First you shake it, then one day your baby will grab it and wave it, honing fine motor skills, says Ahren Hoffman, director of education and training for the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. Winkel, $15, birth+.
“There’s a nature deficit among kids, and a bike entices them outdoors,” Hoffman says. She likes a pedal-free balance version to start. 12 Sport Balance Bike, $120, 18 months to 5 years.
A tower can be mastered quickly, giving tots a sense of confidence, says Meredith Sinclair, ambassador for The Genius of Play, an initiative of the Toy Industry Association. Stack & Count Cups, $4.50, 6 months+.
They’re “pretend-play paradise,” says Claire Green, president of Parents’ Choice Foundation. Choose cars, trucks, or trains your child can “drive.” Hot Wheels, $10 for nine, 3 years+.
Named “Toy of the Century” by the British Association of Toy Retailers in 2000, Legos inspire creativity, especially when kids ignore the instructions and build their own structures. Classic Large Creative Brick Box, $60, 4 years+.
Children live vicariously through toy characters. Barbies can do or be anything that a child can dream up, and figures like superheroes appeal because “kids are hardwired to want to be one of the good guys,” says Richard Barry, merchandising executive at Toys “R” Us. Barbie Fashionistas, $10, 3 years+.
Tackle one as a team! First puzzles introduce shapes and colors. Also, “putting pieces together with your preschooler builds her foundation for problem solving,” says Cristina Medellin-Paz, Ph.D., assistant research scientist at playLabNYU in New York City. Animal Alphabet 20-Piece Puzzle, $6, 3 years+.
A microscope is an old-school way of honing STEM skills, says Sinclair. Learning Resources Primary Microscope, $50, 6 years+.
First you make it talk. Next, give your child a turn. “Puppets are language-builders, storytellers, role-players, and confidantes,” says Green. Your child may say things to or through the puppet that you’d never otherwise hear. Gund Sesame Street Cookie Monster Hand Puppet, $15, 12 months+.
Perhaps the world’s most versatile toy. From baby games to soccer matches, a ball invites active, social play, says Stephanie Oppenheim, who cofounded Toy Portfolio with her mother, Joanne. Melissa & Doug Giddy Buggy Kickball, $10, 2 years+.
They fuel imagination, and "if you’re stressed, coloring calms you down," says Ariana Gentry, 11, Toys"R"Us President of Play. Blank paper wins over a coloring book for letting your kid get creative. 96-count Crayons, $8, 4 years+.
Why is banging on a pot with a spoon so satisfying? The rhythmic patterns can help kids regulate emotions, says Dr. Medellin-Paz. Toy instruments, like shakers and drums, give your tot options beyond what’s in the kitchen. B. Parum Pum Pum drum set, $22, 18 months+.
“Everyone wants to be able to solve one,” says Barry. Nearly 2 million YouTube videos about the 1980s STEM-friendly puzzle have made it a viral sensation, with kids memorizing methods and racing to become the fastest finisher. Rubik's cube, $13, 8 years+.
Once your baby stands, something he can steer might encourage him to put one foot in front of the other in order to see the toy’s fun effects. “It can also steady a wobbly walker,” Green says. Corn Popper, $10, 12 to 36 months.
Nurturing a beloved character helps kindness blossom. “Having one favorite is important,” says Junlei Li, Ph.D., codirector of the Fred Rogers Center, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “The more there are, the less fun it seems to be.” Jellycat 12-inch Bashful Bunny, $22.50, birth+; Corolle Bébé Calin Bisou, $50, 18 months+.
A set should allow unscripted building, so your kid decides what the structure becomes. “Blocks are wonderfully open-ended,” Oppenheim says. Junior Rainbow Blocks 20-piece set, 2 years+, $27.
“Pretending is how kids make sense of the world, and costumes help them fully immerse in dramatic play,” Sinclair says. A cape can aid a superhero or magician or even be tied on as a skirt. Superfly Kids 22-inch cape, $9, 2 to 7 years.
Wait, what?! “A box should be a required plaything,” says Green. Think of all it can be: a car, a house, or almost anything! Dr. Li agrees, adding, “Choose one that’s big enough for your child to crawl inside.” Uboxes 20x20x15-in. moving boxes, $24.50 for six.
“Games help you teach kids to be good winners and losers while enjoying screen-free time together,” Oppenheim says. Asked for a recommendation, 11-year-old Gentry named Candy Land as a great first game. Candy Land Game, $8, 3 years+.
“It conforms to any shape, whether via a child’s imagination or a mold,” says Dr. Li. Homemade dough is easy, but it’s hard to replicate the colors and slow-to-dry goodness of the brand-name stuff. Super Color Pack, $15, 2 years+.