When it comes to toys, simple is usually best. Classic, open-ended toys that encourage building, movement, and pretend play are the time-tested winners when it comes to developing motor skills, growing imaginations, and – most importantly – having fun! Our list of developmental toys covers everyone from babies to big kids and is filled with kid-tested playtime favorites.
The best developmental toys for babies turn those adorable chubby hands into fine-motor machines! Babies are also all about toys that display cause and effect and help them explore spatial reasoning skills (i.e. how things fit inside of other things). Shape sorters check all of the boxes! The shapes are perfect for the littlest littles who are just learning how to grasp objects of various sizes and shapes. As they get a bit older, they’ll love dumping the shapes out of the box and putting them back in through the large opening. And as they reach toddlerhood, they’ll actually play with it for its main purpose – sorting shapes into the matching holes. Themed shaped sorters like the Noah’s Ark Shape Sorter also work well for pretend play, meaning they’ll stay a playtime favorite into the preschool years.
Push toys like the Push Along Play Cart help those early walkers get their sea legs! Unlike baby walkers, which have actually been associated with delayed walking and dangerous accidents, push toys like wagons and carts let toddlers develop strength, balance, and coordination.
Pretend play helps your kiddo develop problem-solving skills, social skills, emotional regulation, and creativity. A play kitchen – and all of those adorable pretend dishes and foods – are a fantastic way to encourage dramatic role-play, an important type of pretend play.
Kids develop independence and real-life skills as they pretend to do what adults do. Even tasks that seem mundane to us, like frying eggs for breakfast, are exciting to our littles when they get a chance to do (or pretend to do) them on their own. Play kitchens are also fun props for imaginative play and world-building, and your mini-chef will use theirs for everything from playing house to cooking up magic potions.
Truthfully, a toy train set can be successfully introduced a bit earlier or even years later, but four-year-olds are right in the sweet spot. They’ve developed the fine motor skills necessary to build tracks on their own, but they’ll still be challenged by planning and assembling complex tracks. This type of constructive play –a fancy term for “building stuff”– is associated with better math skills even much later in life. Our Top Train Set Picks for Kids guide can help you find a train set that lines up with your child’s skill level and interests.
Good ol’ fashion blocks are one of the most highly praised toys for developmental benefits. In fact, how many blocks a child can stack is used as one measure of their developmental milestones. Stacking blocks challenges their fine motor skills, and making more complex structures helps develop their spatial reasoning and creativity.
All those benefits of pretend play we talked about? Dollhouses provide them too, and they’re particularly awesome in the areas of emotional and social development. If you’ve ever really listened to a five-year-old play with a dollhouse, you know what we mean. Those dolls have some pretty dramatic adventures and conflicts, all powered by the kids’ amazing imaginations. As they play the parts of multiple dolls, they’re learning how to see from others’ perspectives and slowly but surely gaining empathy. Inventing and acting out social conflicts preps them for the real thing and helps them learn to regulate their own big feelings.
Your five year old can still benefit from constructive play, but they probably no longer find wooden blocks challenging enough. Plastic building bricks on the other hand? The perfect toy to create all those cool things they’re dreaming up. They’re ideal for creating more complex structures and objects they can pretend with like a garage for their toy trucks or a pretend cell phone. At their age, the possibilities are really endless – we don’t call them “clever creators” for nothing!
Swing sets build gross motor skills, strength, endurance, and perhaps most importantly, encourage kids to get outside and be active! This is especially important for school-age kids who may sit a lot throughout the school day and are more prone to sedentary behavior than ever-wiggly toddlers.
Want more ideas for brain-boosting play for your little ones? Be sure to check out our complete toy guides for three, four, five, and six-year-olds!