The holiday shopping season has arrived, and for those of us with little ones, it can be a challenge to choose a gift that’s both age-appropriate and helpful for development. We’ve all seen the recommended ages on packages for toys and games, but what are really the best toys for your kids?
The great news is that play is not only fun and universal for children of all ages, but it’s actually necessary for ideal development. Toys designed with a child’s current developmental level in mind will promote growth and mastery of new skills and ideas. Here are some guidelines to help you as you’re making your list (and checking it twice):
0-6 months: Babies birth to six months are learning to control head movement, sit up, and take notice of the world around them. They enjoy toys that engage their senses of touch and developing vision, and help them master grasping—think shaking toys like rattles and something fun to look at during tummy time, like colorful, soft stuffed animals.
6-12 months: Babies on the move like soft toys that will probably end up in their mouths for some period of time (so no small parts!) and that interact with their senses. Bright colors, sounds, and varied textures are engaging. Try simple musical instruments, soft blocks, and push and pull toys.
1-3 years: Toddlers are starting to explore cause and effect relationships and develop more fine motor dexterity—and they do it all while on the move! They like toys with buttons that cause music, lights, and sounds; stacking and sorting toys; picture books; and things that mimic the everyday activities around them: kitchen equipment, a playhouse, or other play household items.
3-5 years: Preschoolers love to do things for themselves, explore outside, and create with imaginative play and materials. Puzzles, clay, safety scissors, paper, books, pretend play tools, and the like are great for development. They are also starting to learn more about how to share and take turns, so early games with turn taking and simple rules, like memory games and short board games, can be introduced.
5-11 years: Elementary school age children are learning about nature, reading, playing collaboratively, and experiencing further cognitive development. Books that blend pictures and information are great for book lovers. Art supplies are popular for a wide range of kids, and games that encourage their interests and can be played with other children are a good bet. This could include sports equipment, creative arts, board games, music games, and building toys. Science and engineering toys are also a great option.
11-14 years: Middle schoolers are trying to fit in with friend groups and keep up with the demands of school and extracurricular activities. Ask them what they want and keep in mind the benefits of limiting screen time so that physical and outdoor play are not sacrificed.
As you make your shopping list, try to incorporate the interests of the child in your selections. Even very small children have preferences: some like animals and others like dress-up or things that move. The most important tip is to find a toy or game that will appeal to your child’s interests.
Happy holidays, and happy shopping!
Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Knickerbocker specializes in treating selective mutism and anxiety in young children, ADHD and difficulties with organization and time management, disruptive behaviors, and parent management training. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.