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The 20 Best Developmental Toys for Your Baby and Toddler

Updated: Apr 17


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The first few years of your child's life are full of rapid growth and exciting discoveries. During this important period their brain develops rapidly, laying the groundwork for future learning and cognitive abilities. As a parent or caregiver, offering kids the right toys is one important way to foster their development at each stage.


This article will explain the different ways that your child develops and discuss some of the best toys and learning games on the market that will encourage each type of development.


In this article:


This article is part of a series about the best developmental toys for kids.


Understanding your child's development

Before we discuss specific toys, it's crucial to understand the four areas in which your child develops during the early years of their life: cognitive, motor, language, social, and emotional development.


Each domain plays a pivotal role in a child's growth and sets them up to reach their maximum potential.


1. Cognitive development

Cognitive development refers to our brain's ability to understand, process, and learn about the world around us. As children grow and mature, they begin to understand and navigate the world in more complex ways, learning to solve problems, make decisions, understand abstract concepts, and think critically.


This process occurs from birth through a variety of experiences, such as interaction with caregivers and exploring toys and their environment.


2. Motor development

Motor development involves the growth and changes in a child’s body, including physical abilities, coordination, and balance. Motor development is divided into two types:


Gross motor skills refer to a baby's larger movements such as lifting their head, crawling, rolling over, sitting, and eventually walking.


Fine motor skills involve the small muscles in the hands and fingers as well as those in the mouth, tongue, and jaw. It includes clapping, drawing, and even speech!


Fine motor development is dependent on the development of gross motor abilities. Your child must develop strength, coordination, and stability in their core and larger extremities before they can be capable of smaller, more intricate movements. 

 

3. Speech and language development

Speech and language development is the process of building communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal (gestures and facial expressions).


It includes the following:

  • Acquiring vocabulary (both understanding and using words),

  • Learning how to put words together, AND

  • Comprehending others’ communication

4. Social and emotional development

Social and emotional development involves your baby's developing interactions and relationships with others, especially their relationship with you, which provides the foundation of social and emotional development.




It also includes their growing awareness and understanding of themselves and their own emotions.


Best developmental toys

With these developmental categories in mind, let's explore the best educational toys for your baby or toddler. These toys will not only help your child achieve developmental milestones and gain new skills, they're also fun!


What is an educational toy?

But what makes a toy "educational"? First and foremost, an educational toy should engage a child's mind in an interactive way and offer a degree of autonomy that allows children to experiment, explore, and learn at their own pace.

A truly educational toy will expand a child's knowledge and develop specific skills, which can be anything from critical thinking and problem-solving to creativity and spatial awareness.

In fact, the best developmental toys help your child grow in multiple categories, especially if you play together!


Baby toys

Even though a newborn can't manipulate a puzzle and an 8-month old can't play pretend with a doll, toys are still an important part of helping them learn and grow.


A toddler boy holds up interlocking blocks

Below, we discuss the best toys around that will promote your baby's development in each of the four development domains, although many have benefits across domains.


Cognitive development

1. High-contrast toys

A newborn baby's eyesight is not yet fully developed in the early months. They initially have poor contrast sensitivity, meaning that they can more easily see high-contrast objects. As a result, baby toys with bright or high-contrast colors (such as black and white) and strong patterns tend to grab a baby's attention.


A baby lies on a black and white play mat

High-contrast toys also stimulate their visual senses, helping to develop their eyesight and enhance their focus.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Black and white high contrast soft book


2. Books with textures

Books with textures encourage babies to explore, engage their tactile senses, and provide an opportunity to work on their visual and language skills as you read together. The different textures, whether they're fluffy fur or bumpy scales, enhance their sensory awareness.


Additionally, looking at books with their parents or caregivers helps to foster a baby or toddler's love of reading from the very beginning!


Pathfinder Health recommends:


That's not my elephant...board book

3. Noisemakers

By shaking and manipulating a toy that rattles or jingles, babies are not only improving their hand-eye coordination, they're also learning about cause and effect and beginning to understand that their actions have an impact on the world around them.


A baby holds a rattle ball

Playing with different noise making toys also develops a baby's auditory discrimination—the ability to recognize and distinguish between different sounds—which will later help them to understand language. Toys that make multiple sounds are particularly beneficial for this.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Fifi the firefly carseat and stroller toy


Motor development

4. Tummy time mat

Tummy time is critical for infant development—it helps babies build neck, upper body, and core strength that will be essential for crawling, standing, and walking.


A baby does tummy time on an alphabet mat

Placing them on a mat with entertaining images and other sensory items can help make tummy time enjoyable and encourage your little one to practice for a longer amount of time.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Tummy time mirror mat


5. Stacking toys

Stacking rings and stacking cups encourage fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. As your baby starts to grasp and manipulate the rings or cups, they gain strength and dexterity in their hands.


A father and daughter play with a stacking toy

Additionally, a baby has to figure out how to fit the pieces together when stacking the rings. This develops their problem-solving skills and builds self-confidence.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Melissa and Doug geometric stacker

6. Baby-safe blocks

Blocks are a wonderful way to build your baby's fine motor skills and hand eye coordination—just watch as those little fingers learn how to grip, stack, and maneuver the pieces.


Blocks promote other learning as well. Babies love to knock down block towers, which is a great way to teach them cause and effect. Building simple block structures with your baby is also a good way to begin introducing pretend play.


A baby plays with a four-block tower

For babies, look for blocks made of softer materials, not wood. Also choose something that can withstand chewing—teething babies love to gnaw on block corners!


Pathfinder Health recommends:


B. Toys stacking and building baby blocks

7. Push/pull toys

If your baby is standing but not yet taking independent steps, a push toy can provide support and encourage them to practice walking. Good push toys for an early walker might include a toy shopping cart, baby doll stroller, or wagon. Choose sturdy toys that have a wide base to prevent tipping.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Melissa and Doug chomp and clack alligator


For babies that can walk independently, pull toys offer an additional challenge. As a child walks and pulls a toy, various fine and gross motor skills work together—their hands grasp the string, their arms pull it along, and their torso and legs work to balance and take steps.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Hape walk-a-long puppy wooden pull toy


Speech and language development

8. Interactive board books

Simple books with repetitive text, captivating pictures, and interactive features like flaps or textures are great for engaging babies and fostering their early language development.


Two parents look at a book with a baby

Read with your baby from a young age. Even though an infant won't understand what you're reading, you can sit and look at books and read stories together to encourage their love of books.


9. Musical toys

When infants listen to music and musical instruments, they soon begin to recognize tonalities, melodies, and pitches, forming a strong foundation for language learning.


A baby and toddler playing with a xylophone

Furthermore, making music can even help babies with the cognitive and motor development needed to speak.


This is because playing instruments like drums or rattles helps develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and overall proprioception—the ability to sense the position and movement of our own body parts even when we can't see them. All of these are important in building strong oral communication skills.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Fisher Price classic xylophone


Social and emotional development

10. Plush animals

Soft and cuddly plush baby toys offer comfort and security, aiding in the development of infants' emotional well-being and creating a sense of attachment.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Gund bunny stuffed animal

Safety tip: For babies, choose stuffed animals without plastic parts that could become detached and pose a choking hazard (including plastic "beans" in the stuffing). Also wait until your baby is one year before putting plush animals in their crib for sleep.


11. Baby-safe mirror

Mirrors made of shatter-proof plastic are great toys for babies because they help them develop a sense of self-awareness. Looking at themselves in a mirror helps infants learn about their body parts, expressions, and movements, while also entertaining them with their own reflections.


A baby looking at her reflection in a small mirror

Eventually, a baby will learn to recognize that face in the mirror as their own!


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Baby floor mirror

Toddler toys

Developmental toys and learning games become even more important as your baby grows into a toddler and continues to refine their cognitive, motor, speech and language, and social and emotional skills.


Numerous studies have shown that play is the most powerful tool for learning and development in young children.

Play allows toddlers to explore and experiment with their surroundings, develop problem-solving skills, and practice social interactions, among many other skills.

Some of the best developmental toys for toddlers include the following, by developmental domain.


Cognitive development

12. Puzzles

Engaging in puzzle play helps to promote and enhance various skills, such as problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, and spatial awareness.


Moreover, puzzles are excellent learning tools, helping children learn shapes, colors, sizes, and pattern recognition.


A toddler sits at a table with three puzzles

Finally, puzzles encourage patience and persistence and provide a confidence boost when your child completes a puzzle.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Animal jigsaw puzzles


13. Blocks

Blocks are one of the best all-around toys for toddlers.

Blocks offer endless opportunities for creativity and imaginative play and help children to develop important cognitive, physical, and social skills.

By stacking and sorting blocks, toddlers practice visual-spatial awareness and problem-solving skills. They also improve their fine motor control as they grasp and manipulate the blocks.


A toddler boy building a block structure

Plus, block play is often a group activity, fostering social interaction, communication, and cooperation.


Blocks can be as simple as a basic set of wooden blocks, but also include countless variations such as Lego DUPLOs and magnetic tiles.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Lego duplo classic brick box


100 piece magnetic tiles

14. Matching games

Games that involve matching pairs of images on cards or tiles can be a great way for toddlers to enhance their memory and concentration skills.


Additionally, these learning games can introduce them to the idea of categorization and help improve their ability to visually discriminate between similar images.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


36 pair animal matching game

Motor development

15. Art supplies

Basic arts and crafts offer a variety of ways to encourage and reward your child's motor development.


Art supplies such as crayons, paintbrushes, and playdough let them practice fine motor skills. This, in turn, strengthens the muscles in their hands and fingers, leading to better coordination and dexterity.


A toddler girl painting

Plus, using art supplies encourages creativity and self-expression, helping to boost their cognitive and emotional development.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Play-doh starter set

16. Ride-on toys

Ride-on toys are the perfect tool to help develop your toddler's gross motor skills. As your little one scoots around, they strengthen their legs, gain balance, and fine-tune their coordination.


A toddler sitting on a ride-on car

Moreover, ride-on toys offer an excellent opportunity for outdoor playtime, which helps boost their overall physical fitness.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Little Tikes push and ride racer

Speech and language development

17. Picture books

Reading to your child regularly (ideally every day for at least a few minutes) is one of the most important ways to nurture their speech and language development, as well as other abilities. That's why we include books in several places on this list!


Among many other benefits, reading builds their vocabulary, listening and comprehension skills, and awareness of language structure, all skills that they will use at older ages in school.


A mother reading a book to her daughter

Choose books that are appropriate for your child's age and development—they may become bored and engage less with books that are too simple or too advanced for them.


For toddlers, board books filled with lively pictures and easy-to-understand text are a good choice. Preschoolers will begin to enjoy books with more complicated stories.


To learn more about the benefits of reading and for specific book recommendations to help with different skills, check out our article, "16 Benefits of Reading with Children."


18. Puppets

Puppets are wonderful tools that can help nurture communication skills and inspire imaginative play.


You can use puppets to make up stories and have engaging conversations with your child. Through these interactions, puppets can teach toddlers to express themselves creatively and positively.


A toddler boy plays with a turtle puppet

Puppets also allow children to explore and engage with different emotions and experiences, developing their emotional intelligence and empathy.

You can even use puppets to create "social stories"–short, simple stories that are meant to help your child understand what to expect and how to behave in certain social situations. This is a great way to begin teaching foundational social skills.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Melissa and Doug safari buddies hand puppets

Social and emotional development

19. Dolls and action figures

Dolls and action figures offer children the opportunity to engage in imaginative, creative play, as well as learn essential social and emotional skills.


Through playing with dolls, children learn how to express themselves, communicate, and empathize with others.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Adora soft baby doll

Dolls also help kids build confidence and independence as they take on the role of caregiver or parent.


20. Toy kitchen set

Play kitchens help children hone their fine motor skills as they pour, measure, and stir. They also offer children an opportunity to engage in cooperative play with friends or siblings, practicing sharing, teamwork, and communication.


Two boys playing with a play kitchen

A play kitchen does not need to be complicated! Kids love to play in outdoor "mud kitchens" made of some old kitchen tools and clean, empty food containers.


Pathfinder Health recommends:


Play kitchen wooden toy set

The Takeaway

Carefully selected toys play a vital role in nurturing essential skills and sparking your child's passion for learning. By choosing toys that promote your child's cognitive, motor, language, and social-emotional development, you can create an enriching environment that paves the way for their future success.





This way playtime isn't just fun, it unlocks your child's potential during these crucial formative years. So, let's get playing!


Sources:

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, Pediatrics (2018), available at https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-2058

  2. Bergen D. The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development. Early Childhood Research & Practice. 2002;4(1).

  3. Fisher EP. The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play & Culture. 1992;5(2):159-181.


Bio of Kavita Naik Cherry

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