Hone your little one’s natural genius with our pick of the best educational toys for toddlers
Great news: those endless hours of peekaboo and “this little piggy” have not been in vain. All that playtime has actually been boosting your little one’s brain as well as entertaining them – helping develop their social, intellectual and problem-solving skills.
“Play for infants is the equivalent of work for adults,” explains child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin, from the University of Southampton. “It’s how they learn about themselves and others. It gives them the opportunity to try out different things and find out the rules of the world.”
You don’t need to break the bank with all-singing, all-dancing electronic toys either. “Basic toys are actually better because they encourage infants to use their imagination more,” says Dr Rudkin. “The less restricted the use of the toy, the freer infants can be in their play.”
Feeling inspired? Here are Dr Rudkin’s top picks of the best educational toys for one-year-old and two-year-old children.
“On your hundredth cup of pretend tea? Congratulations! You’re boosting your child’s social and emotional development,” says Dr Rudkin. “Pretend play, like using plastic cups and saucers, helps infants learn about relating to other people and the rules of socialising – such as asking for something and saying please and thank you. Set up a tea party, play ‘cafes’ or just follow their lead.”
“Getting arty with crayons and pens (or aquadraw for the faint-hearted!) develops the fine motor skills which will eventually enable them to write,” says Dr Rudkin. “It can also foster creativity. Sit alongside them and describe what they are doing, for example the colours they are using. Tell them what you like about their creation. Some infants will enjoy drawing more than others though, which is fine. There’s no need to force it.”
Brace yourself, it’s about to get messy: “Taking pretend tools such as a toy spade and watering can outside can really help engage an infant’s senses, which is how very young children learn about the world,” says Dr Rudkin. “Show them how to dig, have a go at planting seeds together and, crucially, let them get muddy and messy. If you set up a mud kitchen, you might even get to enjoy a quick cup of tea while they immerse themselves in the joy of dirt.”
Yeah, we know (!)… but shakers, drums and xylophones do more than make a din – they’re actually amazing educational toys. “Making ‘music’ stimulates their senses and helps hone motor skills, while singing simple songs together can boost language and memory,” says Dr Rudkin. “Music connects people at an intuitive level. Your infant will get a lovely warm feeling from playing music with you...even if to the outside world it sounds like a load of banging!”
Bricks and blocks
The simple games are the best. “Construction toys teach infants about trial and error and how things balance,” says Dr Rudkin. Take turns adding bricks to a tower, counting as you go, then watch them enjoy smashing it down again. Hopefully this will also spark an interest in numbers and counting, but don’t expect them to be able to count along with you yet.”
“Simple puzzles, such as two-piece jigsaws or wooden puzzles, can provide an infant’s first opportunities to problem-solve,” says Dr Rudkin. “It can also help teach them patience… although you might want to keep your expectations low there! Some children will get the hang of puzzles quicker than others and it doesn’t matter. Shout out the animal noises or whatever is on the puzzle and make it as fun as possible. Give them a chance to work it out themselves but step in and help them if they start to get frustrated.”
“Young children are drawn to water. Make bathtime even more fun with simple toys – such as a set of different-sized cups, squirty toys or even empty bottles – which will help them learn cause and effect, sinking and floating and even hone their hand-eye coordination,” says Dr Rudkin. “Pour water onto their hands from a high height, squirt it onto their tummy and just watch them enjoy pouring water between containers.” Warning: They’ll almost certainly try to drink the water so you might need to work on distraction!
Scrunchy books, hard books, musical books – however they come, book sharing with infants is crucial to their development and doesn’t have to be separate from playtime. “Reading together boosts vocabulary and helps them learn about rhymes and links between pictures and words,” says Dr Rudkin. “Leave a couple in their toy box, too. Left to play with a book alone, they’ll enjoy turning the pages, lifting flaps and pressing musical buttons. It all helps spark a love of books that will hopefully last a lifetime.”
They can be big, small or light up and jingle when they bounce – you might not think of them as learning toys, but infants just love playing with balls. “While they are happily rolling a ball down a slope (or under the sofa) they are also honing their hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and motor skills,” says Dr Rudkin. “Rolling a ball back and forth with you or a sibling can also help introduce them to social skills such as turn-taking.”
Dr Rudkin's top 5 picks:
Bricks and blocks