describe an object or idea - it would be much harder to make a mental representation of it. You can’t remember something if you don’t have a way of storing it in your mind. You need language and an understanding of schemas.

The more language your child is exposed to, the more ideas they can understand - and remember. This is the key to learning.

So look for toys that encourage dialogue. Don’t expect the imaginative role-play that marks the preschool years but even a humble peg doll or toy car can spark conversation.

Social-Emotional Development: Toddlers are learning how to express their emotions and interact with others. They start to understand social norms and rules, often through trial and error. They begin to assert their independence, which can sometimes lead to challenging behaviors as they test boundaries.

Toys that encourage collaboration and negotiation naturally expose your child to the kinds of situations that develop social skills.

The importance of play in toddler development

How do children learn?

Through imitation? By rote? Direct instruction? Yes, sometimes.

But, above all, they learn through play.

They learn through play because play is fun. And that makes them want to do more. It’s motivating to learn and explore when you enjoy the process.

There’s a time for structured activities and adult-led projects but it’s not during the toddler years.

Balancing Guided Play and Independent Play

Playtime is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different styles of play offer various benefits and learning opportunities for toddlers. Two essential forms of play are guided play and independent play. Toddlers need a balance of the two.

Guided Play

You sit with your child and you join in the fun.

When your child gets stuck you offer help, sometimes a hint, sometimes direct instruction.

And the activity itself was your idea.

Here is a new game. Let’s play it together.

Here are some craft materials. Shall we make a card for Granny?

You model the task and your child imitates.

Independent Play

At the other end of the spectrum sits independent play.

You stay out of the way. Your child chooses what to do and how to do it.

Rather than imitating or relying on you for help, your child is force to solve problems and become more creative. Solutions come about through trial and error. They learn from mistakes. You don’t correct.

The best toys for toddlers

Here are some of the best toys, categorized by the key skills they help to nurture:

Gross Motor Skills Toys

These toys help develop large muscle groups, balance, and coordination.

Walkers and Ride-Ons: These toys are excellent for helping toddlers gain confidence in their mobility. They offer support as toddlers learn to walk, and eventually, ride. As children push or ride, they enhance their gross motor skills and strengthen muscles.

Trolleys and Prams: Mimicking adult behavior, such as pushing a trolley or pram, is a favorite activity among toddlers. These toys not only support imaginative play but also promote physical development.

Rocking Horses: These classic toys help toddlers improve their balance and coordination while also strengthening arm and leg muscles.

Pull-Along Toys: Pull-along toys are great for toddlers who have just started walking confidently. As they pull the toy, they practice balance and coordination.

Spatial Reasoning Toys

These toys help children understand shapes, sizes, and how things fit together, which are crucial for cognitive development.

Shape Sorters and Simple Wooden Puzzles: These toys require toddlers to recognize different shapes and figure out where they fit, promoting spatial awareness and problem-solving skills.

Wooden Blocks and Stacking Towers: Building and stacking with these toys not only improve hand-eye coordination but also promote understanding of balance and gravity.

Balancing Toys: Toys like trees with balancing animals challenge toddlers to balance objects, promoting their spatial understanding and fine motor skills.

Language Development Toys

These toys stimulate communication and understanding of social cues.

Dolls: Dolls aren't just for pretend play; they also provide an opportunity to practice language skills. Toddlers can name the doll, talk to it, and even narrate what the doll is doing or feeling, expanding their vocabulary and understanding of social-emotional cues.

Fine Motor Skills Toys

These toys can help refine the dexterity and coordination of smaller muscle groups, such as those in the hands and fingers. Examples include playdough and simple balancing toys like these rocking baby birds.

Sensory Toys

To a young child, the world is a mass of sights and sounds. Everything is new. At times it can be overwhelming.

Sensory play helps toddlers to focus on the abundance of sensory input they receive from their environment.

Your focus should be on messy play - lots of sand, water, playdough and mud. But it’s also important to introduce new sounds, smells and tastes.

But the right toys can help. Explore the senses with these favourites:

Art materials

Nurturing creativity is important, even at this young age. Toddlers make mental models of how they think the world works. These are schemas. Schema play is often associated with action, forwards, backwards, round and round, inside and out. But there are also schemas of form. This kind of schema is how your child learns to memorise shapes, including letters and numbers.

Here is a line. Here is another one to cross it. A circle on top. And two more lines below.

It’s a stick man. And to draw it successfully, children must place all the elements correctly in space.

And that means lots of play with materials where the game is to position them relative to each other.

Toddlers are too young to write. But they need lots of practice gripping crayons and making marks. And time spent arranging blocks and other construction materials. In the preschool years all these skills combine as your child learns to form letters.

So get out the craft trolley and the blocks - and have fun.

Pretend Play Toys

Role-playing is a significant part of toddler play and can teach a variety of skills, from language development to social-emotional learning. Toys that facilitate pretend play can include toy kitchens, dress-up clothes, doctor's kits, and toy market stalls.

Cognitive Development Toys

These toys stimulate problem-solving, memory, and logical thinking. Examples include simple board gamesmemory cards, or even more complex puzzles as your toddler grows.

Tips for Rotating Toys

Rotating toys is a strategy that keeps playtime fresh and engaging. If a toddler has too many toys available at once, they can become overwhelmed and may not play with them as deeply. By rotating toys, you introduce a sense of novelty that can rekindle interest in a toy they haven't seen for a while. It's like having new toys without the expense or the clutter.

Final word

Choosing the right toys for your toddler can make a big difference to your child’s development.

You don’t need many. The trick is to make the right choice.

Look for those with potential for open-ended play and give your child enough time and space to explore.

It’s a simple - yet powerful - formula.