Tag Archives: simplicity

Gift Guide: Toys to Build Toddler Brains

photo showing toys like Duplo train, Quadro climber

Parents often ask me for recommendations for “the best toys for toddlers”. It’s a little tricky for me, given that I often advocate for owning fewer toys. But, if you’d like a few special items for a child to unwrap for their birthday, Christmas, or another holiday, here are some thoughts on how to choose the best toys. I’m going to sort them into categories based on ways to build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. (I also recommend you check out my handout on activities and free items which also help to build their brains.)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We go to the library a lot! And when my son was a toddler, we went to story-time at the library every week. This means we get to “try out” hundreds of books a year for free! We only buy copies of the very best. Here are my favorites for books that toddlers love, preschool level books about inventors and makers, and books that sing. (For your adult reading enjoyment, here’s my recommendations for recommended parenting books and resources for teaching STEM to kids.)

It’s also helpful to play a lot with letters: I like magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which you can use all over the house) and duplo letters.

I also recommend a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, which includes lots of ABC games and literacy building apps. (Here are thoughts on making screen time work for your family.)

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything you have more than one of is a math toy! You can count how many blocks you have, figure out whether you have more trains than balls, and so on. A few helpful specialty math tools are: a set of Duplo numbers, which you can use for counting, number recognition, while mixing them into your building tools, Unifix Cubes, and a great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

I like wooden puzzles for younger children and jigsaw puzzles for older kids. Melissa and Doug is generally a reliable brand. Babies 6 – 18 months like stacking toys and shape sorters. Toddlers love wooden train tracksto assemble and a big collection of wooden trains.

There’s tons of great building toys for older kids (I list many here in my STEM Gift Guide) but my all-time favorite is building toy to give is a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

I would recommend several balls of varying sizes and textures, a Nerf style baseball bat, a Strider bike, and plenty of time to run and play indoors and out.

Rather than buying a pre-made climber that can never change configurations, I recommend a climber built of Quadro (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.)

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. Choose a few stuffed animals or puppets,  a collection of finger puppets to tell stories with, a toy picnic basket with fake food.

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

This category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time.

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his siblings, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Child-Directed Play

In addition to buying stuff for your kid to play with, also make sure they have some time to play with you that is child-directed – where they get to decide what they want to play. Learn more about child-directed play.

If you have an older child, check out my Gift Guide to STEM Toys for Ages 3 – 6.

(Note: this post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and purchase anything, I get a small referral fee. I spend any income from that on doing outreach to encourage more parents and educators to come check out what I offer here on this blog.)

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10 Types of Toys

letters

In other posts, I have talked about reasons why it might be OK to own fewer toys, and how to choose the best toys, and shared a link to my handout on choosing toys and activities which build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. I’ll share here some examples of how this plays out in our home with our three-year-old.

(Note: I’ve included Amazon Affiliate links in case you want to buy any of these items, but truly, I’m advocating for NOT buying much stuff!)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We only own about 20 kids’ books – filtered down over 20 years of parenting to the ones that we love the best and want to have in the house at all times. But we go to the library a lot! (Multiple times a week, picking up a big stack of books every time. And we end up reading them all multiple times. My boy loves to be read to, and loves to read to himself.) And we go to story-time at the library every week.

We also have magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which we use all over the house) and duplo letters. Lately, my son has been using the letters and a big drawing of a coconut tree  to re-enact one of his favorite books (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom) over and over again. You can see the picture above…. the drawing is nothing “fancy” – I think his grandparents just pulled some packing paper out of the recycle bin and drew on it with crayons – but it’s kept him entertained for hours, and when he’s done, it’s back to the bin.

We have a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, so he plays lots of ABC games, and watches educational videos (and not so educational videos) about the alphabet.

Our best language tools? His abuela (grandmother) who speaks to him in Spanish. And his Belo (grandpa) who reads to him for hours on end. And they both spend a lot of time practicing writing numbers and letters with him and other hands-on learning games.

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything we have more than one of is a math toy! We can count how many blocks we have, figure out whether we have more trains than balls, and so on.

We have 12 rubber ducks that have appeared in our lives over 20 years of parenting (I don’t think I bought a single one). These are great for bath time math time. We sang “Five Little Ducks went out one day” lots of times – it’s a good way to learn the basics of subtraction – one duck doesn’t come back – now there’s four little ducks…

The only special math tools we have are:

    • a set of Duplo numbers, which we’ve used for counting, number recognition, and a number line – we had a library book called Hopping on the Number Line which led to the game of having toys hop back and forth on the number line as we did the math problems out loud (if froggy starts on 2, and hops 3 spaces, where will he land?),
    • Unifix Cubes, which are a fabulous math teaching tool, though so far all he does with them is sort them into 10 stacks of 10 matching cubes, then lines those up in spectrographic order red-yellow-orange, etc. (My boy is a big fan of order and repetition.)
    • Some numbers we shaped out of pipe cleaners
    • Some old birthday candles – you know the candles shaped like the #1 and the #2 and so on that when you put them on the birthday cake and blow them out 20 seconds later, barely any wax has melted so you keep them instead of throwing them away? My son found those and loves them!
    • A great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

We have a couple of kids’ wooden puzzles and a couple of jigsaw puzzles. We have a big bin of duplos (notice how our letters and numbers listed above do dual duty as part of the Duplo collection?), and wooden train tracksto assemble (and a big collection of wooden trains – half are used and abused – purchased at a consignment store and the others shiny and new purchased by Grandpa). At many of our local libraries, they have puzzles that he works with when we visit, and at his BC classes, they have lots of shape sorters, puzzles, and small manipulables to practice with.

We also “find” lots of things for him to learn spatial skills with: mixing bowls, measuring cups, plastic dishes for practice nesting things; sticks and rocks to stack into tall towers, an empty bottle from the recycling bin and some dry beans to drop in….

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

We own 5 balls of varying sizes, a kids’ baseball bat, a Strider bike, and a climber built of QUADROthat was a hand-me-down from a friend (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.) We also go swimming at least once a week, and go on one or two one-mile hikes a week and go to the playground a lot. When we’re out in the woods, he happily balances on logs and climbs trees and scales rocks.

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. So we’ve got a few stuffed animals, but he doesn’t play with them a lot. We have a collection of finger puppets that we tell stories with and that he also uses at naptime to tell stories to himself. We have a toy picnic basket with fake food, but we don’t use it a lot, so I think it will soon go to our Buy Nothing group. He’s just as happy to say that a rock is a chocolate cupcake and a handful of bark is french fries.We also make things… one of this week’s library books was Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe, and we made Model Magic dinosaurs to go with it – he mixes the colors and I do the sculpting.dino

We also make sure he gets lots of interaction with other kids – we spend lots of time at the playground, in free play with new kids, and meet friends for a weekly play-date which is all kid-guided, non-facilitated free play. (Kids learn a lot more about getting along with others and about conflict resolution when parents back off!)

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

As I say in the handout, this category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time. When we go on hikes in the woods, there’s a lot of quiet reflective time as well as song-singing, story-telling, nature-teaching time. He also has “nap time” every day. He stopped sleeping at nap time a few months ago, but still will play quietly in his room for 90 minutes every day. OK, not necessarily quietly – he plays his piano, and reads his books out loud with LOTS of feeling and dramatic interpretation! But it’s a good solo time for him (and for me).

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his sisters, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Do we have it right?

I feel like we have found a good balance… we have enough stuff at home that he is very capable of entertaining himself for a long time. And we make things a lot and find thins in nature, which gives him new toys and also shows ingenuity. Plus, we get out in the world a lot to explore the things we don’t have at home. I try to avoid owning “stupid” toys that I don’t like… they do enter our home sometimes if my kids go to a birthday party and come home with goody bags, or have lunch at McDonald’s with dad. But most of the toys we own I think are worthwhile.

William Morris once said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a rule I try to live by for myself, and I think it also applies to my child’s things… but maybe there it’s something more like “Have nothing in your toy box that you do not know to be creativity-inspiring or believe to be a joy to play with.”

How Many Toys is Enough?

clutter

Parents often complain about the overwhelming clutter of toys in their home, and yet they have a hard time letting go of the toys they have and/or they keep acquiring more toys.

Let’s look at ways to think about the toys that we take into our homes, which we decide to keep, and how to decide when it’s time to let go.

Toys as a cure for boredom?

I often hear:

“My daughter gets bored of any toy after just a few minutes, so I need to keep getting new toys to keep her busy.”

Kids learn what they are taught. And the more we reinforce it, the more ingrained the learning. If every time your baby fusses, you give her a new toy to entertain her, you’ve trained her that the way to happiness is more new toys. And you’ve trained her that your job is to keep her entertained at all times.

On the other hand, if your child complains about being bored, and you don’t “rescue” her by offering new entertainment, she will learn that she can entertain herself. I know that many of my kids’ most creative moments followed after they said “I’m bored!” I didn’t fix it for them by handing them new toys. Instead I left them to their own devices to figure out a new game or project. Suddenly, the “same old toys” took on new life.

For young children, like toddlers and preschoolers, they may not be able to invent a new game on their own, but you can offer “invitations to play.” You can put out old toys in new combinations, or allow them to play with various household objects. For example, they may not have played with the blocks in the living room or the toy horses in their bedroom for a long time. But if you put those toys on the kitchen table, suddenly they’re building a stable, and when they want a ramp, they grab a wooden ruler from the desk.

Children throughout history and across cultures have had a fabulous time playing with whatever materials were available to them. And the fewer the materials, the more creative they have to be. What’s the best all-time toy? The stick. (Check it out – it’s in the Toy Hall of Fame and in this list of the 5 best toys of all time, and here’s a great blog post on all the things a stick can become.)

Could less be more?

I have worked with many parents who said things like:

“My child never focuses. He flits around the room, from one thing to another. I keep getting new toys, hoping to find one he likes enough to play with it for longer.”

I recommend that they instead put away half the toys in the room and see what happens. Almost always, they find that the child slows down, calms down, and focuses more.

Having lots of toys in their environment can be very over-stimulating for children. Feeling surrounded by choices can create an internal pressure to play with everything, and stress over choosing which thing to play with next.

If we add in auditory clutter (such as background TV) or visual clutter (whether it’s piles of unfolded laundry or carefully curated artwork and decorative displays), it’s even harder to focus. “Experiments show children who play in rooms where a TV is broadcasting… spend less time with individual toys and shift their attention more quickly from one activity to another…” (Source)  “…children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.” (Source)

Parents.com has a nice article on helping young children learn to focus. But an easy place to start can be having a calmer, more focused play space with a smaller number of quality toys, not a lot of décor, and some quiet time.

Can we learn to appreciate what we have?

“Their grandparents love to buy them things, and my sisters give me all their kids’ hand-me-downs, so there’s this never-ending flood of toys. I’m overwhelmed, but every time a relative comes over, my kids expect to get a toy.”

 

Another benefit of focusing less on acquiring more stuff can be more time to focus on  gratitude for what you do have, especially if we make gratitude a conscious focus of our family life.  (Find great tips for this on Hip Homeschool Moms and check out this post on Momastery titled “Give me gratitude or give me debt“, it’s about taking a moment to notice all the amazing things in our homes (running water!! a refrigerator with food in it!!) and worry less about all the things that magazines, catalogs, and advertisements tell us we need to be happy.

We’ve got a great little independent toy store in my home town. At least it looks great from the outside. But we’ve never been inside. My 3-year-old and I walk past it all the time on our way to the park, the farmer’s market, and the fountain that he likes to splash his hands in. I suspect that if we ever went in, then he would want all the toys in there, and would sob whenever we passed in the future. It’s easy to get captivated by consumer products – after all, that’s what makes our capitalist society run. But, he’s happy with the toys that we do have, and I’m grateful that we can walk to the park, the market, and the fountain – those are the memories of his childhood that I want.

If I decide we want new toys, then there’s always our Buy Nothing group to check with first. It’s a Facebook group where people freely give away anything they don’t need anymore. (Check their website to see if there’s one in your area!)

Some day, as your child gets older, they may notice that other kids have more toys than they do. This can result in some yelling and some tears and some “you’re so mean” moments. But, it also opens up an opportunity for discussions with your child about your family values, what you choose and why. It can also tie into financial literacy, and helping educate them about how to make consumer choices that work for them.

What about developmental stimulation?

“I worry that he’s not going to get all the stimulation he needs to reach his potential, so I buy all the stuff that’s supposed to help with brain development.”

One of the ways marketers convince us to buy their toys is by telling us a toy is “developmentally appropriate” or “stimulates language development” or “encourages creative thinking” or “will guarantee your kid will get into Harvard.”

I promise you… there does not exist “the one best toy that all kids need” in order to learn and grow. Our kids can, and do, learn from everything in their environment.

We do want to think about a diversity of experiences for our children. This is the best way to stimulate brain development.

As we choose toys and activities, it helps to think about choosing toys that help with all the areas of development. I also think about the theory of multiple intelligences to ensure my children and my students have opportunities to develop them all. Look at the toys you own: Does your child have toys that stimulate gross motor development? small motor development? Pretend play? Artistic expression? Musical appreciation?

Here is a handout on choosing toys to develop multiple intelligences. And here’s my post on how this theory plays out in real life – in other words, what toys does my three year old own for each category, and is that working for us?

Also, I don’t worry about having in my home everything my child needs to develop. Think about your community resources: the library (ours check out videos, CD’s, stuffed toys, and puzzles – not just books), indoor playgrounds (our local parks departments all host them in their gyms on winter weekday mornings – they set out lots of ride-upons, balls, and other great toys for big motor play), other parks programs, zoos and pet stores, and children’s museums. (Check out this great article on why we need children’s museums.)

Rotating Toys

“I spent all this money on special toys for Christmas, and she still hasn’t really played with any of them. But I’m going to hang on to them for a little while longer to see if they catch her interest. But we’ve just got too many toys now!”

A friend of mine is in the process of selling her house. So, she packed up most of her toddler’s toys to keep the clutter in the house at a minimum in case an agent wanted to show the house. She made 5 plastic tubs full of toys to store in the garage. She gets out one tub at a time, that has a small collection of toys in it. She says her toddler will happily play with that one small collection of toys for days on end without complaining or getting bored. And even better, she’s even started to put away all her own toys in the bin at the end of each play session. Every once in a while, they put those toys away and bring in a new bin. If there’s any one toy from bin #1 that’s really popular at the moment, then they keep it out, and swap one of the bin #2 toys into bin #1 to take its place.

My friend says that in the new house, she plans to continue this method, because it’s working so well for them.

More Resources

Also check out: Elizabeth Pantley’s advice on buying toys for babies and toddlers. These articles on Why Fewer Toys will Benefit Your Kids, and Seven Ways to Build Your Child’s Attention Span (which include minimal “entertainment” and more open-ended toys).  Dr. Toy is a helpful website that reviews toys.

photo credit: r0Kk via photopin cc, geirt.com via photopin