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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reading together is important at this stage, and engaging books are ideal to expand your family library. "Reading aloud contributes so much to language development -- by building vocabulary, teaching children that stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and showing them that words move from left to right and from top to bottom," says Amy Flynn, M.S. M.Ed, an early childhood education specialist with New York's Head Start program. Board books are still ideal, since they're sturdy enough for small hands. Get a mix of classic stories and interactive board books with touch-and-feel pages or flaps to lift and lower. Consider adding longer storybooks to the shelf, as 2-year-olds are starting to pay attention for longer periods of time. Books that illustrate popular children's songs offer a wonderful multisensory, interactive experience, and adding a few instruments will give your storytime a whole new dimension. "It's important for parents to offer a variety of reading materials to children, from storybooks to poetry to nursery rhymes," Flynn says.
As they come into their own as artists, toddlers learn to grasp crayons and markers better. Finger-paints are particularly appropriate for this age group. Consider ones from the company Alex, which also makes a set of Funky Brushes that make it easy for kids to create all kinds of interesting textures (and don't forget a smock!). Museum trips also make a special birthday present. "Exposing a child to art is really important for creating and developing visual imagery in the brain," says Diane Quiroga, a board certified and registered art therapist and mental health consultant in Livingston, New Jersey. But if you can't get to a museum, there are easy alternatives. "I like to buy postcards from museums and laminate them," Quiroga adds. "Or there's a wonderful series of board books that have real works of art combined with textures that children can touch and feel." For your 2-year-old, art is not about the product -- it's about the process. Children get a nice boost of self-esteem from seeing their creations displayed proudly. Use a simple clothesline and clothespins to hang artwork to dry and be displayed at the same time.
Pretend play is big for 2-year-olds. That block they're holding to their ear? It's a phone. Those apple slices? They're boats! Role-play activities are still basic, but creative thinking comes naturally. Invest in some fun props to inspire your growing toddlers, like a kid-scale table and chairs along with a plastic tea set for make-believe tea parties. Or look for a junior-size chef's hat and apron, which have the potential for imaginative play that feels like the real deal. High-quality plastic trucks, like the Bruder Max ones, have lots of moving parts and cool details but are designed for toddlers. Wooden trains, small plastic people, plastic animals, dolls, and doll strollers can all help spark creativity.
Bathtime can be an opportunity for exploration, as most toddlers are interested with water. Traditional tub toys like rubber ducks, squirting animals, and floatable boats always make delightful gifts, but consider water-soluble bathtub crayons to increase fun without creating a permanent mess. (A sponge easily removes what toddlers draw all over the tub and the walls, but be careful of staining the grout between tiles.) A colorful foam alphabet set can help tots learn to spell out names and simple words, and you can find sets of foam bathtub "stickers," a smart option because foam will stick to the tiles when it's wet but then easily removed. Stacking cups, like the Skip Hop Dunck set, provide diversion as children nest, stack, and fill them with water to pour out. (Bonus: Parents can use them to rinse shampoo from the toddler's hair.)
Choosing the perfect gift comes down to a couple of factors. First, remember that 2-year-olds still don't have high expectations for gifts; they're grateful for any presents. Second, consider your budget. Some parents want to get the biggest gift for their money, but it's important to think about value. Toys that will last a long time are the best investment. Look for ones that are made of high-quality materials (wood and high-grade plastic) and that will adapt and appeal to children with a wide range of ages. Third, think about what your child will truly enjoy. "Expose 2-year-olds to new things," Dr. Lewis says. "There's always the opportunity for growth and change at that age, and you want to provide them with new challenges." You won't need to pay too much attention to a child's special interests, but if a child has particular dislikes or fears (like snakes or clowns), stay away from related toys.
Children also learn a lot from playing with adults. While there aren't too many games designed for toddlers, Think Fun has one. Working together with parents and siblings on a game or even a more complicated puzzle presents an opportunity to learn about teamwork and frustration tolerance, both important social skills. Do try to avoid toys with excessive packaging; toddlers don't have much patience for delayed gratification. If you suspect that a gift will take a while to extract from a box, consider unpacking and wrapping it again so it'll be ready to be played with as soon as the paper comes off.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.