Holiday Round-Up: Promote Learning through Play with Developmentally Appropriate Toys

By: Cristina Moreno, Bilingual Outreach Specialist, Penfield Children’s Center

The holidays are a time of celebration, great company, and good cheer. Unfortunately, the holidays can also be a time of great spending. While there are many ways to trim your holiday budget by adopting traditions with friends and family such as Secret Santa or skipping a gift exchange altogether, many people still enjoy the feeling of finding and giving gifts to their loved ones, especially children.

Whether you are a parent of a young child and are being asked what kind of gift they would like, or you are looking for a great gift for the little ones in your life, choosing from all of the colorful and musical options can be overwhelming. Luckily, there are many great toys that help promote a variety of developmental skills, so you can be sure that your child is not only having fun, but learning new and important skills at the same time!

Zero to 6 Months:

While young infants may not be able to do a whole lot with their bodies, they are still learning a great deal about their environment. Toys that get your baby accustomed to the outside world and help him explore his own body are easy to find and can fit any budget. Once babies reach four to six months of age and can sit with support, they like to begin exploring with their hands and mouths. Toys that allow them to practice early fine motor skills or that make noises, such as squeak when they are squeezed or ring when they are shaken, are great for this age. Some good options include:

  • Play gyms: These are a popular choice for parents with young children. They typically consist of some sort of mat or soft surface with a variety of baby-friendly activities such as unbreakable mirrors, dangling toys, and different textures for the baby to explore. These types of toys encourage a baby to move his arms and kick his feet at objects, as well as engage in tummy time, which is an important developmental activity to strengthen muscles in the neck, head, and trunk, as well as to avoid the formation of a flat spot on the head. Inflatable water mats are also a fun and a mess free way to introduce babies to sensory play and encourage tummy time.
  • Rattles: They come in all shapes and styles, including foot or wrist rattles that can be wrapped around the baby so that he can still play with them even before he is able to grasp them with his fingers. One of my son’s favorite toys was a fabric rattle in the form of a giraffe. It had little strips of fabric that he liked to pull on and little fabric horns with knots at the end that he liked to chew once he started teething.
  • Easy to grasp balls: These toys have a lot of open spaces for little fingers to wrap around. Even before they are able to fully grasp them, babies may enjoy swatting or kicking at balls on the floor, especially if they have some sort of bell or rattle inside, which promotes their gross motor skills as well.

6 to 12 Months

As babies become more mobile and are able to sit upright without help, they tend to become interested in toys that move with them, and toys that have smaller moving parts such as buttons and knobs. These include:

  • Water toys: Now that babies can sit upright on their own, they can enjoy all types of water play. Watching toys float, pushing them so they sink, pouring water out of a cup over and over; bath time is full of learning and exploration and does not require anything fancy.
  • Sit to standing walkers: These toys grow with your child through the different developmental stages. They can sit and play with the activity center, push them along when they are learning to walk, and some even have an activity pad that is removable; this can be a great way to keep children entertained on car rides.
  • Stacking toys and building blocks: These classic toys promote cognitive development by helping children learn about colors, sizes, order, and shapes.

Toddlers

Toddler toys are often big and bulky, but a lot of them can be used in different ways which are helpful if you do not have a lot of space. Interactive books are also great to introduce at this age. Toddlers enjoy:

  • Interactive toys: These types of toys provide all kinds of fun opportunities. Many teach through music and ask questions or make statements such as, “Where is the letter A?” or “The cow says moo!” They can help toddlers learn all kinds of concepts including shapes, letters, colors, animals, and numbers. My son even has a dinosaur that talks about eating healthy fruits and vegetables!
  • Traditional shape sorters: While these are as “no frills” as they come, they provide a lot of flexibility to create play opportunities to fit your child’s needs. You can tape over some of the shapes to limit the options and make it easier for your child, or you can ask your child to sort by color instead of shapes.
  • Hand puppet books: These books are a hybrid between a toy and a book. I have one that you put on like a glove and each finger has a different animal puppet. These books can be a great way to pique your child’s interest in reading.

Preschool and Kindergarten Age

By the time children enter preschool and kindergarten, they often have a slightly longer attention span and may show interest in engaging in more collaborative play with others which can help them develop skills such as taking turns and sharing. However, you may notice your child still prefers to play independently, even if he is playing near other children, and that is okay too. Especially if your child is still on the younger side, it may take a little while for him to feel ready and interested in playing with others. Children in this age group typically enjoy:

  • Pretend play materials such as clothes and hats for dressing up, dolls, modeling dough, building blocks, and other construction materials that encourage children to explore their imaginations and use their creativity. Building blocks and other construction materials can also help develop hand-eye coordination and problem solving skills as they learn how to construct and create new things.
  • Simple board or card games: These toys are a good choice when children are interested in playing with others. Board and card games can help with important cognitive skills by practicing skills such as counting, memory, reading, and more.
  • Art supplies: This creative option is easy to find and improvise with. Basically anything you have on hand can be used to create art; it does not necessarily have to be paint, paper, and glue. Playing with art and craft supplies allow children to use their imaginations, practice fine motor skills through a variety of activities, engage in sensory play, and develop cognitive skills all at the same time!

While we often enjoy giving gifts, and children always enjoy new toys, it is important to remember that gifts do not have to break the bank to be meaningful or to promote positive development. Spending time playing and interacting with the children in our lives is the best gift we can give them, regardless of whether we are playing with simple household items, thrift store finds, or the newest gadgets.

What are your family’s favorite play activities to encourage learning?

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