3 Best Toys for Intellectual Development

While baby's playing with infant toys such as blocks, balls, and stacking cups, he's getting a sneak peek at math and science.

Play Time!

Walk into my house on any given day, and you will find yourself at what I'm beginning to consider the world's longest-running block party. My 1-, 2-, and 5-year-olds will all be busy to the point of distraction, happily playing away with blocks. They're usually not building together, mind you (sometimes they're not even in the same room), but each one will be doing his own thing, concentrating intently, and having a blast.

And if they're not using blocks, they're probably having a ball -- that is, playing with one. Which is fine with me, as long as they're not playing ball in the house. But what is it about these toys that makes them such dependable crowd-pleasers? And should my kids be practicing with flash cards rather than pursuing these simple diversions?

Playing With Baby: Baby Toys
Playing With Baby: Baby Toys

Don't Knock Blocks

Mom and dad help toddler stock blocks on floor

Blocks are the educational equivalent of a multivitamin. Children playing with blocks aren't just honing their gross and fine motor skills, they're learning everything from fundamental math concepts to problem solving. One study even showed that preschoolers who were adept at playing with blocks had higher math grades and test scores when they got to middle school than those who were not. As Sharon MacDonald, a trainer of early-childhood teachers and author of Block Play (Gryphon House), explains, "When your child works with blocks, he develops an understanding of fractions, shapes, and counting." Of course, it's not as if your 2-year-old is mastering halves and quarters. Math lessons unfold in different stages for different ages.

Three Stages of Block Play

  1. The first phase of block play is what MacDonald terms "tote and carry." Your 2-year-old is doing little or no building, but she can pile, haul, and drop -- and in the process learn about weight, stability, and balance. Of course a toddler's favorite lesson will probably be the noisiest and messiest: gravity. To the outrage of many an older sibling, toddlers learn quickly that what goes up must come down -- and that knocking down blocks brings an exciting reward. "Children like order and structure, but at a young age they love to create chaos even more," says MacDonald. "Just by stacking one block on top of another, they learn that unstable things fall down, while stable things don't."
  2. By the time your child is 3, she'll enter the next phase of block play: "stack and row." Now she can stack the blocks vertically or lay them down and configure them horizontally. She's not building with a specific purpose yet, but she is beginning to try her hand at patterns. The first patterns are usually identical blocks placed on the floor one after another until she adds a twist, such as putting a square after a rectangle, and another square after the next rectangle, and so on. "Math is the study of patterns," says MacDonald, "and encouraging block-patterning lays the foundation for math skills." Here's where fractions come into play. When she puts down two blocks side by side, she can see that, together, they form the same size and shape as one larger block.
  3. In the next stage, "bridging," your preschooler begins to make her own simple structures. She may put two blocks down, then place a third block over the space between them. In addition to learning how to balance, she is beginning to experiment with symmetry. Bridging leads to "enclosures." You can't build without being able to organize and enclose space. How am I going to fill that space? is a complicated question, requiring that your child figure out how many big and small blocks are needed to get the job done. Not only is your child planning ahead, but she is problem solving.

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