How to Choose Toys for Young Children This Holiday Season

With the holidays just around the corner, we asked Success By 6 Family Services Coordinator, Laura Olson, to share ideas and information about selecting safe and appropriate toys for young children, as informed by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).


Let’s start with “safety first,” as they say! Safe toys for young children are:

  • well-made (with no shared parts or splinters, and do not pinch)
  • painted with nontoxic, lead-free paint
  • shatter-proof
  • easily cleaned

Electric toys should be “UL Approved.” Be sure to check the label, which should indicate that the toy has been approved by Underwriters Laboratories. In addition, when choosing toys for children under age 3, make sure there are no small parts or pieces that could become lodged in a child’s throat and cause choking or suffocation.

It is important to remember that typical wear and tear can result in a once-safe toy becoming hazardous. Adults should check toys frequently to make sure they are in good shape. 


Good Toys and Activities for Young Children

In addition to being safe, toys for young children need to match their stages of development and emerging abilities. Toys that encourage interaction with an adult can be beneficial to both parent and child. Children not only benefit from ample independent play, but also from meaningful one-on-one attention and play with a loving adult. Books, cooking supplies, art activities and items used for nature play can be especially supportive of relationship-based learning and play.

A limit to electronic or media-themed toys is best. While these items can be excellent learning tools, as well as be engaging and fun, early childhood is a time of rapid brain development and habit building that can set the tone for future success and healthy habits. Consider first an educational toy that ignites curiosity and love of learning through real, experiential, personal exploration requiring use of a young one’s body and mind. Toys that nurture this kind of play are known to set the foundation for a sustained love of learning!

When selecting an electronic educational toy, the NAEYC offers these considerations:

“Although now there is considerable research that points to the positive effects of technology on children’s learning and development (Clements 1994), the research indicates that, in practice, computers supplement and do not replace highly valued early childhood activities and materials, such as art, blocks, sand, water, books, exploration with writing materials, and dramatic play. Research indicates that computers can be used in developmentally appropriate ways beneficial to children and also can be misused, just as any tool can (Shade & Watson 1990). Developmentally appropriate software offers opportunities for collaborative play, learning, and creation.”

Our recommended resource for downloadable educational technology is Famigo.

Toys for Young Infants – birth to 6 months old

Babies like to look at people prefer faces and bright colors. Babies can reach, are fascinated with what their hands and feet can do, lift their heads, turn their heads toward sounds, put things in their mouths and much more!

Good toys for young infants: 

  • Things they can reach for, hold, suck on, shake, make noise with – rattles, large rings, squeeze toys, teething toys, soft dolls, textured balls, and vinyl and board books
  • Things to listen to – books with nursery rhymes and poems, and recordings of lullabies and simple songs
  • Things to look at – pictures of faces hung so baby can see them and unbreakable mirrors

Toys for Older Infants – 7 to 12 months old

Older babies are movers; typically they go from rolling over and sitting to scooting, bouncing, creeping, pulling themselves up and standing. They understand their own names and other common words, can identify body parts, find hidden objects, and put things in and out of containers.

Good toys for older infants:

  • Things to play pretend with – baby dolls, puppets, plastic and wood vehicles with wheels and water toys
  • Things to drop and take out – plastic bowls, large beads, balls and nesting toys
  • Things to build with – large soft blocks and wooden cubes
  • Things to use their large muscles with – large balls, push and pull toys and low, soft things to crawl over

Toys for 1-year-olds

One-year-olds are on the go! Typically, they can walk steadily and even climb stairs. They enjoy stories, say their first words, and can play next to other children (but not yet with!). They like to experiment, but need adults to keep them safe.

Good toys for 1-year-olds:

  • Board books with simple illustrations or photographs of real objects
  • Recordings with songs, rhymes, simple stories and pictures
  • Things to create with – wide non-toxic, washable markers, crayons and large paper
  • Things to pretend with – toy phones, dolls and doll beds, baby carriages and strollers, dress-up accessories (scarves, purses), puppets, stuffed toys, plastic animals, and plastic and wood “realistic” vehicles
  • Things to build with – cardboard and wood blocks (can be smaller than those used by infants – 2 to 4 inches)
  • Things for using their large and small muscles – puzzles, large pegboards, toys with parts that do things (dials, switches, knobs, lids), and large and small balls

There are numerous educational toys on the market for babies. Here are a few examples:

Boikido’s Musical Blocks

Lamaze Totem Stackers

Leka baby gym

Birds Stacking Tower by Glueckskaefer

P’kolino’s three-piece robot puzzle

Plan Toys Preschool Pull-Along Caterpillar

Lamaze Stack, Roll, and Crawl Ball

Stack ‘n Smile Photo Blocks

Alex Toys Learn to Dress Monkey

Toys for 2-year-olds (toddlers)

Toddlers are rapidly learning language and have some sense of danger. Nevertheless, they do a lot of physical “testing”: jumping from heights, climbing, hanging by their arms, rolling and rough-and-tumble play. They have good control of their hands and fingers and like to do things with small objects.

Good toys for 2-year-olds:

  • Things for solving problems – wood puzzles (with 4 to 12 pieces), blocks that snap together, objects to sort (by size, shape, color, smell) and things with hooks, buttons, buckles and snaps
  • Things for pretending and building – blocks, smaller (and sturdy) transportation toys, construction sets, child-sized furniture (kitchen sets, chairs, play food), dress-up clothes, dolls with accessories, puppets, and sand and water play toys
  • Things to create with – large, non-toxic washable crayons and markers, large paintbrushes and fingerpaint, large paper for drawing and painting, colored construction paper, toddler-sized scissors with blunt tips, chalkboard and large chalk, and rhythm instruments
  • Picture books with more details
  • CD and DVDs with a variety of music
  • Things for using their large and small muscles – large and small balls for kicking and throwing, ride-on equipment (but probably not tricycles until children are 3), tunnels, low climbers with soft material underneath, and pounding and hammering toys.

Here are a few examples of quality learning toys for toddlers:

Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden 27-Piece Lacing Beads in a Box

Battat Shape Sorter Cube

Melissa & Doug Deluxe Classic Peg Puzzle Bundle

Melissa & Doug Cutting Food

Alex Toys Bathtime Fun Stickers

Melissa & Doug Stack and Sort Board

Toys for 3- to 6-year-olds (preschool and kindergartners)

Preschoolers and kindergartners have longer attention spans than toddlers. Typically, they talk a lot and ask many questions. They like to experiment with objects with their still-emerging physical skills. They like to play with friends – and don’t like to lose! They can take turns – and sharing one toy by two or more children is often possible for older preschoolers and kindergartners.

Good toys for 3- to 6-year-olds:

  • Things for solving problems – puzzles (with 12 to 20+ pieces), blocks that snap together, collections and other smaller objects to sort by length, width, height, shape, color, smell, quantity, and other features – collections of plastic bottle caps, plastic bowls and lids, keys, shells, counting bears, small colored blocks
  • Things for pretending and building – many blocks for building complex structures, transportation toys, construction sets, child-sized furniture (“apartment” sets, play food), dress-up clothes, dolls with accessories, puppets and simple puppet theaters, and sand and water play toys
  • Things to create with – large and small crayons and markers, large and small paintbrushes and fingerpaint, large and small paper for drawing and painting, colored construction paper, preschooler-sized scissors, chalkboard and large and small chalk, modeling clay and playdough, modeling tools, paste, paper and cloth scraps for collage, and instruments – rhythm instruments and keyboards, xylophones, maracas, and tambourines
  • Picture books with even more words and more detailed pictures than toddler books
  • CD and DVD players with a variety of music
  • Things for using their large and small muscles – large and small balls for kicking and throwing/catching, ride-on equipment including tricycles, tunnels, taller climbers with soft material underneath, wagons and wheelbarrows, plastic bats and balls, plastic bowling pins, targets and things to throw at them, and a workbench with a vise, hammer, nails, and saw
  • If a child has access to a computer: programs that are interactive (the child can do something) and that children can understand (the software uses graphics and spoken instruction, not just print), children can control the software’s pace and path, and children have opportunities to explore a variety of concepts on several levels

Some examples of quality toys for kindergartners are:

Tegu blocks

K’Nex Tinkertoys



Thinkfun’s Swish Jr.

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