These allow your kid to problem-solve at his own pace. You might offer a tip about the edge pieces being flat, but then step back. "Let him come up with his own strategies," says Randi Albertsen, owner of Innovations in Education, a provider of coaching for early- childhood educators, in Maryland.
Food play is all about thinking beyond known combinations. "Kids inevitably blend food together in unexpected ways," says Beth Onufrak, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Phoenix. Think: cupcakes with ketchup! Use toys such
as the New Sprouts Picnic Set and Breakfast Basket as a springboard.
Rolling, bouncing, tossing, and kicking; there are myriad ways to play with a ball, says Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., coauthor of Bloom: Helping Children Blossom. Oddballs by B. Toys, on either side above, are easy to grip. Sky Balls by Maui Toys, in the center, bounce high.
"Let kids loose with instruments," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes healthy early development. "Experimenting with ways to make sounds builds thinking skills." A fun start: Chicco's Music Band Table.
Writing instruments such as chalk and crayons let your child express his creativity through art. "Using different-size crayons or markers offers inspiration," says Albertsen. "Chalk, when pressed hard enough, creates dust that can be spread to add complexity." This Super Art Studio has 140 pieces including pastels, watercolors, and colored pencils.
Not many toys start out so basic and, within minutes of being pounded and shaped, transform into something new. "The best thing about dough is that if a child doesn't like what she's created, she can mash it all together and start over," Albertsen notes. Play-Doh's Ultimate Rainbow Pack gives kids 33 colors to work with.
Miniature toys are perfectly sized for toddlers and preschoolers and give children a sense of mastery over situations they create. "They become role-playing props for fantasy exploration," says Helen Boehm, Ph.D., author of The Official Guide to the Right Toys. Classic favorites include Playmobil figures and the horse from The Little People Fun Sounds Farm.
For creative costuming, offer basic fabric pieces and let your child try out different personas, says Dr. Kenney. A scarf can be a skirt or a cape. A tutu can be paired with a firefighter. Why not?
Gear toys fire creativity in a unique way: "Putting them together teaches cause and effect," says
Dr. Onufrak. "You can see your child ask herself, 'If I put this gear here and turn it, what happens over there?' " Georello Kaleido Gears, from Quercetti, are beautiful as they spin around.
"As kids build, they solve problems -- for example, how to make a tower more stable," says Lerner. Choose a set that's open-ended so your little architect doesn't think she's "supposed to" construct a certain thing. Watch your kid create sculptures or structures that can be combined with other toys. We like Melissa & Doug's 200-piece, nine-shape wooden set. Valtech's Magna-Tile pieces open the door to other possibilities.