Like many parents, you probably want your child to play well with others and share thoughtfully.
Here’s something you need to know: Children have to learn how to “play,” just like they have to learn how to walk or to wave. Play skills come in fits and starts, just like other development milestones, and babies don’t play with other children for some time.
Here is an introduction to the stages of play, with some suggestions for appropriate toys. But keep in mind that a wooden spoon or an empty box can be just as fascinating as the freshest store-bought toy.
The first few months of life are all about the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Start with brightly colored mobiles so your baby can follow shapes and see different colors as the mobile moves around. Mirrors are also fascinating to babies who like to watch a face, even when it’s their own.
Toys that rattle, crinkle, or have sturdy parts that clap together are good choices as your baby develops an interest in, and ability to, grasp and shake items. Teething toys, small blankets, and stuffed animals or soft dolls offer different textures and are safe if they end up in baby’s mouth.
- The Bright Starts sunny safari baby’s play place has different toys for baby to reach for: a mirror, a mobile, and best off all, barriers that can be lifted to keep baby protected in the hustle and bustle of a busy house.
- Lamaze’s rainbow stacking rings offer crinkly sounds, magnets to hold the pieces together as baby begins to move items toward each other, bright colors, and soft textures.
As babies start to sit up and can hold their head, they are still interested in toys that stimulate their senses but now they are also starting to see cause and effect as they play.
Toys that move on their own, like those with wheels, are good options to introduce now. A few small items in a basket help your baby learn to move things in and out of a container. Stacking rings and big blocks help them develop manual dexterity while larger balls and toys with parts to pull or push help develop large muscles.
Now that they can sit up in the tub, make a splash at bath time with water toys that scoop and pour.
- Melissa and Doug K’s kids pull-back vehicle set is a fun way for babies to develop both dexterity and cause-and-effect skills as the cars can be scooted straight ahead or pulled back, and let go to zoom across the floor.
- It’s hard to beat the good old Fisher-Price brilliant rock-a-stack, which most parents will remember from their own toy boxes. This classic toy has been around since 1960, teaching millions of babies about color and eye-hand coordination.
Once your baby can stand up, it’s a good time to try activity tables. Music tables let babies explore sounds. Sand tables offer endless make believe and discovery options. Water tables can make for safe splashing spots. Tables that hold trains or blocks provide different surfaces for moving around.
Similarly, small climbers help develop larger muscles, use up some of that boundless energy, and give even small children lots of room for imagination.
This is also a good time to introduce instruments like tambourines and maracas. Little ones are beginning to understand their part in making sounds that come from simple instruments.
Modeling clay or Play-Doh helps develop creativity and manual dexterity. So do big, nontoxic markers and crayons, but you’ll have to monitor carefully so none of those things end up in baby’s mouth.
- The Step2 play ball climber is low to the ground and has several different play options to keep busy minds occupied. Its sturdy plastic construction works well indoors or out.
- The B. parum pum pum drum is actually seven different instruments in a sweet bug design that can be stored inside the lightweight drum. Available at several different retailers, the B. company donates a portion of the sale of all their toys to Free the Children.
Toddlers are still mostly engaging in what child development experts call solitary and parallel play.
Until children are about 2, they are interested in other children, but don’t yet understand the concept of playing together. The time your toddler spends with another child is invaluable in developing social skills, but don’t be surprised if they move around a room separately.
Between 2 and 3, children begin to play near each other, communicate while they play, and watch each other play, but they are still very much doing their own thing. This is when sharing toys can become a major source of trouble and some child development experts suggest distracting young toddlers rather than forcing this complicated concept.
This is a good time to introduce problem solving toys like puzzles and sorting toys. Music and art are still teaching important skills so keep the noisemakers, paper, and crayons coming. More sophisticated building blocks, child-sized tents and tunnels, and riders they can operate without pedals are all good options for building muscles and coordination.
- Tents provide a hiding space, zippers or Velcro to maneuver, and a place for imaginations to run wild. This one by Pacific Play has a spot to add on a tunnel for even more intrigue.
- The Prince Lionheart wheely bug scores big with parenting bloggers for the ease with which little ones can hop on and go — in any direction.
After your little one turns 3, play changes dramatically.
Children first engage in associative play and then, as they close in on kindergarten, they begin cooperative play. The earliest toys your children played with won’t keep their attention still, but all the other toys just need more sophisticated versions to hold their interest. Blocks can become Duplos, puzzles can have more pieces, and riding toys can become tricycles.
All along, introduce your child to books. Even brand-new babies enjoy the sound of your voice as you read. Board books, picture books, books with faces, books with animals, books with colors, stories, fairytales, and poems all provide your baby with the opportunity to learn and engage with you and the world.