Parents usually dread the day their sweet baby morphs into a screaming, contrary toddler. The bad news: When a child is around 12 to 18 months, "parents start to give direction and work on molding their children's behavior. Suddenly, these toddlers don't always get what they want and that's very frustrating," says David Perlmutter, M.D., a board certified neurologist and author of the book Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten.
But here's the good news: It's still easy to shop for a present for your toddler's second birthday. She's still trying to master walking and running, holding a crayon and scribbling on paper, increasing her vocabulary, and putting sentences together. So her natural curiosity makes her an avid fan of virtually any kind of toy; she's not too caught up in specific interests or gender conventions. She just likes to play, and the more diverse the toys, the better. As the owner of Magic Beans, a children's toy store in the Boston area, I spend a lot of time researching toys and development. Read on to learn about the types of toys I would recommend for enhancing your child's skill set for this age.
Buttoning and Buckling
During the coming year, your toddler will develop the hand strength and coordination needed to get dressed every day. Consider toys that provide opportunities to practice fine motor skills such as buttoning, buckling, zipping, lacing, and tying. You can find a wide range of dress-up dolls, which feature removable clothing, buckles, straps, laces, zippers, buttons, and snaps. Soft dolls designed for this purpose are made by Gund (which offers an Elmo doll), International Playthings, and Manhattan Toy. And as tots make progress feeding themselves, they'll learn to use a fork and to drink from a cup without a lid. Let them practice these skills with fun toddler-size cutlery sets that have broad, easy-to-grip handles, sectioned plates, and colorful place mats. Allowing a favorite doll or stuffed animal at the table to "eat" play food with small forks is another way to teach gross and fine motor skills.
Building and Constructing
Simple square wooden blocks are the hallmark of a toddler's basic construction work: stacking, building, knocking down, rebuilding. Towers start out small (two or three blocks at most), but as fine motor skills improve, they'll get higher and higher. Choose alphabet blocks because they serve a dual purpose: They're the right shape and size for stacking and they help familiarize children with the ABCs. Toddlers are fascinated with anything that rolls and anything that is magnetic, so look for wooden railway sets, a golden combination of both interests. Your toddler probably isn't concerned with the tracks -- he just likes assembling and pushing the trains around--but within the next year or two, he'll acquire the coordination to put tracks together into elementary paths. When considering a wooden railway set, avoid massive ones with a ton of parts; it's best to build a collection over time to avoid overwhelming a child. Buy a basic circle or figure-8 set first. As your child gets older, increase additional trains, more sophisticated track types, bridges, tunnels, and other elements. If you have space, consider purchasing a train table, and don't forget a cute conductor's hat.
Walking and Running
A year ago, you were waiting for your baby to learn to walk; now you're trying to keep up with your little sprinter. Two-year-olds love to chase things; to run after a ball, pick it up, and carry it back to you. This increases gross and fine motor skills, muscle tone, endurance, coordination, balance, and core strength. "When children are age 2, you want to see them navigating their environment with stability," says Lisa J. Lewis, OTD, a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Kids Therapy Made Simple in Los Angeles, CA. "Running helps toddlers get in touch with their bodies." Games of catch allow a child to practice taking turns, a key skill for social development. Balls make a terrific gift, especially if you can get a collection of different sizes and materials, as each one will offer a fun challenge.
Pedaling and Pushing
At this age, tots are still not ready to pedal a tricycle, so look for high-quality tricycles with a push bar. "Pushing toddlers on a tricycle helps them learn to move their feet and hold themselves upright, forming a foundation for eventually riding the trike alone," Dr. Lewis says. Balance bikes are another option that helps 2-year-olds get familiar with riding; they're a better alternative because they teach children how to ride on two wheels without pedals. If a child can learn how to balance with her feet up, she can transition easily to a two-wheeled bicycle. You can find balance bikes in a variety of sizes and materials, including wood, metal, and plastic; each model has pros and cons. Some models can adapt to fit a growing child; the Wishbone Bike, for example, starts as a three-wheel bike, and converts to a balance bike with two different heights, so it will last a long time.