What's the best toy for an infant vs. a toddler? Before you go holiday shopping, check out our list that matches developmental stages of play with toys that work well for kids at each age.
How They Play: 0-12 Months
For the first three months, your baby isn't able to do much more than observe her surroundings. Because her vision is still blurry, she sees bright, boldly patterned items best. "Toys don't have to be black and white so long as the colors contrast with each other," says Nora Newcombe, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Temple University, in Philadelphia. As your baby grows, she'll enjoy toys that engage her other senses as well. That's why so many toys are designed to promote interaction in a variety of ways: They may make a squeaking or crinkling noise, have a nubby texture, and be soft and cuddly. Infants tend to mouth toys, and textured ones can help relieve teething pain.
Brightly colored, multipatterned crib mobiles (Note: Remove from crib once your baby can sit up)
Soft, washable, colorful stuffed animals or dolls with a smiling face
Small stuffed fabric balls
How They Play: 1-2 Years
"Your baby is fascinated by cause and effect and will enjoy any toy that responds to his actions and makes use of newly acquired motor skills," says psychologist Robin Goodman, Ph.D., director of NYU Child Study Center's Website, www.aboutourkids.org. For instance, he'll love toys that allow him to hit a ball with a hammer as well as toys with buttons that cause music to play or characters to pop up. Some high-tech toys for this age will name a letter, a shape, or a number when your baby presses a button. He's too young to actually learn his ABCs, but he'll still enjoy interacting with these toys and being exposed to language.
Nesting cups or boxes
Push- or pull-toys that make noise or have pieces that pop up or move
Hammering sets that let kids hammer pegs or balls through holes
Simple, sturdy musical instruments like tambourines, drums, or maracas
Large play vehicles, such as a school bus or a fire engine, plus plastic people that ride in them
Puzzles with four or five pieces
Rubber ducks or toy boats for bathtime
How They Play: 2-3 Years
Your child's play is now more purposeful, and she has the fine motor skills needed to complete a puzzle or build with blocks by herself. She'll start to enjoy pretend play that imitates the actions of people around her. She'll like high-tech toys that make real-life sounds, such as telephones that ring or dolls that talk. No matter how politically correct you are, your child will probably play in a gender-stereotypical way -- at least some of the time, Dr. Newcombe says. A boy may use his dump truck to scoop up sand, while a girl might pretend to feed her doll and put it down for a nap. Boys and girls are both very active at this age and will still enjoy their push- and pull-toys. You can also introduce a ride-on toy: Start with one that your child can propel with both feet, and move up to a tricycle.
Dolls and stuffed animals
Props for make-believe play, such as toy telephone, a tea-party set, a toy kitchen, or a doll stroller
Ride-on toys and tricycles
Musical instruments (especially popular are those with flashing lights on the keys that your child needs to press in order to play a tune)
Large transportation toys with buttons to make a horn honk or a siren whistle
Construction toys that snap together
How They Play: 4-5 Years
There's a tremendous explosion in learning ability at this age, and it's a good time to introduce interactive educational toys that teach math and verbal skills, such as phonics boards or mini computers. "Choose toys that say positive things like 'Good job. Let's try again' instead of ones that make negative beeping noises whenever kids get an answer wrong," suggests Marianne Szymanski, president of www.toytips.com. Kids are now able to imagine that they're someone else and may fantasize about being airplane pilots, police officers, doctors, or teachers.
Art supplies and craft kits
Blocks of different shapes
Electronic phonics toys
Construction sets with large pieces, such as Legos or Lincoln Logs
Puzzles of greater complexity
Transportation toys, such as parking garages, airports, and train stations
Board games that don't require reading, such as Hungry Hungry Hippos, Yahtzee Jr., or Candyland
Soccer balls and basketballs
Bicycles with training wheels
How They Play: 6-7 Years
Your child is developing his own interests while learning from both his teachers and peers. Some kids like doing science experiments (with your help); others love making beaded jewelry or playing with dolls. Friends are becoming increasingly important, and your child will start asking for a particular toy (if he hasn't already) because "everyone else has it." This is the age when kids often become huge fans of computer games, but they also enjoy having their friends over to play sports, card games, and board games. Many like music-related toys, but the playing of actual instruments can still be difficult.
Basic science kits
Magnets, magnifying glasses, and telescopes
Computer and video games
Construction sets, such as Legos or K'Nex
Board games that involve strategy, including chess and checkers
How They Play: 8+ Years
Kids this age enjoy outdoor sports as well as scooters, bicycles, and in-line skates. They acquire adult-like interests, abilities, and hobbies and may display a passion by becoming a collector. Girls still love doing crafts and writing in diaries, and boys find computer and video games irresistible. "These years are all about doing things that give kids a sense of mastery and competence," Szymanski says. "With computer and video games, kids can challenge themselves to get a better score than they did the time before," she says. "They enjoy competing with their friends, and you'll hear a lot of 'I got this score -- what score did you get?' " Kids also like working on longer projects, some of which might take days to complete.
Computer and video games
More elaborate science kits
Outdoor sporting equipment
Intricate construction sets
Board games like Scrabble, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit Junior
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2001 issue of Parents magazine.