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The Essentials List: Toys for Babies

If you’ve been paying attention to us, or any other early childhood development resource, you’ve probably gotten an earful on the importance of play. Play is vitally important in early childhood, because it is through play that children establish executive function, social skills, and emotional intelligence. But it’s not just the squishy stuff: research shows that children who are free to explore and play act and engage with their environments in an unstructured way also end up performing better academically in the future than their counterparts who receive “academic” instruction in preschool early education.

So, you know your kid needs to play. But play how? And with what?

The key to learning through play is not just about making time for play, it’s about creating age-appropriate stimulation that actually promotes learning at that particular developmental stage. (For example, giving a toddler a 1000-piece puzzle is just going to make her bored and frustrated.) Learning through play is also about experiencing how something works in context.  This means that active engagement, rather than passive experience, is really what promotes learning. Examples of passive experiences might be flashcards, “educational” videos, or toys that flash and beep. Put simply, the more “work” your child has to do to play with an object, the better learning experience it is.

Our list of the essential baby toys for promoting learning through play:

Books

We can’t say this enough, but books are absolutely essential to language development. As much as you may talk to your baby, there’s no substitute for the breadth of vocabulary, the concept of print and syntax, and verbal comprehension that comes from reading books. It’s also a great bonding activity.

Look for books that have bright colors, a variety of characters and plots, are engaging, and allow for opportunities to improvise.

Rattle/Shaker

Babies are starting to learn cause and effect sometime around the 6 month mark. Believe it or not, figuring out that she is the one who made that noise when she shook that object is a huge developmental leap! There is something else happening when a baby learns to pick something up and shake it to cause a desired effect: fine motor skills are being honed.

Animals/Textured Toys

Stuffed animals in bright colors, with varied textures, allow babies to explore and encourage sensory development. They also make pretend play easier for you, as you may narrate a story using them as characters (encouraging vocabulary and speech development in the process!).

Balls

If your baby can sit up on her own, balls are a great way to practice picking up, putting down, and throwing the ball. A simple game of catch allows you to verbally take your baby through certain phrases that help reinforce her comprehension. “I’m giving you the ball. Now can you give the ball back to Daddy?”

Object Permanence Box

Understanding object permanence, or the knowledge that when something is out of sight, it’s still there, is a major developmental milestone. You can practice hiding objects in the box and then showing them to your baby to help her understand that just because something is hidden doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Even if you don’t have the box, you can play with game with any object and container.

Activity gym/Mobile

If babies are too young to sit on their own, mobiles or activity gyms are a great way to keep them entertained and working on their motor skills as they reach for objects and practice grabbing them.

Other stuff in your house you don’t have to buy

We’re huge proponents of skipping the toy store and making playtime out of found objects at home. Babies are absorbing information at a rapid pace, so anything you can show them will be a learning experience. Their own reflection in the mirror, for example, is a novel experience. The same goes for singing, talking (narrating your actions), letting them touch fruits and vegetables with different textures. Really, anything that provides a sensory experience and allows your baby to reach for things, feel them, drop them is helpful. And don’t forget the importance of eye contact for speech development; you may think your words are falling on baby ears, but that baby brain is busy soaking it all up!

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