Choosing The Best Toys For Baby: Tips From A Pediatric Occupational Therapist

developmental toys for baby - tips from a professional.

What are the best toys for baby? What makes some toys developmentally better than others? Which toys are best for learning?

5 Tips for Choosing Great Baby Toys for development. CanDo Kiddo

One of the unique skills of a pediatric Occupational Therapist is the ability to analyze and evaluate the developmental benefits of toys and equipment for kids. In our academic training, we study “activity  analysis”, which is a nerdy term for looking really closely at how activities and objects challenge bodies, minds and social skills. 

So today I’d like to share a glimpse into the way a pediatric OT looks at toys for babies so that you can be a wiser consumer and have more fun with your little one!

How Toy Shopping Is Like Grocery Shopping

By now you've probably had it drilled into your head that whole or real foods - usually from the perimeter of the grocery store - are healthier for your family than processed, refined foods from a box. But grocery shopping can be confusing because many of those processed food boxes (filled with easy, convenient food for busy families) claim to be "natural", "organic", "whole grain" and more. 

Toy shopping can be similar. The makers of baby products can slap an "educational" or "developmental" label on their toys without oversight and certainly without any research or evidence to support their claims. And you may be surprised to find that many of the most popular toys on the market aren't the most beneficial for development. Luckily, most baby toys aren't harmful, per se, but there are certainly some that are more developmentally helpful for our kiddos than others.

The Best Toys For Babies

Some of the features (besides safety and affordability) to look for in a toy for your kiddo are:

1. Open-ended : Look for toys that can be used in many different ways - ones that don't have one desired response from your child. The more open-ended a toy is, the more likely it is to grow with your baby through many ages and stages. Here's a tip - push-button electronic toys tend to be less open-ended than more basic toys.

2. Supporting of discovery and exploration : Children are natural-born experimenters. Play for bigger babies, toddlers and beyond often involves lots of "what happens if I do this?!" moments. Look for toys that could respond differently to your child's different actions or toys with pieces that could be removed and used with different activities. This goes right along with open-endedness since these are key features of open-ended toys. 

3. Promote interaction and language : Some toys are more supportive of playing with  and talking to your baby than others. A book that reads itself to your toddler as she turns pages or pushes buttons leaves little room for a parent to interact. A spider toy that sings the whole "Itsy Bitsy Spider" song doesn't promote imitation of hand motions as mommy or daddy sings it to baby. Look for toys that do less for the child and that allow the space for you as a parent to ask questions, tell a story, sing a song, make an animal noise,  and make observations.

4. Sensory simplicity : Every object in the world has sensory properties - weight, color, texture, sound when banged or tapped or rubbed or squeezed. I find that baby products labelled "sensory" are often just busy for the sake of being busy. A baby is just as likely to be be as interested in sensory exploration of a simple wooden maraca toy as a light up, vibrating, singing octopus pirate with a different whirlygig doo-dah hanging from each tentacle. 

5. Relevance to real life :  Babies are learning about the world around them. They're trying to associate words with the pictures in books and the toys in their world. The objects that they play with and interact with on a daily basis can contribute to that understanding of the world. I advocate for at least some of a baby's toys to be related to or resemble real life objects. Look for baby books with real photos or realistic drawings of animals and toy animals that actually look like animals (as opposed to the singing octopus pirate previously mentioned). Let your baby play with cups and wooden spoons, wooden blocks, mirrors, scarves, etc.

Comparing Toys: A Real-Life Example

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So let's put some of those principles into practice and compare two toys to see how they measure up:

Tips from a pediatric OT. CanDo Kiddo

Let's compare a set of good ole' stacking cups {affiliate} to the popular plastic electronic drum that lights up and says letters of the alphabet as baby bangs it. 

Baby can mouth the cups, bang the cups on the floor or table, bang two cups together, put them on her head, cover her eyes with cups to play peek-a-boo, nest them together, stack them, roll them, pretend to drink from them, hide toys under them, put toys in them, shout into them and more. With the drum, baby bangs the drum and it says a letter. Baby bangs with two hands and it says a letter. Baby pushes his face into the top of the drum in an attempt to bite it - it says a letter. Baby bangs hard - it says a letter. Baby bangs soft - it says a letter. Baby bangs it with a toy hammer - it says a letter. I think you get the point that this toy isn't very responsive to baby's discovery and exploration. Baby can't put anything in it or under it, stack it on top of anything else, roll it, or take it apart. This toy is made for one thing only - banging - and it is effectively a giant button. 

When playing with stacking cups with your baby, you'll use positional words like on, in, under and on top. You can talk about big and small, colors, how many cups you have, and more.  A caregiver could certainly interact with baby while using the drum but there isn't so much to talk about.  And if you assume that the alphabet is a language-promoting sound - keep in mind that the toys won't ask baby questions, make observations of what baby is doing or respond if baby happens to imitate a letter sound. Battery operated toys may speak words or letters but they lack the valuable language-enriching "circles of communication" that interactions with caregivers offer

Stacking cups may look simple, but they offer baby a chance to use vision, touch and the pressure & stretch sense (proprioception) to perceive subtle differences in sizes - a valuable sensory processing skill. Successfully learning to perceive these differences results in the ability to stack, nest and sort the cups as baby gets older. One of the key features of sensory play is that it promotes a skilled or purposeful response from your child. The drum lights up and makes sounds in a cause and effect fashion but not in a way that is responsive to your child's different purposeful actions.

Toys Aren't Bad : The Case for Moderation

Let me be clear that I don't want to demonize certain toys or burden you with guilt for owning an alphabet drum or vibrating octopus pirate (for the record, we have the octopus pirate).

Using the grocery shopping analogy, I would say that some toys are more nutritionally dense than others and we want to make sure our babies and children are getting some exposure to those toys that encourage exploration, creativity, sustained attention, social interaction, sensory processing skills, motor development and learning. My aim is to pass along some new ways of thinking about toys so that you can balance your child's "toy diet" with some developmentally powerful toys and activities.

Awesome Open-Ended Toys For Babies

Here are a few ideas for great open-ended toys for babies that will grow with your little one into the toddler (and even preschool) years:

Tips for choosing the best toys for babies from a pediatric OT. CanDo Kiddo

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