Visit any toy store and you'll be faced with a dizzying array of educational gadgets that promise to turn your toddler into a mini-Mensa member before she ever sets foot in a classroom. But at this age the best teaching toys are ones she likely owns: dolls, puppets, and stuffed animals.
These playthings have unique advantages over other toys, researchers say. Because kids know that a plush puppy or a princess doll represents a living thing, they can relate and attach emotions to it. Playing with these "friends" allows kids to explore their complex feelings.
"Children often express emotions and thoughts while playing with dolls that they might not be able to convey using words," says Allan Gonsher, a play therapist in Overland Park, Kansas.
Dolls and stuffed animals also give 2- and 3-year-olds the chance to master people skills, improve their vocabulary, and much more. Check out the surprising life lessons your toddler learns from these pretend playmates -- and how you can help make them stick.