Everyone knows that babies and children of different ages need different toys with which to play. Why? Because, as children develop, their interests and needs for stimulation and education change.
As children become more complex, their entertainment needs also become more complex, so they need different toys. Just remember to check the manufacturer's age recommendations before purchasing a new toy.
Newborn to six months
Usually, the best toys for babies from newborn to six months old are those that stimulate the senses, including those that encourage visual, auditory, or touch stimulation. Many of these toys are brightly colored and emit comforting or happy sounds.
Activity sets and play sets that attach to strollers and cribs are popular. Crib toys can be attached to the crib or placed inside to allow a baby to play. Mobiles provide visual and musical stimulation, and can captivate even an irritable infant's attention for several minutes.
Some play mats or activity centers are designed to be placed on the floor or attached to a car seat. Babies can grab toys, explore, or just focus on objects attached to the activity bar. The best choices are those that feature sounds as well as bright colors.
Other toys are manufactured to promote sensory development. These developmental toys offer internal noisemakers or movement. Babies learn that they are capable of causing these sounds or movements to occur when they perform certain actions.
Of course, babies still enjoy the old standby rattles and teethers. A teething ring or rattle can sooth irritated gums and offer something to chew on, especially when they are refrigerated before use. And babies are never too young to enjoy being read to. Buy soft books with durable cardboard or cloth pages, and let the baby discover the story as it is read.
Six months to twelve months
During this rapid stage of development, a baby learns and grows quickly. Toys with movable parts and puzzles encourage this growth and development. Sturdy, carefully manufactured toys that can survive falls, throws, pounding, and teething gums are essential.
Continue reading to your baby as he or she continues to mature. Pop-up books or cardboard books are great choices, because these are durable and will survive teething and other infant milestones. Other good choices are books that contain sound buttons, textures, or brightly colored pictures.
Activity panels or tables that feature shatterproof mirrors, bright lights, noises, and sounds are great choices. Many of these are designed to encourage a baby to stand upright while playing. Babies also start learning to play with balls at this stage. Choose soft, lightweight balls that won't damage furniture or bones as they are thrown back and forth.
Blocks are also fun, as babies learn to stack them or knock down the towers their parents patiently build. Alphabet blocks are a good investment; these are enjoyable, educational toys through the toddler and even preschool years as well.
Push toys help babies to walk and maintain their balance. Wooden trucks and trains or other toys are also fun to push around the floor. Wood toys are safer than their metal counterparts, and typically cause less damage to floors and furniture as well. Sandboxes and sand toys are great for outdoor use. Just remember to teach the baby from the start that sand is not edible and should not be thrown.
At around six months, babies also start taking interest in stuffed animals. Baby dolls, plush bears, or other stuffed toys quickly become favorite bedtime companions. Be sure to purchase toys recommended for children of this age, so that eyes or other parts are not easily detached and swallowed.
Ages one to two years
The toddler years are very active years, and children can keep going - and going - and going. Toddler toys are usually a little more complex and contain more features than baby toys. For example, activity toys usually feature several panels that open, buttons that can be pressed, or switches that can be moved, to offer additional entertainment and excitement.
Outdoor play sets that feature slides, climbing devices, teeter-totters, and swings are superb for helping an active toddler to build muscle coordination and encourage physical exercise. Many also enjoy riding indoor toys such as kid-sized cars and trains in which they can wheel around the playroom or living room.
Reading to a toddler encourages language development and vocabulary skills. Toddlers usually appreciate books that have more words and pictures, and longer stories, so that they can "read" the story along with Mom or Dad.
Crayons, pens, and paper allow toddlers to begin to draw their own stories and pictures as well. Be sure to choose non-toxic crayons and pens because these sometimes find their way into curious mouths as well as onto the paper!
Children at this also enjoy playing with toy tools, toy phones, or toy kitchen sets. They want to imitate adults and older children in their play. These toys offer a safe, fun way to pretend to be doing exactly what Mom, Dad, or Big Brother is doing a few feet away.
Tub toys, from turtle sponges to rubber duckies to colored soaps, are also fun and enjoyable. For safety, purchase bath toys specially made for water or tub use, and clean them frequently with soap and water.
As toddlers approach their second birthday, they learn to solve simple puzzles. Choose basic puzzles that are easily worked. These help your toddler to begin to develop a sense of competence and self-confidence, which are important to his or her healthy development.
Two to four years
At this stage, boys and girls often begin developing a preference for certain types of toys. Some may prefer working with art supplies or building toys, while others may prefer outdoor toys or games and puzzles. Continue to offer a variety of educational choices, but consider their personal preferences when buying new toys as well.
The Land of Make-Believe is still open to children at this stage, so encourage their imaginations and creativity with durable playhouses. Teach them to build a marching band with toy musical instruments, or build an imaginary roller coaster with toy tools. Dress-up and costumes are also easy to manage and add to their enjoyment as well.
Building toys, such as LEGO sets, wooden blocks, Erector Sets, or other building sets can provide a creative toddler and his or her parent with hours of enjoyment. Build a Ferris wheel, a barn, or a mansion from toy sets. Use movable figurines and toy animals to make scenes more lifelike (be sure to check age recommendations before buying small toys or toys with removable parts).
Outdoor games played with whiffle balls or miniature basketball hoops are fun and teach children how to play together. Keep a supply of games like Candyland, Memory, or Chutes and Ladders on hand for rainy days or sick days. And remember to continue to read to your child: teach a love of learning that will last for a lifetime with classic children's books written by Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, or Robert Munsch. End each day with "Goodnight Moon " or "I'll Love you Forever."
As your child grows, his or her needs for new toys to stimulate and teach will change. It's easy to focus on fun toys, but choose toys that have some educational value as well. This is one of the best ways to teach your child that learning can be fun. Start giving your child this gift today.