Toys and Child Developmental Research

Updated June 19, 2019

In their 2019 updated clinical report, “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era,” the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlines that “the best toys are those that match children’s developmental skills and abilities and further encourage the development of new skills.

At the same time, it’s crucial that parents ensure the toys they choose are age appropriate, not just for developmental reasons, but safety too. To ensure you are selecting the right toys, make sure to check our toy safety checklist.

Developmentally advanced toys can be appropriate too, especially when caregivers scaffold (eg, setting up a storyline for pretending together or providing support for the child’s learning of a new skill) children in their play. Some toys have the ability to “grow” with the child, in that they can be used differently as children advance developmentally.”

Alan Mendelsohn, MD, FAAP, co-author of the report went on to say, “The best toys are those that support parents and children playing, pretending and interacting together. You just don’t reap the same rewards from a tablet or screen. And when children play with parents – the real magic happens, whether they are pretending with toy characters or building blocks or puzzles together.”

The AAP has provided an extensive list of children’s skills and development milestones by age on their site Healthy Children. With these guidelines in mind, we have researched and curated a list of the best toys to foster your child’s development from birth through 3 years.

Best Toys for Infant Development 

Since Dr. Robert Fantz’ research in the early 1960s at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, repeated studies have shown that young babies respond best to high contrast black & white shapes and patterns instead of bright colors and pastels.

Because babies are born with very little myelin, the necessary substance for electrical transmissions in the brain, they literally cannot process information at the same speed as adults or older children.

Selecting toys that do not overstimulate this process is just as important as choosing toys that support your child’s physical development. Within the first 6 months of life, your baby will be working on gross motor skills like lifting and moving their limbs, reaching for things, supporting themselves, and rolling.

They will also show a particular interest in people and things that make noise as these are early steps toward communication development.

Toy Recommendations for Infants

Toys and Child Developmental Research

The Play Gym by Lovevery

This multiple award-winning product was designed with your newborn’s development in mind. Based on the principle, “Designed with Purpose”, this activity mat and gym features everything your child needs for open-ended play for their first year of life.

The washable play mat features 5 various activity zones that can be opened or closed based on your child’s current stage and interests. There is also a system of interchangeable cards that correlate to your child’s growing development.

The wooden gym supports removable accessories like a Montessori ball, batting ring, and silicone teether. It also comes with a playspace cover that can provide shade for outdoor play. With a 2 minute tool-free setup, this toy is sure to be a household favorite for months to come.

Green Tones Wooden Animal Shaker 

These adorable shakers come in a variety of animal shapes carved from eco-friendly rubberwood. The smooth, curved edge design is easy for your baby to grasp and they will love the soothing sound made by the recyclable pellets inside. Being finished with a non-toxic clear coat and water-based VOC-free paint, you never have to worry about this ending up in your little one’s mouth.

The quality construction means this toy will last through future siblings or hold-up as an heirloom piece to remember this fleeting time. Plus any music nerds in the family will love that this toy is produced by the long-standing Hohner, Inc, who have been producing quality German-made professional music instruments since 1857.

Kane Miller 123 Counting 

This fold-out, stand up book is perfect for travel or tummy time. The high-contrast illustrations are perfect for early-stage visual development and the first words and numbers will help foster future communication and learning skills. By introducing and reading books early to your baby, you are actually helping them develop stronger vocabularies and early literacy skills 4 years later according to recent research.

Best Toys for 6-12-Month-Old Babies

As your baby begins to sit without support and explore their environment more, promoting outside play becomes more important. According to the European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research, outdoor play exposes children to the best support for emotional, social, physical, and communicative development and language skills.

In their report, “Infants and Toddlers Meet the Natural World”, authors Jolie D. McHenry and Kathy J. Buerk conclude, “Even in infancy, children compare and contrast objects as they explore their world… Learning through nature can provide children with hands-on experiences, leading to a greater understanding of our dependence on the earth’s physical environment.

They will be able to carry these skills with them throughout their lifetime. Nature provides opportunities for children to grow in all areas of their development.”

Toy Recommendations

4-in-1 Quadpod & Adjustable Swing Frame

This adjustable swing is a great way to get your little one outside and in nature while accommodating their love of movement. The included Quadpod is designed for babies 6 months and older with a fully adjustable “cocoon” stage that features a five-point safety harness and ergonomically designed headrest.

As your baby grows the Quadpod can be adjusted to match each developmental stage until you have a flat swing seat. The sturdy steel swing frame is also designed to adjust in height for infants and then taller once your child is over 3. It is recommended that you mount it in concrete at that point for added stability. As a toy that grows with your child, this is an excellent backyard investment piece for years of fun.

Calmies Natural Rubber Teething Ball 

As your child enters the woeful months of teething, having an assorted variety of teething options will feel vital since they will be chewing on everything they can get their little hands on. This innovative teether will not only provide relief, but the spherical, textured design encourages ball play and sensory exploration.

Made from 100% sustainable Hevea Tree rubber, many parents do note that it comes with a strong rubber smell. This is to be expected and doesn’t seem to deter babies. It is also important to know the source of these teethers’ material since a recent study analyzed 59 solid, gel or water-filled teethers for endocrine-disrupting chemicals and discovered nearly all were contaminated.

Study author Kurunthachalam Kannan noted, “Almost 90 percent of the teethers we bought were labeled as BPA-free, but we found BPA in almost every product and most were labeled as non-toxic. We were finding more than 15 to 20 toxic chemicals in all of the them.”

This could be in part to what the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) calls evidence of bad recycling practices.

In short, the U.S. has weak regulations when it comes to recycled plastic sources, so if a children’s product is made with recycled plastic, that plastic may have been contaminated by toxic chemicals in its previous life-cycle. Therefore, IPEN co-chair Pamela Miller advises parents to avoid plastic toys that young children are likely to put in their mouths.

Hape Bead Maze 

As a classic toy that many of us grew up with, this mini bead maze is perfect for little hands to master. As your baby begins fine-tuning their thumb and finger movements by grabbing and guiding the beads along the tracks, they will also build hand-eye coordination and future counting skills.

This toy can also be used to introduce them to shape, size, and color recognition. The included suction cups on the bottom of the wooden base make it easy to attach and stabilize on hard surfaces like a high chair or bumbo tray.

Best Toys for 1-Year-Old Children

Best Toys for 1-Year-Old Children

At a year old, your little one will be experimenting with their independence and looking for open-ended play experiences. One study summarized the results of WF Drew’s 2007 report “Endless Possibilities” regarding unstructured play as, “The ability to play can influence a child’s ability to create a meaningful life.

There is less pressure on children as there are no rules or goals to open-ended play, which also leads to no possibility of errors, and in turn, offering the freedom for children to take part in play however they see fit.”

Selecting toys that fit within their skill-set while not limiting how they use them will contribute to their cognitive, social, and emotional wellbeing. It is also important to continue encouraging them to play in nature and outdoors.

Toy Recommendations

Grimm’s 4 Element Set 

This beautiful set is offered in 2 sizes and is a toy that will be cherished and enjoyed for years to come. The organic design of each shape introduces children to the original four natural elements – Earth, Fire, Water, and Air – while helping them continue to develop their stacking and problem-solving abilities.

The European lime hardwood is carved to maintain a slightly rough natural feel and colored with non-toxic, water-based stains and non-toxic plant-based oil finish. The 23 pieces will come in a beautiful wooden frame that creates a unique problem-solving puzzle for little ones to reassemble. The hand-stained wood will feature natural variations in grain, color, knots, and texture that make each set truly unique.

Mula Toddle Wagon

This walking wagon helps children continue to develop motor skills and balance while using it in a variety of imaginative ways. The casters and handle can be adjusted based on how steady of a walker your child is. You will be amazed by all the ways your child will decide to use their little wagon.

Joystar Balance Bike 

Designed for children 18 months to 5 years, this bike is a great introduction to the joys of riding outdoors. Unlike training wheels or tricycles, a balance bike will teach your child the fundamental of riding, balance.

This model is designed with a footrest to help your little one practice coasting and find their center of gravity. The adjustable seat & handlebar means you can introduce this bike at a younger age and let them use it until they are ready for a big kid bike. Plus it is designed to last, so younger siblings will benefit as well.

Best Toys for 2-Year-Old Children

Your toddler will be mastering their gross motor skills by this point and reaching the stage where they want to help and interact in purposeful ways with others. You may notice they are developing a love for music and wanting to make their own. This is also a great time to begin introducing block and building toys that will continue to inspire mindful play as the TIMPANI toy study highlights.

Toy Recommendations

Little Partners The Original Learning Tower with Removable Chalkboard 

This limited edition version of the classic learning tower features a removable chalkboard panel that your child can also use as an easel. Learning Towers provide a secure environment for your child to feel independent while participating in counter-height activities with you or their sibling(s).

The solid poplar & birch wood construction make this tower stable and built to last as your little one grows. Rated to hold up to 500 lbs and featuring a wide 15×18” platform, your child will have the freedom to move and work without the fear of falling.

Best Choice Products Mini Piano 

This beautiful mini piano will delight your child as you begin to teach them the fundamentals of playing music. The sleek design will fit nicely in any home while the 25 full-size piano keys will promote proper finger placement, making the future transition to a full-size piano easier.

While the sound of this piano will sound tinnier than its traditional counterpart, the included music book will help you introduce your toddler to reading music. Studying music promotes the development of high-level cognitive processing skills that can contribute to improved academic achievement and general intelligence in the future.

Uncle Goose Periodic Table Blocks

These 1.75” wooden blocks offer a fun and unique twist on the traditional block set. While your child will simply enjoy the bold colors and identifying the letters at first, you can use these to introduce the scientific elements as they grow. Each block features a different element on each side with their atomic number, symbol, and name to make up the entire periodic table up to 118 Uuo.

These are produced from replenishable Michigan grown, kiln-dried basswood and painted with non-toxic, child-safe inks. They go through eight points of inspection and are independently tested for lead before their use.

Best Toys for 3-Year-Old Children

Your preschooler is starting to look like a full-fledged kid at this point and has likely started to develop some strong opinions. They will continue to enjoy open-ended play and hopefully have a strong passion for nature and time outdoors.

Toy Recommendations

The Nugget Play Couch

While you might not think of a piece of furniture as a toy, The Nugget Play Couch is all about proving that assumption wrong. The four simple foam pieces are created to be configured in an unlimited number of ways fostering your child’s creativity. They will spend hours creating different fort designs, jumping from cushion to cushion, or just lounging for some quiet time.

The low-VOC CertiPURTM foam has no sharp corners so you don’t have to worry if some rough-housing ensues. The durable microsuede cover is removable and machine washable so it’s ok if spills happen too.

Lillabo Toy Train Series 

These basic wooden train tracks offer a world of unlimited play and are infinitely expandable to the space you have. Designed to fit most train set brands, your little one will be able to discover hours of play and continue building in new and different ways.

Lifetime Ace Flyer Teeter-Totter

This airplane playground toy will inspire your child in pretend play for years to come. With 3 height adjustments and 5 seats, your backyard will become the play place to be. Not only will this foster your child’s socialization and cooperation skills but they will also enjoy make-believing they are soaring to exciting new places.

Sebrina Parker is a BAI certified doula and freelance writer for hire who lives in sunny deep south Texas with her husband & 3 kids. She is currently pursuing her childbirth education certification and is passionate about helping growing families transition through each stage of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. You can find out more about Sebrina over at Mismikado Creations.