The Essentials List: Toys for Toddlers
Our series on essential toys continues (check out our list of baby toys here) with these recommended toys for toddlers. To be more specific, we mean toys for 1.5-, 2-, and 3-year-olds. This age range is particularly exciting for parents because children can finally start actively playing with the toys that friends and family have bought for them (and if you’re lucky, they might even play on their own for a few minutes).
As with toy choices at all ages, a few guiding principles can help you tell the difference between what are truly educational toys for toddlers, versus what toys use “educational” labeling as a clever marketing tool: Most importantly, choose toys that don’t do much on their own; the more they do, the less your kid’s brain has to do while using them. And look for toys for toddlers that engage their physical, verbal, and cognitive skills, so they can “work” in a fun way. If you can make that happen, play truly becomes educational.
Toys for toddlers that help them learn through play
Toys that allow children to mimic real-life situations are learning gold. Think of these toys as props: tea sets, kitchen and food sets, doctor kits, cleaning sets. These toys allow children to build on their life experiences by reinforcing their knowledge and understanding of what they’ve seen, all while reciting their actions (and thereby enhancing their verbal skills).
Puzzles and building blocks
As with any toy, the key to buying puzzles and building blocks that will help kids learn at this age is to ensure they are age appropriate. Complex Lego sets or 100-piece puzzles will only frustrate, bore or distract 2-year-olds, causing them to give up on these toys. Look for very simple, 4- to 12-piece puzzles for this age group, and medium-sized blocks or Legos. Be sure to let kids build and experiment on their own; forcing them to build a structure exactly as you’d like to see it is only teaching them one thing: Dad should probably get his own set of blocks!
Play Doh or clay
Play Doh, or kids’ clay, is great for toddlers because it promotes tactile sensory development, and allows children to manipulate material in a way that most toys don’t allow for — squeezing, kneading and stretching. Furthermore, it encourages pretend play and verbal skills, as children use their imagination to create objects, animals, or characters.
Article continues below
Yes, we know we sound like a broken record at this point, but reading books with toddlers is the best way to expose them to new vocabulary, reinforce good grammar and syntax, and expose them to ideas and situations they may not have experienced in real life. Be sure to read to your toddler at a level slightly ahead of where his verbal skills are; he understands more than he can say. And the more you read, the better his comprehension and language will get. (Not sure how to pick out an age-appropriate story book? Check out this article for guidance!)
Anything that will facilitate role play, or pretend play, is a great toy for toddlers. For example, costumes, plastic animal sets, soft toys, and props that are easy to access, put on, and use, allow kids in this age range to exercise their little brains and talk their way through imagined scenarios. While you may want to guide the play by asking open-ended questions (‘What did you do next, Mr. Fireman?’) try to stay out of the story-building process.
Painting and drawing, whether with brushes, crayons, or fingers, is a great way to get kids’ creativity and imagination going (not to mention boost their fine motor skills). But the key here is to really leave them alone and let them play on their own. The moment you start injecting your own beliefs about what color the sky should be, or how a fish should look, you are impeding the process of exploration. It seems counter-intuitive, but guiding a kid’s hand (to draw something a particular way) is actually doing the opposite of helping them learn to draw it.
As with all play, the more hands-off you can be with curious toddlers, the better!