Little girl playing doctor with her teddy bear

3 Tips for Finding a Toy That Is Educational, Stimulating, and Age Appropriate

Jean Boylan
Jean Boylan

November 16, 2019 5 min read

Does finding the perfect toy confound you?   We are here to help!

As Fred Rogers said, “Play is the work of childhood.” 

Toys are the tools of this work.  The quality of a toy directly relates to your child’s opportunity to explore and grow.  Toys selected with thought enhance your child’s creativity, and teach them to tackle challenges, learn new skills and grow self-esteem. Poor quality toys are monotonous, boring, uninspiring and a waste of money. The best toy fit for your child will match their current skill level and interest, but also have possibilities for play as they grow! Well designed toys also have key qualities you can look for when you are shopping. Shopping in the right place will save you time.

They Won’t LoveThis Junk!

Perhaps you recently walked through the toy aisle of a big-box store and were shocked by all the rubbish in the toy aisle! Plastic junk with lots of pieces and little play value. You could just visualize these toys cluttering your house and ending up in the donation box.  Most of the toys were licensed products designed to support video industry sending the kids back to their “screens” for entertainment. You don’t see the value in these toys for your own children - why should you purchase them for a birthday gift? It makes you wonder, what are the adults who make and sell these toys thinking? There is simply no reason for a toy offering to be so limited and of such poor quality. 

For the same cost, you can purchase educational toys that have a high play value and the children will spend hours exploring, imagining and learning! Just like adults, children need good quality tools to do their best work!

Tip # 1 - Purchase Developmentally Appropriate Toys

As a rule, children will be initially impressed with something they’re familiar with, but that also means they already have the skills and knowledge of it, and they may outgrow the toy quickly.  This is especially true for items they “put on their list” or ask for. Remember, a toy below their developmental skills may interest them at first but it’ll become boring very soon. It’s always better to stretch their minds and challenge them a bit than to give a toy that is quickly outgrown.

Consider the age and developmental skill set of the child.  For example, in children under two years old, this will change in a matter of months!   If you give them a gift with little pieces that are critical to the enjoyment of the toy, and their fine motor skills are not ready, they will have no interest.  For example, if a child has a puzzle with pieces that are too small and difficult to put together, they will not be engaged. However, a puzzle with chunky animal pieces will allow the child to play for hours with the pieces themselves, until they are ready to match them into the puzzle.

Here is an example of an age appropriate toy that will grow with you child.

The Farm Chunky Puzzle

This toy is perfect for an 18-month-old who is just beginning to distinguish one animal from another, learn their names and animal sounds. The chunky barn and animal pieces stand upright for pretend play and are great for little hands.  By about age 2, your child is ready to use their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to match the full color picture underneath to build the puzzle. At the same time, the animals will become characters for the imaginative play that emerges before age 3.

 Tip #2  - One and Done is Never Good

Interesting toys may feel hard to spot but the boring ones stand out!  Don’t purchase anything you think is boring! It’ll be played with once and land at the bottom of the toy box! Purchase a gift that will pique their interest and they will have ample to enjoy. Open ended toys such as blocks, kitchen sets, dolls, trucks and dinosaurs fall into this category.  Look for products that have a complexity to them that will allow the child to play as their interest and skills evolve. If the toy involves pushing one button and always getting one response, it will be boring! Avoid batteries - let the child’s imagination and skill drive the play!   

Be intentional about purchasing a toy or game that will require initial adult guidance and support. These toys provide teaching opportunities and instill a sense of achievement as your child becomes more independent.  The best games will involve some combination of verbal, math, spatial or critical thinking skills. Your child will transition to independent play over time.  

The Fruit Punch Game  

Here’s an example of a game with endless opportunity for new ways to play and challenge the participants.  It will require the help of a parent to get started, but a child as young as 3 can learn to punch the squeaky banana at the sight of their favorite fruit!  As they get older, they can squeak when two cards match, then when the color and number match. As your child matures and can handle the competition, play for speed and add the complexity of punching the banana when the sum of images on the cards equal a certain number.  

Tip # 3 - Think Like a Minimalist

Avoid toys with lots of pieces that have no value to independent play.  Blocks and puzzles require pieces, but toys with pieces that only the parents can pick up are not appropriate. Children get bored, pieces get lost, and parents don’t appreciate these gifts either! Play sand, rocks, water toys, animal figures, trucks and cars will get lots more play than all the small gadgets and gizmos added to some toy sets that rob the child of the use of their own imaginations. A single figure from a favorite movie is great, but all the add-ons just end up on the floor of the car! Too many doll clothes for a two-year old are a pain in the neck (they never stay on the doll!). Consider a baby bottle or blanket instead. 

The Wooden Doorbell House 

This toy has a total of 5 pieces.  Everything is attached to the house except the 4 dolls, which can be played with independently. Your child will play for hours, putting the dolls in and out of the house or sometimes just ringing the doorbells. They will learn the color of the doors and identifies the details on each side of the house. (“Look Grandma, a bird!”)  The dolls have conversations and sing together; they are friends or family members. Your child will take serious interest in the keys and locks, and even succeeds occasionally - that skill will develop in time!

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of toy creators and companies that have the developing minds of our kids at the forefront of their toy designs! These companies challenge our children’s rapidly growing brains and give them a chance to master skills that will be important later in life. Interestingly, the best toys end up being the favorite toys every time too. For more information about the value of educational toys check out the this article by the Child Development Institute.

Whoever said learning can’t be fun?! Contact our knowledgeable and friendly staff, or visit one of our store locations, and let us help you choose a wonderful, fun and educational toy. link

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