Early Learning & STEM

Early Learning Toys To Ensure Smart Play

For kids, play is learning. Keep it fun and engaging by selecting toys and kits that are safe and developmentally appropriate. Look for well-made, non-toxic toys and keep checking for wear that could make them unsafe, says the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Here are some options to consider, by age. But note: these are just suggestions. Every child is different; you know best what is most appropriate for your child.

Baby: 0 to 18 months

From 0 to 6 months, babies are all about sensory experiences. They love to look at faces, so unbreakable mirrors are great. High-contrast patterns are visually stimulating. Balls, blocks, and ring rattles let them grab, grasp, and shake. Expect everything to be mouthed; it’s another way baby explores their world.

Around 8 to 12 months, most babies will begin standing and cruising. Activity tables and cubes, playsets, and push/pull toys encourage these motor skills. Babies this age also enjoy driving around toy vehicles and tending to baby dolls. They build with soft blocks and love to put things in containers (and take them out). Nesting toys work well for this.

At 12 to 18 months, babies like to explore fine motor with toys that have knobs, switches, buttons, and do stuff. Simple musical instruments, like shakers and drums, expose them to sound and rhythm. They enjoy toy versions of what they see you use every day. By pretending to vacuum, fix a car, or make food, they learn language, fine and gross motor skills, and social/emotional cues. Playsets, with handheld animals and people—and vehicles and buildings for them—let them practice interaction and language.

Toddler: 18 months to 3 years

Toddlers are developing language and learning to play with others. Ride-on toys and small furniture, such as tables and chairs, and play kitchens, are great spaces for pretend play and work developing muscles. Manipulatives like simple puzzles, blocks that snap together, and sorting toys encourage problem solving. Introduce toddlers to technology with toy laptops.

Little Kid: 3 to 6 years

Little kids ask a lot of questions (why not?) and have longer attention spans. Magnifying glasses, microscopes, binoculars, and introductory science kits help them experiment and explore. More complex puzzles, building blocks, and magnetic tiles promote problem solving. This is also a good time to introduce a learning tablet that supports positivity and success (i.e. it doesn’t make an angry beep when you get something wrong). A digital camera will let toddlers record their surroundings and enjoy replaying what they’ve captured.

Pretend play is also still big; adding cash registers, keyboards, and guitars, and new playsets and figurines will expand on make-believe scenarios.

An easy-to-erase sketch board makes practicing drawing shapes, letters, and numbers fun and easy. Toys that illustrate letters and numbers, clocks, calendars, and maps, help kids grasp these school-age concepts.

Big Kid: 6 years and up

Big kids are inspired by pursuing their own interests and challenging themselves. Whatever they are into, there is sure to be a science kit to suit them: chemistry, bubble making, robotics, the list goes on. More complex playsets and building sets encourage advanced problem solving and expanded creative play. And don't forget about outdoor play, which promotes gross motor skills and help kids learn about teamwork and sportsmanship. These big kids have probably graduated to big bikes or are a part of a team sport—so make sure you keep their equipment up to date.