For little kids, playing is everything -- fun, yes, but also vital for their growth. It's how they explore the world and learn to do stuff: crawl, talk, walk, build, sing, draw, and make friends. Have you noticed that the toys that seem to capture your baby's attention over and over again are often the most basic ones, like wooden blocks and balls? "Parents today seem to feel it's necessary to buy expensive 'learning' toys with a thousand bells and whistles, even though there's no scientific evidence that they boost IQ," says Hillary Hettinger Steiner, PhD, an educational psychologist at the University of Georgia, in Athens. "Classic toys are more versatile because they don't ask for a specific response from a child like electronic ones do -- a kid can play with them in whatever way he pleases. Toys like this grow with your child." What can you expect your child to do with these toy-chest favorites as he develops from a baby to a full-blown toddler? We polled the experts on playtime milestones.
6 Months: Your baby will stare intently at the ball. He will also enjoy grasping and feeling it, so go for one with interesting textures like nubs or tags.
12 Months: He can sit on the floor and roll the ball back and forth with you. He might even be able to throw it, although without much aim or purpose.
18 Months: Welcome to the Little Little Little League! Your mini Mantle is a more adept -- and forceful -- overhand thrower and enjoys flinging the ball to you.
2 Years: He's refined his pitch and now starts to kick and dribble a ball with his feet. Thanks to their low center of gravity, toddlers are naturals at basic soccer play.
3 Years: Finally, your sports guy is able to catch a large ball. Some toddlers might be able to kick a ball toward a defined goal.
Those super-bouncy rubber balls are a hoot -- but not for young kids who might pop 'em into their mouth. Any ball small enough to fit through a toilet-paper roll poses a choking hazard.
By 18 months, your child will be able to recognize a ball in the real world and in a book, pointing to it and maybe even saying "ba!"
6 Months: Babies love gnawing on blocks, but they may also swat at or even hold one.
12 Months: He discovers he can make noise by banging two blocks together. He'll also have a blast knocking over any architectural masterpiece you construct.
18 Months: Let the stacking begin! Your toddler can balance two or three blocks on top of each other.
2 Years: His structures are taller, and his coordination is better. He can competently stack four to seven blocks. He can also sort blocks into piles by color and may even pretend that a block is something else, like a car or a boat.
3 Years: More building fun -- your little one now creates structures that resemble real-world landmarks such as forts, bridges, and tunnels.
The best wooden blocks are made of hard wood like maple or beech, so they won't chip, dent, or splinter. But make sure you supervise your child's block play so he doesn't wield them like weapons.
Research shows that children spend more time exploring objects and focusing on complex tasks when playing with a parent than when playing alone -- so grab a block, Mom!
6 Months: Babies are too young to play with crayons.
12 Months: Your toddler can hold a large crayon with her pincer grip and do willy-nilly scribbling.
18 Months: When she sees you drawing, she'll imitate you.
2 Years: Your child takes pleasure in sitting down with a pad of paper to doodle on her own.
3 Years: Her artistic talents begin to take off! She can copy a circle, a cross, and a square and draw a "person" with one or more body parts. By 3, she knows three or four colors and may have started copying capital letters.
Buy crayons from a big-name brand to ensure that they're made solely from nontoxic ingredients like paraffin.
Occupational therapists suggest breaking crayons in half to encourage young children to learn how to properly hold a pencil later on.
6 Months: It's all about exploring texture right now, so your baby fondles and chews his plush buddies.
12 Months: Your toddler carries his special lovey around and cuddles with it. By this age, some children get very attached to their stuffed friend and may want it by their side come bedtime.
18 Months: He'll moo, oink, quack, and make various animal sounds in reference to the toy.
2 Years: Your preschooler may engage in basic pretend play, like taking Doggy for a walk or feeding Teddy.
3 Years: Your child begins creating unique, fanciful worlds in which Teddy becomes a dinosaur and Owl collects the ingredients for "gravel soup."
Teddy bears and their ilk can carry dust mites and other allergens that could trigger breathing difficulties or skin irritation. To avoid problems, wash Mr. Fluffy regularly.
Some kids lose interest in stuffed animals by age 2, preferring toys that don't just sit there but move.
6 Months: Babies enjoy transferring puzzle pieces from one hand to the other and mouthing them like a cracker.
12 Months: At this age, kids have fun turning the puzzle board over to dump the pieces all over the floor. They can also use their pincer grip to take pieces out by pulling up on the knobs.
18 Months: With your assistance, a toddler can put large puzzle pieces into their corresponding spots.
2 Years: Your little one will complete basic puzzles -- the type in which you put vegetable- or animal-shaped pieces into the appropriate holes. She can also put together a simple three-piece puzzle.
3 Years: Her problem-solving skills improve, so she's more involved with puzzles and can put together a basic picture of up to eight interlocking pieces.
Regularly check that the pegs on pieces are securely fastened, as they pose a choking hazard if they come off. Make sure that the puzzles themselves are nontoxic.
Some kids could happily spend an entire afternoon piecing together puzzles, whereas others find it about as stimulating as the phone book. This has nothing to do with intelligence but depends on temperament and energy level. It's a good reminder to let your kid play with what interests him.
6 Months: If you have a toy drum around, your baby will have fun patting it, albeit without much sense of purpose.
12 Months: He'll begin banging on anything remotely percussive -- a drum, a xylophone, or pots and pans.
18 Months: Your toddler likes to clap along to music, but don't expect him to have a refined sense of rhythm. He'll also get a kick out of hitting together rhythm sticks or shaking a tambourine.
2 Years: Tinkle the piano keys, strum air guitar, or beat a drum -- your little bandmate can imitate you more precisely as you play different instruments.
3 Years: If your child is musically inclined, he'll enjoy blowing into rudimentary wind instruments such as a whistle or harmonica.
Make sure any instrument you purchase is coated in nontoxic paint -- chances are your little Mozart might experiment by using his mouth, even on a drum or piano.
Research suggests that early piano lessons are connected to refined spatial skills, which are key for math and geometry.
Sources: Linda Acredolo, PhD, coauthor of Baby Minds; Lawrence Cohen, PhD, author of Playful Parenting; Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and editor of The Wonder Years; Lee Sanders, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine; Hillary Hettinger Steiner, PhD, educational psychologist at the University of Georgia's College of Education.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Parents magazine.