3 Best Toys for Intellectual Development

Having a Ball of a Time

Play Ball!

Blocks aren't the only powerhouse in the playroom. Even infants can follow a ball with their eyes as it rolls across the floor. In doing so, says Maureen Maiocco, early-childhood program director at SUNY Canton, in Canton, New York, they "must follow the direction and anticipate the location of the ball as it moves toward them." This kind of visual tracking helps coordinate your baby's eye movements with his body's movements. Plus, predicting when the ball will reappear reinforces the idea that when something disappears from sight, it's not necessarily gone for good.

When babies are older and can crawl after the ball, they are working on spatial awareness -- How far away is that ball? Where is my body in relation to it? As toddlers become preschoolers, spatial awareness leads to logical thinking. Now that they're getting the hang of throwing and catching, they have to start figuring out how hard to throw and in which direction. In other words, they have to estimate the parameters in which they can throw and catch.

Your preschooler is likely to take ball play deep into scientific exploration. When he sends a ball rolling down a slide, for example, he realizes that different-size balls roll down slides at different speeds. Emily Vosper, director of the Children's Center at SUNY Ulster County Community College, in Stone Ridge, New York, describes the process as "higher-level thinking arising from basic tools." Also known as physics for 4-year-olds.

How Cups Stack Up

When my kids play with stacking cups, I like to think of it as good practice for emptying the dishwasher, but they're actually stockpiling math and science skills. Sometime between his first and second birthday, he'll be able to place the cups on top of one another. He's usually not stacking them in any order, but he's starting to understand size relationships. Don't pressure him to do it the "right" way. As he gets older, he'll realize, If I put the small cup inside the big one, the medium one won't fit. He's starting to understand seriation -- a fancy word for putting things in their proper order.

Babies can spend hours filling and dumping cups in the tub or sandbox. As they begin to notice the difference between empty and full, they're getting an inkling about volume. He can see that he can fit lots of little cups of sand into the biggest cup, but pouring from biggest to smallest results in an avalanche.

Just Add Water!

Water play adds another splash of science. As John Cerio, PhD, a professor of school psychology at Alfred University, in Alfred, New York, points out, kids are capable of learning a difficult concept on a very basic level. If you pour water from one container into a different-shaped container, you still have the same amount of water. Without hands-on play, most kids would tell you that the taller container must hold more.

There you have it. Blocks, balls, and cups -- unsung superheroes of the toy world. So what's their secret? Some experts believe that convergent playthings (with only one purpose, such as puzzles) encourage children to seek out the one correct answer while divergent playthings (with more than one purpose) guide children to many approaches, helping them understand that some problems have many solutions. That must be why kids go back to these toys again and again. They'll never be the must-have toys of the moment, but they won't be forgotten tomorrow either.

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