Are you looking for truly educational toys?
Not the ones that the toy companies’ marketing experts try to force on you, but toys that your baby can actually benefit and learn from?
Look no more!
As a mom with a background in child development and psychology, I would like to help you today to understand what baby play really looks like and what toys are truly educational and age appropriate.
Hint: They don’t require batteries!
I also created a list of toys ordered by age groups from newborns to 12-month-olds.
Plus I am going to teach you the “Golden Rule” of toy shopping and I will also reveal the BEST educational baby toy of all times!
Other baby-related articles for you:
- 10 Ways to Prevent Your Baby from Becoming a “Picky Eater”
- 6 Amazing Benefits of Reading to Babies: Why Starting Early Matters
- Early Language Development: A Complete Guide [with activities]
- 22 Places to Go with Babies: Fresh Ideas for You to Enjoy
The purpose of play and how babies benefit from it
As Maria Montessori pointed out, play is the work of childhood². It is essential and necessary for baby brain development.
Through play, babies discover, learn, experience.
They use toys as tools to learn about the world. Through physical manipulation of toys, they create mental rules which help them categorize and understand their daily experiences.
Basically, playing with toys is one big scientific experiment.
“What does this toy taste like?” and “What sound does it make?” or “Does it bounce if I throw it?”
All of these are hypotheses that babies test(instinctively) every single day.
Toys and fine motor skills
But here’s the deal.
Infants need the right kind of baby toys to reap all the benefits that play provides.
Take fine motor skills for instance.
Fine motor skills are super important for future academic success.
As David Grissmer and his coworkers pointed out in their longitudinal study:
“Together, attention, fine motor skills, and general knowledge are much stronger overall predictors of later math, reading, and science scores than early math and reading scores alone.”
Toys babies need the most are the ones which challenge them in areas such as motor skills, concentration, and problem-solving. No need to teach our infants to read and other age-irrelevant skills.
For example, take a toy that requires a baby to only push buttons over and over again. The toy is doing all the flashing, talking, singing, etc. What do you think the baby is actually learning?
Here are some of the many benefits of baby’s play¹:
- Play teaches problem-solving
- Play helps social development
- Play teaches self-control
- Play improves concentration, attention span and memory
- Play helps with physical development
- Play aids in developing mathematical thinking
- Play promotes language development
- Play influences amount of brain cells
- Play reduces stress
- Play allows trying out different roles
- Play helps to cope with difficult feelings
To be more baby-specific, play is a tool for developing all senses from vision to touch and taste, fine and gross motor skills, language, laws of physics and social skills.
What makes for a good toy and the “Golden rule” of toy-shopping
I think many of you will agree that not all toys are that great. Some are purely annoying others are “cheap” and short-lived.
Toys can serve in many ways, good and bad.
Therefore before buying any new toy for our babies, let’s answer a few questions about the particular toy:
1. What is this toy actually (and literally) teaching?
We should not solely rely on the promises of the packaging. Almost every baby toy in a store is labeled as “educational” these days.
As ³Christia Brown Ph.D. from Psychology Today says:
“All toys are educational, in that all toys teach something. We may not, however, be paying attention to WHAT they are teaching.”
Think about values and behaviors that the toy promotes. Consider your family values, what matters to you and what principles and attitudes you want to strengthen in your child. Is this toy aligned with them? Or will it do exactly the opposite?
2. How long is this toy going to last?
Is this toy made from quality materials? Or is it going to break easily?
Try to balance your baby’s collection with toys made of different materials, not only plastic.
I know it’s hard because the majority of toys in the mainstream toy stores are plastic ones. There are other toy retailers, however. Look at my Resources page to find some alternatives.
Rather than buying tons of toys for your baby, consider buying less but high-quality toys.
3. Do we already have a toy of this kind?
Try to avoid multiples of the same toys.
One or two rattles are fine, but you certainly don’t need to have ten.
Instead, provide your baby with other kinds of toys. Get her a ball, a car, and touch-and-feel book to widen her toy collection.
4. Is the toy too “fixed”?
Does the toy allow your baby to play in many different ways? Or does it only do one thing over and over?
For instance, a set of wooden stacking rings can be played with in so many ways!
We’ve been enjoying this toy for months and months now. Of course, we stack them from time to time. But they are also a great peek-a-boo toy; we spin them like crazy on our coffee table (oh, the sounds they make!), we play music with them; roll them around the floor; pretend they are hats or rings on our fingers and chew on them when teething.
5. What will my baby learn from this toy?
Babies are super smart. The amount of information they are able to process and categorize throughout the first few years of their lives is amazing.
Therefore not every toy we buy for our baby has to teach something academic. There will be plenty of time for all the colors and ABCs.
But rather let’s surround them with toys that encourage skills such as focused attention, problem-solving, perseverance, exploration, and curiosity. They can certainly expand on these later in life.
And let’s not forget babies need to enjoy themselves too!
Finally, the “Golden Rule”
When it comes to buying educational baby toys there is one golden rule which I like to follow.
The simpler the toy, the less the toy does on its own, the more our baby will be involved and the more she will learn.
As 5Kim Payne M.ED., the author of Simplicity Parenting said it:
“By simplifying the complexity of our children’s toys, we give them liberty to build their own imaginary worlds. They can learn to follow their own interests, to trust their own emerging voices.”
Here is my ultimate list of educational baby toys.
Some are Montessori inspired, others are from my favorite brands Melissa&Doug, Lakeshore Learning and Manhattan Toy Company. I trust these brands for their high quality.
However, your baby doesn’t have to have all of these toys! Pick a few favorites and encourage play in many different ways.
Newborn to 3 months
Newborns and very young infants are only developing their vision. They are attracted to human faces and a human voice. High contrast patterns, such as black and white toys are ideal.
They are also very gradually becoming aware of their own body. Therefore bringing attention to their hands and feet is desirable.
Perfect toys for the youngest babies are:
- black & white patterned toys
- play mats
- sock and wrist rattles
Here are several excellent toys for very young babies:
3 to 6 months
Babies of this age are able to grasp and hold objects. They explore by putting everything in their mouths.
Tummy time is an important activity. Babies start pushing on their hands and knees and eventually learn to sit up.
In many babies, first teeth start coming during this time.
Therefore include these toys in your baby’s collection:
- teething rings
- soft squeaky toys
- finger puppets
- soft blocks
- play mats with toys hanging overhead
6 to 9 months
Babies’ fine motor skills are improving. They start using pincer grasp around this time, which opens up a whole new territory of play.
Some babies start to crawl at this age.
And babies are starting to understand object permanence, which often leads to “stranger danger” fear and anxiety (absolutely normal).
Toys babies of this age enjoy:
- small balls
- peek-a-boo books and toys
- toy cars and push toys
- soft dolls
- sensory boxes
9 to 12 months
Babies of this stage are very active and curious.
They are able to manipulate objects in different ways, banging two toys together or releasing them from their hands.
They enjoy the interaction with others, therefore social games are encouraged. Roll a ball across the floor or build with blocks together.
Your almost one-year-old will benefits from these toys:
- fabric tunnels
- four-wheeled push toys
- stacking and nesting toys
- bouncy balls
- large building blocks such as Mega blocks
Books cannot be replaced with any other toy or activity.
Make sure you read to your baby every day. To learn how reading benefits babies, read Benefits of reading to babies.
The best toy ever
Now the big question. What is the best, most educational and stimulating “toy” a baby can ever have?
She already has it, guaranteed. It is YOU!
Now I am not suggesting that a parent is a child’s toy. But you get the point, right?
You can bring the most and best out of your child, teach her endless amount of stuff, touch and love her like no other plaything ever can.
Therefore don’t worry if your baby doesn’t have the latest craze of an educational baby toy in her possession. She is perfectly fine by spending time with you.
¹ ² 8Berman Jenn: Superbaby. 12 ways to give your child a head start in the first 3 years. 2010. Sterling Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-4027-7033-3.
5Payne Kim. M.ED. Simplicity Parenting. Using extraordinary power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids.
7Dr. David Elkind. The Power of Play. Da Capo Press. 240p. ISBN 978-0-7382-1053-7
³Christia S. Brown Ph.D. Every toy is educational: Pay attention to what it teaches. Psychology today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-pink-and-blue/201311/every-toy-is-educational-pay-attention-what-it-teaches
American Academy of Pediatrics www.pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/128/5/1040#ref-10
Kenneth Ginsburg M.D., M. S. Ed. The Toy Your Child Really Needs. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-resilient-children-and-teens/201111/the-toy-your-child-really-needs