Go-To Learning Toys That Aid in Toddler Development

When it comes to toys, I always say less is more. Here's all you need to foster language, creativity, problem-solving, and organizational skills through play.

Learning toys
Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

As a pediatric neuropsychologist, I spend a lot of time speaking with parents who are concerned about their children's development. When things seem to be "off track," parents end up in my office, looking for diagnostic clarity or treatment recommendations for cognitive, linguistic, motor, social, and academic issues. And even when I speak with friends, who are (relatively) new moms like me, they want to know how they can encourage their child's development.

But here is the really amazing thing about children, and especially very young children like my 19-month-old daughter: development is something that unfolds naturally. The human brain was built to learn and neural connections that are used are strengthened. Learning and development in early childhood happen effortlessly, but the experiences and activities that you provide your child will help to shape which skills are fortified.

I encourage parents to present their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with a language-rich environment, a variety of sensory-rich stimulation, and hands-on opportunities to explore basic concepts. When all of this occurs within the context of a safe, reliable, and loving relationship, you have the recipe for optimal development.

When it comes to play-ducation, less is more. Sure, electronic toys that light up, talk, and sing songs can do a lot, but that means there's less for your child to do and even less of an opportunity for verbal exchange between caregiver and child. In contrast, more traditional toys provide a lot of opportunities for children to think outside of the box and create their own play which fosters creativity, problem-solving, and organizational skills. Here are my personal toy picks that do just that.

Books, Books, and More Books

I know, I know. How predictable. But this list-topper is predictable for a reason. Language and communication is perhaps the most important developmental accomplishment of kids up to 3, and it is well known that language unfolds as children are exposed to words and conversations in the real world.

Books provide children the opportunity to hear new words and sentence structures they might not be exposed to through day-to-day dialogue. It is widely known that children who have more exposure to print (time spent being visually aware of the written word) not only develop larger vocabularies and greater command of language, but also have more success in learning to read.

Through books, children are also introduced to new concepts, cultures, and social themes, all of which build background knowledge, develop empathy, and provide content for a rich back-and-forth exchange. Reading aloud is the single best thing that you can do for your child to maximize his or her chances of successful reading acquisition, to promote a love of reading, and to enhance knowledge of people and of the world. It is also a great way for you and your child to spend time together and bring down stress levels!

Art Supplies

When we think of toys that encourage creativity, we often think first of arts and crafts. It's important to distinguish between the two, as they are different and have different developmental benefits. "Art" tends to be more open-ended and less structured, fostering imagination and creativity. The term "crafts" refers to projects that tend to be somewhat prescriptive and structured. Both have benefits, including boosting fine motor development, hand-eye coordination, visual-spatial reasoning, decision-making, self-expression, self-esteem, and stress reduction.

But there's no need to go overboard. Offer your child a variety of art materials (finger paints, crayons, markers, chalk) or repurposed materials (toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, magazine clippings, used wrapping paper) and allow him to construct his own craft. If he runs out of ideas or materials, offer a new material and see if he can shift on his own to a new way of creating. Another idea? "Painting" with shaving cream in the bathtub is a great way to incorporate another sensory component and a fun indoor activity on a rainy day.

Pretend Play Props

Playing dress-up or having fun with pretend play props, such as a toy kitchen, has a ton of benefits for kids. Props allow children to nurture their imaginations, while also developing language, thinking, and social-emotional skills. When children roleplay, they are imagining what it might be like to walk in someone else's shoes. Playing dress-up allows them to do this literally and helps them with perspective-taking and the development of empathy.

Building Blocks

Blocks can occupy young kiddos for hours and help them develop creativity, problem-solving, and spatial reasoning skills. These can include Legos, Mega Bloks, Magna-Tiles, and Tegu, but nothing beats an old-fashioned set of natural wood blocks. They are durable (they will last forever!), non-toxic, eco-friendly, and easy to clean and sanitize.

While Magna-Tiles almost build themselves, wooden blocks encourage children to experiment with concepts such as shape, balance, and stability, while also helping to nurture frustration tolerance and perseverance. And when children are successful in stacking blocks, they beam with pride. Even before young children begin to imagine and build structures, they can learn about size, shape, texture, weight, and color just by holding, feeling, manipulating, and exploring the blocks.

Alphabet Fridge Magnets

As children play around with fridge magnets, they learn about letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. Alphabet magnets also help facilitate language, literacy, and reasoning by naming, sorting, and combining these concepts.

Manipulating the magnets in their hands and moving them around a magnetic surface helps children develop fine motor coordination, which is critical for drawing and handwriting. And as there is no prescribed way for children to play with refrigerator magnets, they can get creative by coming up with many different ways to use them.

I also love to hand my daughter a paintbrush and a cup of water to "paint" on the refrigerator. By busying your small children with refrigerator magnets or water-painting, you can keep them safe, content, and in sight while prepping dinner. Wins all around.


Nothing beats Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Babysitter, or another attuned caregiver when it comes to play. But I like to encourage adults to sit back and let their children take the lead. We want children to develop the confidence and independence to set up their own play and we need to give them the time and space to try, fail, and try again.

It's also important for you to let your kids know you see them. Notice and reflect upon your child's efforts, persistence, and growth—not the finished product. For example, "I love how you are working so hard to stack that block on top!" By commenting on their play and on the process, you are giving positive attention to kids. This communicates that they matter and focuses on the qualities that you are trying to foster in them, making it more likely these behaviors will continue.

Laura Phillips, Psy.D., ABPdN is a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. She specializes in the neuropsychological evaluation of children, adolescents, and young adults with a wide range of conditions that impact learning, behavior, and social-emotional functioning. Her research interests include the neuroscience of reading interventions and the impact of technology on cognitive and social-emotional development of young children.

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