Toys: Insight from a Pediatric Physical Therapist

Toys: Insight from a Pediatric Physical Therapist

Recently, I’ve been asked about what kinds of toys are helpful for promoting certain developmental skills.  While there are some very age specific toys, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful.  When choosing toys, think about what skills a child has and what developmental skills they are working on. If choosing a toy for a child, are you trying to encourage a specific activity or skill? Choosing toys that are age appropriate now and can still be used for a period of time can be a cost effective way to buy toys for your kids.  Toys like books, blocks, and music are enjoyed by kids of all ages, while other toys like rattles are fairly age specific.  Of course, every toy needs to be checked to ensure it’s safe for the kiddo who will be playing with it.

Newborns and infants don’t interact with toys the same way an older child does, but toys still provide many opportunities for development.  Young infants are fascinated by bright and contrasting colors, human faces and movement.  Good ideas for toys include mobiles to allow baby to watch movement, toys that have bright colors with lots of contrast, toys that make noises or have different textures, and unbreakable mirrors for baby to look in. As baby gets older, he/she will start reaching for the toy, moving it around, and bringing it straight for his/her mouth. Toys like rattles, teething rings, textured balls, large blocks, and cardboard books are all great for young infants.

As infants get bigger and stronger, they become movers.  They go from lying on their back to rolling, crawling, standing and walking.  Toys such as balls, push and pull toys, and objects to crawl over are great for gross motor development. As baby gets older, he/she is also learning about cause and effect, language, finding hidden objects, and overall exploring every nook and cranny of a toy.  Books become a whole new world as baby learns how to turn pages and recognizes words for common objects. Toys that allow baby to start exploring ideas such as on/off, in/out, stacking and building are great. Blocks, stacking rings, pop beads, shape sorters, and pop-up toys are all great toys to encourage cognitive and fine motor development. Late infancy is also a good time to start introducing pretend play. Babies mimic activities that they see people do, so using puppets, toy phones, toy steering wheels, toy cars, and doll play-sets can encourage the start of pretend play.  Fisher Price has a section of their website that allows parents to explore appropriate toys, month by month for the first year of life.  (Note: This is not an endorsement of any toy or company, but simply a resource some parents might find helpful.)

Toddlers are busy and need toys that can keep up with them! Toys that help them continue to develop their large and small muscles are good. From a gross motor standpoint, they are continuing to refine their walking and running, learning to jump, and working on going up and down stairs.  Balls, tricycles, scooters and plenty of time to move about can help encourage continued gross motor development.  Drawing and coloring with safe markers and crayons are good toys for creativity and fine motor development.  Puzzles with knobs, blocks, and toys with many buttons continue to provide problem solving and fine motor challenges. Toddlers also continue to develop their pretend play skills and providing opportunities for this type of play will help with language and cognitive development. Items like dolls, play kitchens or strollers, cars, and animal sets help encourage pretend play.  As children get older, their pretend play will become more elaborate and they can be involved in reading more complex stories, building more detailed structures, and doing puzzles with more pieces.

For preschoolers, it is important to continue to provide positive learning experiences while allowing the child to free play. Problem solving toys like puzzles can be advanced to have multiple pieces. Board games can be good for learning social skills, following rules and working on skills such as matching, sorting and counting. Pretend play continues to be a large part of the play for a preschooler and providing toys that interest and encourage the child to pretend play by him/herself and with others is always good. Building sets, more advanced arts and crafts, and other toys that allow for creativity help spark a child’s imagination and help develop fine motor skills. Preschoolers are also getting better at riding tricycles and bicycles, skipping, throwing, jumping, and climbing. At this age it is still important to have playtime that involves the use of large muscles for continued strength, endurance and development of motor skills.  See more about toddler and preschooler play for movement and fitness here.

The University of Alaska – Fairbanks has a good handout that can help guide family and friends to choose appropriate toys and activities for children at this link.  Questions about specific toys to promote a certain area of development can be directed to our speech, occupational, and physical therapists on staff.  We can also provide evaluations and treatment if you or someone you know has concerns about a child’s development.  We provide treatment wherever it is convenient for the family, giving a child many opportunities to play and develop skills.  Give us a call at (503) 496-0385 for more information.  

(This post was courtesy of Crystal Bridges, DPT, one of our Portland pediatric physical therapy providers.)