As your infant grows into a toddler, they begin to get interested in what you’re doing and things which require creativity and imagination. Your kid will eventually get tired of dealing with certain games and toys. While I work to continually invent new games, I also need to have some props to back the play or something she can easily take lead on when we hit an impasse.
You need something they can manipulate and something which allows them to express themselves. Puzzles are exciting for the one skill of matching they require but quickly get boring for some kids. Blocks and similar toys are exciting until the possibilities they can think up are exhausted or the idea behind how they’re organized is mastered, or, more likely, they move on to something else. Some toys just click while others are discarded quickly.
While we sit down and draw or color, there are times no one wants to deal with setting up a space to do it, or deal with the time and cleanup after (especially a shower if things get out of control). Most toys are self-contained to a degree and don’t have as many ways to be destructive as some open-ended activities. The structure can also provide ways to provide linguistic input as your child plays with stacking things or putting something together. I’m going to go over some of the best toys I’ve found, what makes them better than other similar toys, and what types of play I’ve found best for engaging my kid.
How to Play
That said, you need to also pay attention to their milestones. What helps at one age can hinder them as they grow and develop or vice versa. Playing catch with a one year old isn’t particularly going to help with their fine motor control if they can barely hold the ball in the first place.
I use a combination of play methods with my daughter. Free play is great, but if your child doesn’t really know what to do or have something to imitate, they’ll get bored quick. I tend to try to have varying levels of play going from being completely out of the picture (when my kid is playing on her own), to various steps of involvement to taking control to show her something new (usually when she doesn’t want to play anymore but wants me to help). The more she starts to lose interest, the more my involvement can keep her interested or get her excited to learn new tricks and skills.
Creative toys help due to their flexibility. Different types of blocks, Legos, etc. have many novel ways of assembling or even using them. You can combine toys to create more complex scenarios for your child as well. Playing with these toys provides a great way to ask questions and involve your child verbally. You can ask questions and involve your child in the building process to learn how to explain what they’re doing or want to do.
Magnetic tile sets have become one of my child’s favorite toys. They are brightly colored and easy for her to assemble into large structures with minimal effort. There are differently shaped pieces which require different techniques to assemble to add complexity.
We used this sort of set to associate colors and shapes. Since they’re trivial to assemble, she can help even if she’s exhausted from running around. The engagement of shapes and colors has helped her learn to identify different colors and shapes easily. She knows that multiple squares turn into a (non-square) rectangle from experience. This sort of play uses familiar elements to scaffold a new level of understanding about the same basic blocks.
This sort of toy is best used in conjunction with other toys. You can use them to build “houses”, “floors”, “garages”, or similar for figurines and playing pretend. We had good luck using these for counting as well. These sort of magnetic toys also help involve both hands for play. It’s hard to put up certain pieces without using both hands, but the manipulation itself is easier than most other construction toys.
While they can’t build the same things as other connection sets or block toys (such as Legos), they make a great backdrop for other forms of play. You can use the square tiles to build a patterned floor for figures to dance or play on. This sort of set was the easiest for my kid to develop to the point her limitation is the number of pieces we have.
Duplos / Bigger Building Blocks
Blocks like Duplos (or the generic equivalents) are the best building blocks I’ve found for toddlers. The huge building blocks tend to soften up or deform after enough abuse, but the slightly smaller Duplo sized blocks tend to be fine.
The other advantage is in their size. Too small of blocks are hard for toddlers to work with while too large limits what they can build and hold. My kid wasn’t interested unless she could manipulate the blocks and carry them like other toys.
If you’re building for them, ask what color they want and involve them in the decision making process. If they’re building themselves, ask them what they’re building and other questions. Get them talking about what they’re doing, the logic behind it, and what they’re trying to accomplish. Little questions peppered in with the play provides a way to further their linguistic development making these toys more a bridge between communication and abstract thinking.
They also have the advantage of having play sets for specific characters or franchises. My child is obsessed with Minnie, so this provided something she could play with and something to build on. The specialized train pieces mean she doesn’t need to deal with assembling a carriage, with wheels, axles, and reinforcement like with standard sized blocks. The specialized pieces like the cupcake can work as a toy food in other pretend games, while the train can work in games with other cars.
The power of building blocks isn’t just in using them by themselves, it’s the novel combinations and ability to build different objects for different games and forms of play with other toys. They’re easier to work with, but not so big that they provide a challenge to transport or use. As your child develops, they also provide a way to work with applying language concepts to abstract thinking and conveying what they want.
Virtually every parent knows what wooden blocks are, but I’ve noticed few of my daughter’s friends have a set they use. More and more parents I know have been buying uncolored blocks for fear of the paint coming off. While this is a concern, my child didn’t really have an interest in them until we got blocks which were brightly colored.
As she got older, we found a set with objects and writing (words, phrases, etc.) on them. She may not want to read a book at the moment, but she will sit and ask what the words are and take note of the letters used. These games helped her learn to differentiate many different objects and even buildings.
More boring wooden blocks can become more subtle elements in imaginary play. A flat block is just a colored block in most context, but can become part of a bed for another toy, a piece of furniture, a breakable wall, etc. depending on the game. It becomes a spare or filler piece for more and more games depending on what’s on it or what it is shaped like.
Marble runs come in several forms ranging from specialized blocks to something which is added onto Duplos or similar. Each variant has its own use and functionality, but marble runs with choices allow a child to pick what they want to do. These toys work best when they’re compatible with things you have.
Toddlers love gravity and seeing what it does. Marble runs present a way to use a skill to manipulate a natural force and seeing the impact of cause and effect more directly. The right combination means the same drop can take more or less time than another combination. Even if they’re too young to help build, they can have multiple locations to start from.
This is a great opportunity to introduce your child to choices. You can place a drop which starts the run in many different locations to give a choice. While it seems like starting an animation in different locations to you, it is a form of control and excitement to your child. They exert control over where they pick to start and watch the cause and effect unfold.
This was the quickest fad toy we went through, but probably one of the most influential. My child was glued to her marble run for ages because she could drop a “marble” in multiple spots and it took different amounts of time to finish, or went a different way. She could control the environment and could examine the cause and effect of one spot over the other.
If you get a marble run which can add to another toy, you can make it last much longer. Something that builds off of Duplo or equivalent can provide a lot more than an independent system (and the pieces can still be useful even when they’re tired of the marble run itself). The magic of the marble run isn’t the fact that a ball rolls around, it’s that it’s configurable.
Painting Wooden Toys
Unfinished wooden toys are a great way to get your kid into something artistic. My daughter loves painting toys because she gets to pick what it looks like. It’s the 3D equivalent of a coloring book but ironically easier while teaching more subtle manipulation skills. She may not understand the ramifications of all of her actions, but she does understand that her actions influence her toy. While the paint may shift colors as she drags the brush across the toy, the fact she’s doing it means she feels she has control of the situation.
Unfinished wooden toys are a great way to upgrade artistic endeavors for your kid. My child gets tired of dealing with paper and pens, and a brush provides a 3D interaction with a real life item which she’s allowed to mess up as much as she wants while understanding how force and angle can impact her efforts.
Pick something your kid will actually play with or appreciate. My daughter loves cars and vehicles, so we have stuck with those. She likes to paint the toy and continue painting coat after coat on it until the paint is gone and the toy can’t even roll. Start with cheaper options for this stage to reduce how much you waste on ruined projects. We tried more expensive toys which held the paint better and resisted damage more, but those reach a point your child may lose interest.
Musical toys are a special hell for parents but a special opportunity too. No one wants to hear a kid slam on a keyboard or other musical toy with achromatic notes in the key of Cthulhu. On the other hand, the right musical toy develops multiple skills which help your child develop with a little help.
Different instruments have differing levels of feedback for cause and effect. This cause and effect may involve the visual and tactile manipulation of a switch or a manual manipulation of keys or holes on the instrument. A digital keyboard offers a different experience from a toy piano and a different experience from a recorder. Electronic instruments also include volume adjustments while an acoustic instrument is limited in volume to the quality (or lack thereof).
While a kid trying to screech out songs on a recorder is probably the last thing anyone wants to do as a parent, there are many tangential skills which you can impart. Are people or animals in the family sleeping right now? Blowing as hard as possible into a recorder and hitting ear wrecking harmonics wakes people up. It’s up to you to either teach your kid or not why this is a bad thing. After waking up more than once to my toddler using me as a trampoline, I’m more than willing to painstakingly explain the implications of what she’s doing until she gets it.
Musical toys can offer a creative outlet, but they also help explain what the limits are. Seeing the reaction of your child’s action to make some noise can help them understand there are appropriate times to get loud and to stay quiet. Ultimately, while it was a traumatic few days, it paid off to let my child explore how loud she could get and learn why it is less than ideal.
While the concept of combining toys is common sense, the specific combinations which are good for both play and development are a bit harder. Combining toys provides more value from each individual thing you buy and more room for imagination, but it also gives you the chance to provide your child with more ways to learn and develop. Done right, you foster creativity, breathe new life into old toys, and provide a way for your child to develop.
One of the first ways we learned to mix toys was with my daughter’s favorite toy and her trying to work it into every other toy or game. She is obsessed with some Minnie Mouse figures and she brings them everywhere. This familiar toy serves as a good way to introduce new ways to play. Mixing this little figure in provides variation, but it also gets them playing. My daughter may not want to play, but if her toy is “having fun” she’ll usually try it out (this trick also works for trying new foods in our case).
You can also explore toys which are similar in some way. Building blocks of different sizes will be the same basic form, but a different size. Use this difference to help your child explore how things can have the same basic form but differ in function and vice versa. The Duplo sized square block may look the same as a huge block, but they aren’t compatible. Let them explore how they can combine piece and what works.
You also have different types of blocks which all fit together or the same form but a different color. Show them how things can fit together despite looking different and that they can become something familiar using unfamiliar pieces. Are there different blocks of different sizes that are the same color?
More Ways to Play
Different toy types entirely can be combined or used to create games. If one toy sings a song, and they have a little drum, can you have them keep tempo? A small toy train which goes on tracks may have some completely unrelated thing which can fit on as well (for instance, a toy car). Can your child get them to work together and what happens if they don’t and why?
Some magnetic stacking blocks allow for the creation of “roads” or “houses” or similar which supports more creative play. Blocks or other toys can provide furniture or decorations for a toy house. Some toys can even build off of things you already have, such as marble runs which fit on Duplos or similar building blocks.
These provide a way to teach more abstract thinking as well. Your child has to envision the height gained from adding another block or can at least see how one thing can transform into another with some adjustment.
I chose these toys to write about because they provide so much flexibility in fostering creativity and other skills for your child’s development. Some of these foster motor skill development, while others foster abstract thinking and more. They almost all remain relevant throughout many years in some form or another (though you may need to upgrade to more complex setups).
Like most toys, these do very little but reduce the complexity to abstract thinking when it comes to fostering creativity. You need to be the guide to introduce them to how things work and what they can do. Your involvement makes the difference between a child slowly stumbling on science from scratch and realizing a methodology already exists and getting to skip reinventing the wheel.
Ultimately, the toys are just props which provide structure to play. You can help provide the wisdom to leverage their intelligence or let them struggle through on their own. Each scenario calls for a different approach depending on where the balance is. Hopefully this article helps you find the right toys to help you and your child connect and to foster their creativity.
Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on March 8, 2021.