If you've ever marveled at the look of concentration on the face of a child who tries to fit a square block into a square hole or catch a ball in mid-air, you know that playtime isn't just about fun and games. It's serious business — and toys are the tools of the trade.
Here is an age-wise guide to how kids play, and to the toys that entertain and help kids understand the world, learn social and emotional skills, and stimulate a developing brain.
Babies: How They Play
Play in the first year of life is all about exploration. Babies use their five senses to learn about the interesting new world around them: Does an object feel hard or soft? Sticky or rough? What does it do if I drop it? Or put it in my mouth? Most play consists of "tasting" or mouthing an object and shaking, banging, or dropping it.
When your baby develops new motor skills, play becomes more coordinated and complex. For example:
At about 4 months old, babies begin to reach for and grasp objects, like a rattle.
By 6 or 7 months, they can transfer that rattle between hands.
At around 9 months, a newly developed pincer grasp makes it easier for babies to pick up smaller objects, like blocks and other small age-appropriate toys.
During this time, play is usually a solitary activity, but playing side-by-side with other babies and imitating activities is common by year's end.
For now, you are your baby's favorite playmate. Have you ever danced a puppet in front of your baby's face, only to have him grab it and pull it toward his mouth? Or has he ever squealed in anticipation and delight when you creep toward him, saying, "I'm gonna get you!"
These interactions help your baby learn about language, social relations, and cause-and-effect. Once babies begin to understand how things in the environment relate to each other and how they taste, smell, feel, and sound, babies are ready for the next stage of development: figuring out how they work.
Smart Toys for Babies
Nursery mobile. Objects dancing above a baby's head while lying in a crib stimulate vision and develop attention span.
Mirror. Initially, your baby will be fascinated with the changing face and expressions looking back from the mirror. Over time, your baby will realize that the drooling, smiling baby staring back is actually a reflection. Once this happens, babies become aware of themselves, which leads to more self-discovery as they learn about body parts and where they are.
Ring stack. This classic toy features a cone that fits different sized colored rings. At first, babies enjoy holding and mouthing the rings. Later, they practice fine motor skills by fitting the rings onto the cone. Toddlers also learn about colors and numbers when you count the multicolored rings as you stack them.
Push-pull toys. These help with balance and large-muscle development as your little one goes from a couch surfer to a walker. The more babies push and pull, the more they work the muscles necessary to turn them into runners and climbers. Later, in the toddler years, kids can use them to help control their increasing speed.
Toddlers: How They Play
Toddlers are becoming aware of the function of objects. They like to stack blocks, babble into a toy phone, or drink from a "big kid" cup. The concept of pretend play starts now. Your little one might tuck a baby doll into bed at night or make "choo choo" noises while pushing a toy train.
This lays the groundwork for preschool play, when using the oven timer in a play kitchen or ringing the bell in a pretend fire truck signifies your child's growing understanding that each item serves a purpose.
Your toddler also will begin to differentiate colors and shapes. So choose toys that are bright, colorful, and fun for little hands to hold. By age 2, most toddlers can kick a ball, scribble with a crayon, and build towers four or more blocks tall. By age 3, they can do simple puzzles and pedal a tricycle.
Expect to see a lot of repetition, as that's how little ones master new skills and learn they have some control over the world around them.
Smart Toys for Toddlers
Balls. Whether they're bounced, rolled, caught, or thrown, balls encourage gross motor skills, hand–eye coordination, and dexterity.
Shape-sorting toys. Pegboard puzzles, nesting cups or blocks, and buckets with holes for different shaped blocks challenge hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills.
Mechanical toys. Pop-up toys and "busy" boxes with knobs, buttons, and levers encourage fine motor skills and problem solving, and teach cause-and-effect.
Role-play toys. Play kitchens, doctor's kits, and golf sets help children learn how the world works by imitating the actions of you and other influential adults. Dolls and stuffed animals encourage pretend play (a tea party for teddy bears, perhaps?) and aid social and emotional development by teaching tots how to express emotions and take care of something they love.