‘Play’ is a toddler’s major pastime and the toys you provide help with their fine and gross motor skills, as well their language and social abilities.
Toys are great fun for your toddler, of course, but they’re also crucial in supporting the development of important fine and gross motor actions as well as language and social skills, which in turn support reading and comprehension.
This might seem a little too serious when you look at your cute little toddler playing with their blocks, but a 20-year study* found that the more mental stimulation a child gets (particularly around the age of four years) the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be in the decades ahead.
How to choose toddler toys
With the wealth of toys for toddlers in stores, catalogues and online, how do you know which ones are best? There are a few major points to consider, and first of course is safety. Toys need to be age appropriate – this means well made and robust as your child will really test them. And ideally, a child should be exposed to a range of playthings that stimulate their five senses.
Toys for gross motor
As your toddler grows you can support their changing physical ability with a range of toys and activities that support their gross motor skills – that is, coordination and balance plus helping them build strength in their arms and legs.
Bikes are terrific for balance, coordination and leg strength, as well as helping with spatial awareness (‘Can I fit through this gap?’). As tempting as it might be to get a cool-looking scooter, the best ones are wide-based, multi-wheeled and low to the ground. Think a low tricycle where feet can reach on the ground, or a scooter that has two wheels at the front and a restriction on the how far around the handlebars turn (360° will see your little one fall many times…). Your older toddler will benefit from balance bike that has no pedals – this phenomenon sees kids speeding off on their two-wheeled bikes much sooner that their older, stabiliser-dependant cohorts.
Outdoor play is a superb way to boost their physical abilities. If your garden can accommodate it, a playset with climbing frame, swing and hideaway cubby is perfect to encourage gross motor skills as well as imaginative play. Buy a fabric tunnel to crawl through or a mini trampoline with a hand-rail (this uses up lots of energy too = a good night’s sleep). A skipping rope and hula-hoop, along with outdoor cushions and large cardboard boxes can be used to create an assault course. Over-sized sports equipment such as a large soft ball can be kicked, rolled, thrown or caught. A yoga or fit ball is also great for them to push, roll and jump onto (tummy first), increasing their strength and also their understanding of cause and effect.
Push and pull toys encourage the use all the major muscle groups. They might crawl along the ground to play with chunky cars, or push a miniature shopping trolley filled with plastic foods or they may drag their favourite teddy around in a wagon or push it in a stroller. Their arms, legs and core will be engaged throughout.
Toys for fine motor
Your toddler will become more adept at using their fingers in a pincer motion to pick up tiny things and to carefully turn the pages of a book without tearing it. Fine motor skills are what will later assist them to write their name and form letters correctly. Even further on, the strength of their fingers will determine their ability to easily do up shoelaces, open food packets and even play musical instruments without easily tiring.
Building blocks are part of almost every childhood and the perennial favourite is Lego. You might think it’s too small for your toddler, and you’d be right. But Duplo is the stepping stone to Lego, and the larger bricks have textures, colours, patterns and shapes that are ideal for 18 months and up. Colourful stacking cups can be used to build towers and other shapes, to stack, sort and store. Imagination is the only limitation.
Thick crayons should be available every day. The thicker the better at first, as it allows them to gain strength and confidence before they graduate to thinner, harder-to-handle Textas and coloured pencils. Chalk is fun to use on the pavement or deck and you can wash it away or wait for it to rain. An easel is a sound investment as it can be used for many things over the years. Choose one that has a magnetic chalkboard on the flip side and it can be used for role-play too.
Play boards such as those with thick, coloured pegs, felt boards with animals and shapes, hammer and nail sets, simple colourful letter and number jigsaws, all assist with cognitive processes such as recognition, patterns and memory. Importantly they increase finger strength and eye-hand coordination, which is really beneficial in ball games and other sports, as well as in the ability to write neatly. Shoelace boards and threading games can be bought cheaply or you can make your own.
Sand or water pits are great way to keep your child’s fine motor skills stimulated. Let your toddler have fun with dinosaurs and dolls in the sandbox, or balance little toys in a boat of water, which is great imaginative play in an environment with various textures.
Language and social toys
Books are important from the earliest age, starting with fabric and bath books. Not only will they enjoy the bright colours, but as they get stronger they’ll benefit from learning to turn the pages in books that feature different textures. Language and social skills will be picked up as you read to your toddler and you’ll hear them start to use their own ‘words’ and ‘read’ the story in their own way.
Role-play and dress-ups are important for your child’s social and language development and can be incorporated into every activity mentioned above. Dressing up is fun because kids love to imitate their parents and use their belongings, and getting dressed and undressed gets those little fingers moving.
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