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Baby Toys That Teach

baby playing with pots and pans

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The blocks in your baby's room may seem simple to you, but these and other playthings are integral to how she finds out about the world around her. By putting them in her mouth or banging them together, she makes important discoveries about shape and sound. Engaging your little one by talking, singing, and playing games will motivate her to explore even more, as she incorporates these classic toys into her day.

Mobiles
Birth to 5 months

Your baby's vision develops gradually during her first year, and crib and play-gym mobiles will encourage her to focus her eyes and learn to track moving objects. Look for a mobile with bright colors and bold geometric shapes. Red is believed to be the first color that infants see clearly, around 4 months, but contrasting colors, like black and white, also help her notice patterns. Shapes with sharp lines, spirals, and bull's-eyes will hold her attention best. Remove the mobile from her crib once she's able to sit up -- around 5 months -- because she could reach and pull it down, posing a strangulation risk.

Low-tech toys that make sounds
Newborn to 6 months

Babies love anything that makes noise, like toys with textures that crinkle and squeak. Look for ones that your infant has to shake or prod to produce a sound -- that's what gets him to explore, says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a development-behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. Though your baby will be content to watch you handle a toy when he's a newborn, at around 3 months -- as his hand-eye coordination starts to improve -- he can reach for it on his own if it's lying near him. He may just swat at it, but by about 4 months he'll be able to grasp and hold it.

Mirrors
Newborn and up

To your little one, the constantly changing image in a mirror looks like a potential new playmate: "Babies don't typically recognize their reflection until after their first birthday," explains Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Children Really Learn. Even though your infant doesn't realize she's seeing herself, she enjoys watching moving objects, so she'll gaze at the image lifting its arm or shaking its head at the same time as she does. You can also make happy, sad, and grumpy faces in the mirror to crack your baby up. Just be sure to play with a plastic one.

Household items
6 months and up

By nesting plastic containers your baby gets a lesson in sizes and shapes, as well as concepts like in, out, over, and under. He may also enjoy banging on a pot with a wooden spoon. "These early explorations lay the foundation for pretend play," says Dr. Spinks-Franklin. By practicing now, he'll later use a pot as a drum or a banana as a phone -- and understand that he's making a joke.

To keep his experiments safe, give your baby access only to unbreakable items without small, removable parts or hard edges. Any object that can fit through a toilet-paper tube (like the cap to a milk jug) poses a choking danger and should be kept out of reach.

Blocks
9 months and up

Whenever your child grasps and bangs two blocks together, she's honing her fine motor skills. Because babies master new abilities through repetitive play, she may keep hitting them together again and again. Swap in blocks of different sizes (but not too small) and textures -- squishy, plush, wooden, or plastic -- to help her learn how to change the shape of her hand when picking them up.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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