20 favorite baby and toddler toys

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We don’t give our toddler too many toys; we much prefer that he has a few that he really likes and not clutter him with too many options. And even the ones we assume he’ll love aren’t hits with him; for instance, I bought him a toy phone thinking he’d love pressing the buttons and pretend like he was talking on the phone. But other than a few times when he’s held the phone to his ear (at my insistence), the phone sits on the floor waiting to be played with.

That said, there are quite a few toys that he’ll easily devour. And while anything can be considered a toy, from craft materials to household items (colander, anyone?), I wanted to list the more standard toys that have kept him happily occupied (pictures and reviews below the list):

  1. Magnetic letter and number links
  2. Textured foam balls
  3. Block crayons
  4. Bowling set
  5. Art easel desk
  6. Latches board
  7. Shape sorter
  8. Magna doodle
  9. Hammering toy
  10. Legos
  11. Blankies and lovies
  12. Magnetic letters and numbers
  13. Play Doh
  14. Sophie the giraffe
  15. Activity triangle
  16. Riding fire truck
  17. Alphabet animals flash cards
  18. Stacking and nesting blocks
  19. Farm animals
  20. Crayons

Magnetic letter and number links
1. Magnetic letter and number links

This was our toddler’s Christmas gift, and for a measly $16 he got hours of fun in return. He liked identifying the letters and math symbols (particularly the minus sign, for some weird reason).
Pros: Alphabet, numbers and math exposure
Cons: Not all pieces fit well with each other, I wish they were more conscious of color-coordinating (for instance, all numbers are red, all consonants are blue, all vowels are yellow, etc)

Textured foam balls
2. Textured foam balls
These balls are probably one of those toys that will age well with any child. When he was a baby, LO liked squishing these, and now that he’s older, it’s all about throwing the balls everywhere.
Pros: Versatile, interesting shapes and textures, bounces well
Cons: None

Block crayons
3. Block crayons

I thought this toy was so unique because they’re crayons and stackable blocks, there are numbers and letters inscribed on the sides, and they even have animal- and people-shaped blocks.
Pros: Unique way to stack, multi-use
Cons: Crayon-quality isn’t all that great

Bowling set
4. Bowling set

My two-year-old doesn’t really use this toy to bowl per say, other than knocking down maybe one or two pins at a time, but he likes matching the colors and inspecting the holes on the bowling ball.
Pros: Good quality foam toys (the bowling ball even has weight to it)
Cons: None

Art easel desk
5. Art easel desk

LO has since declared this desk as a “rocket ship” where he says he flies to the moon. Can’t beat that! He also likes to lift the desk up and down.
Pros: One side is an easel while the other side is a desk
Cons: The desk part is a little bit small for large art activities

Latches board
6. Latches board

The first day LO played with this toy, I was blessed with 45 minutes straight of uninterrupted silence as he tried to figure out how to lock and unlock all these doors. He paused for dinner but resumed for another 15 minutes after he was done.
Pros: Encourages problem-solving, interesting animals, numbers and colors
Cons: None

Shape sorter
7. Shape sorter

Nothing beats the first time a kid figures out how to sort shapes through their correct holes. It’s like a light bulb just switched on in their heads. He received this toy over two years ago and he still plays with it now (just today, in fact). After the shapes are sorted inside the elephant, he can press down on its ears and out come the shapes.
Pros: Sorting skills, the elephant spins
Cons: Sometimes the shapes can get stuck inside the elephant

Magna doodle
8. Magna doodle

You know a toy is good when you yourself played with something similar as a kid. I loved magna doodles and so does my kid. We like to write and draw shapes, and he especially enjoys erasing what we just wrote.
Pros: Encourages writing and drawing
Cons: This particular toy has a small frame to write on

Hammering toy
9. Hammering toy

Melissa and Doug put a spin on a classic toy and made a pounding tower with balls instead of a bench with pegs. My toddler doesn’t really care too much for the hammering part but loves to push the balls through the holes with his hands and watch it move down the tower.
Pros: Good quality
Cons: None

10. Legos

I love open-ended toys like Legos that let you build and imagine anything. Seriously, anything. As of today, these Logos have been: feet, slides, pasta, road hazard lights, airplanes and garage doors. Somehow my kid has conjured all those images from a bunch of squares and rectangles.
Pros: Encourages imagination
Cons: Some Legos don’t stick well to each other to withstand toddler manhandling

Blankies and lovies
11. Lovey

We wanted to give LO a special lovey to help ease him into sleeping through the night, and this little duck has delivered and then some. This is the toy that he’ll grow up with and spend practically every waking and sleeping moment with.
Pros: Great for young infants (we bought this as a safe toy to avoid SIDS), soft, washes easily
Cons: None

Magnetic letters and numbers
12. Magnetic letters and numbers

As if we couldn’t get enough of magnetic letters, we bought these to stick up on the fridge. I credit this toy for helping my toddler overcome his speech delay. He would play with the letters and he learned the sounds to each one first (“buh”) before finally  sounding out the letters (“B”).
Pros: Alphabet and number exposure, helps kids easily assemble words
Cons: Again, I wish they were more purposeful with their colors so that all numbers were one color and all consonants were another, etc.

Play Doh
13. Play Doh

Another open-ended toy that I am in love with. My toddler first started out with picking bits and pieces from the balls of play doh. Now he likes to poke things into them and pretend that they’re food for his stuffed animals.
Pros: Limitless ways to play, good practice for fine motor skills
Cons: Play Doh needs to make products that don’t dry up when left out of their cups!

Sophie the giraffe
14. Sophie the giraffe

We blamed teething for every crying fit our baby had, never mind that not a single tooth popped out until one week after his first birthday. Still, Sophie the teething giraffe came in handy because he really did like to chew on her. Now he also likes to squish her and hear the funny sounds she makes.
Pros: Durable, great for teething and biting
Cons: The orange spots are starting to fade

Activity triangle
15. Activity triangle

Our toddler still plays with this toy even though he’s had it since he was a few months old. He likes spinning the beads and shapes.
Pros: Interesting shapes, lightweight
Cons: None

Riding fire truck
16. Riding fire truck

When he first received this toy, we were a bit disappointed that he didn’t exactly ride on the truck and play “the right way.” We quickly realized though that he loved inspecting everything else about it: the seat that goes up and down, the siren and bell sounds, and the wheels that spin underneath. Oh, and yeah, he now likes to ride it too.
Pros: Little compartment can be a fun place for kids to stash smaller toys in, simple and small for easy riding
Cons: None

Alphabet animals flash cards
17. Alphabet animals flash cards

Flash cards have such a bad rap these days, and I was never one to use them, at least in their intended use. These cards, however, feature artwork and would probably work just as well in a book format. I think flash cards aren’t popular when used as a quizzing tool, but when left lying around the house for toddlers to stack and identify letters and animals, I figure they can’t be all that bad.
Pros: Durable cardstock, well-designed container
Cons: Some drawings are super modern that it’s hard to identify the animals

18. Stacking and nesting blocks

When my little guy was younger he played with these blocks by stacking them up and nesting the smaller blocks into the larger ones. Now he also likes to read the numbers and words as well as identify the pictures.
Pros: Stacking and nesting skills, comparing big and small, sturdy material
Cons: None

Farm animals
19. Farm animals

This particular toy not only features farm animals, but each animal is divided into two pieces so that you can hide them under egg halves for a matching game. Our toddler prefers a simpler game of “Let’s just connect and disconnect the farm animals.”
Pros: Unique game, matching skills
Cons: I wish the egg halves actually connected the way the animals do

20. Crayons
Not only does my kid love scribbling and drawing, he also likes organizing the actual crayons in his little box. Seriously, I don’t know how interesting this can be, but the boy can play crayons for half the day. He especially likes the triangle-shaped Crayola crayons.
Pros: Open-ended toy, creative uses, color identification
Cons: None

Weekend links

What are your kids’ favorite toys that keep them occupied for a long time? Which ones have lasted the test of time?

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Encourage independent play

The importance of independent play
Earlier today, my two-year-old stirred his “meatballs and pasta,” aka the orange pipe cleaners and colorful puffs (that pipe cleaners and colander Pinterest activity isn’t going away anytime soon). He scooped the meatballs into the colander and even “tasted” his meal to make sure all was cooking well. And where was I? I was sitting a few feet away on the couch, alternating between writing notes for this particular blog post and reading a book, purposely avoiding hovering over his task.

I’m a huge fan of independent play. I decided early on that I wanted my kiddo to learn and enjoy how to play on his own in addition to playing with others. Sure, alone time provides me a breath in a normally busy day, but the benefits extend most importantly to my toddler:

  • Privacy: Without a watchful eye peering into everything they’re doing, kids are free to play without fear of embarrassment or judgment. My toddler even pushes me away or asks me to go back to where I was so that he can continue playing in private (although sometimes he’ll do so when he’s doing something naughty).
  • Problem-solving: Playing alone provides kids the chance to concentrate and focus, particularly when trying to learn a new skill or figure out how a toy works. Recently, my toddler kept practicing how to close a particular box by sliding in its plastic cover from the side. I could have easily jumped in each time and solved his problem but preferred that he figure it out on his own and seek help should he decide he needed it.
  • Less intrusions: Adults are less likely to jump in and hijack kids’ play and determine a certain direction. Alone time provides them the opportunity to truly create their own world however way they please.
  • Ability to self-entertain: Rather than seeking outside stimulation from parents and caregivers, kids who play independently can easily entertain themselves in almost any environment. I don’t know if my toddler has ever been bored since he’s likely to find fun anywhere (Except clothing stores. Is this a guy thing or what?).

Although independent play is at its root played… independently, I still do my best to encourage my toddler by:

  • Setting him up with props. For instance, I placed the aforementioned “meatballs and pasta” along with the colander on his little table. There’s no way he could have reached up the kitchen cupboard to grab the colander, nor sift through the hallway cabinets to find the pipe cleaners. But once I set him up with his playthings, he’s usually ready to go.
  • Answering his questions. I’m usually nearby even if he’s playing by himself, so once in a while he’ll holler a question and knows that I’m nearby to answer.
  • Praising him. While I make sure to provide him ample time and space to himself, I also want him to know that his behavior is encouraged. I keep the praise subtle though, and stick to descriptive praise rather than evaluative: “Looks like you’re enjoying your meatballs and pasta.” Often I won’t even say anything but swing by and run my hand through his head or give him a kiss.

I normally know when my toddler is ready for more interactive play: he’ll either come up to me, call me over or start talking more frequently than when he had been quietly playing. Those are my cues that he’s ready for a play mate.

Playing with others of course has its own benefits as well: the “distractions” of parents, caregivers and other kids are also necessary for kids to develop social skills and handle emotions, for instance. Yet as parents, we often feel obligated to play with our kids all the time. I know I’ve felt guilty for washing the dishes while he plays at his little table once in a while.

I have to remember that independent play isn’t merely “lazy parenting.” Playing alone provides kids so many benefits that we shouldn’t feel guilty when we’re not interacting with our kids all the time. And while independent play takes place for brief pockets throughout the day (sorry, no two-hour blocks of me-time here), I still encourage alone time with my toddler for its many benefits.

How do you encourage independent play with your kids? Is your child able to play by himself or herself or does he or she require more adult interaction? Does your child thrive with independent play or need more interaction?

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The benefits of pretend play

My toddler has been subjecting Morris the monkey to eat play dough “sweet potatoes,” complete with a bib that he insists the poor monkey wear. He will also tear the play dough into pieces, just like how his mom and dad dice or mash his food for him. And of course Morris’ meal isn’t complete without a cup of milk and water to wash all that play— er, sweet potato down.

With his imagination chugging along, my toddler has entered the world of pretend play, and I couldn’t be happier.

With pretend play, kids are able to act out and therefore better understand events that happen in their lives. For instance, my toddler has since been pretending that it’s time to go to Morris’ house. “What are you going to do at Morris’ house?” I asked him.

“Eat snacks,” he promptly responded. That he continued to act out a situation similar to the morning routines we have of him going to my aunt’s house—with snacks and everything—isn’t too much of a coincidence: he may be acting out a common occurrence in his life and is perhaps starting to grasp why he goes there most days instead of staying at home.

Pretend play also allows kids to regain some of the control that often feels lost in the World of Big Adults. The fact that my toddler can decide what Morris eats and how much, as well as spoon-feeds and offers Morris his cup of water helps him feel like the adult in their play. Now, as the “bigger” person, he has the say on all matters.

On a similar note, pretend play can help kids in situations where they feel particularly vulnerable and emotional. When my toddler had to visit the doctor for a checkup, he was able to switch roles and assume the character of the doctor on his “patients” to ease with the often uncomfortable feelings of being probed and examined, however well-meaning and important the reason. Or perhaps a child going through the difficult transition of moving to a new home will pretend to pack up his belongings to bring it to his new house, a.k.a. the walk-in closet.

At the root of pretend play is the robust imagination that kids come very well-equipped with. For my toddler, his desk has morphed into a rocket, apparently the same one that the bear from one of his favorite books Mooncake takes to zoom to the moon. Encouraging pretend play boosts and reinforces their imaginations, so much so that a desk converts to a rocket that zooms, a playground into a house, or Legos into pasta (apparently the large green piece is lasagna).

And just a few minutes ago, as my toddler protested against taking his nap, did pretend play come in handy. As he sat crying on my lap with Morris in tow, I asked him, “What do you think Morris wants to do right now?” And he responded, “Play in the living room.” We then held a conversation with Morris, with me explaining how sad Morris must feel that he can’t keep playing in the living room, but that resting makes him stronger. Better yet, once the nap is done, both Morris and LO can resume their game.

My toddler sat listening to me explaining why “Morris” had to nap and only then calmed down enough to agree that maybe a nap will be okay, especially since Morris gets to play right after. He was able to channel whatever frustrating emotions he felt in a play scenario and share the burden with his fellow toys.

I’m excited to witness my toddler begin to develop pretend play and channel his emotions and strengthen his imagination. Plus, it’s just so darn cute watching him “talk” to his animals.

How has pretend play helped your kids? How do you encourage pretend play?

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Weekend links and dancing to James Brown

Weekend links and dancing to James Brown
My toddler isn’t really one to dance. He has friends who, just by hearing some music, will move their hips and shoulders while clapping their hands. My toddler—not so much. He’ll sometimes do his Flashdance “What a Feeling” foot shuffle and wave his arms when he sees people dancing to the Wii, but in general, he doesn’t really move to the beat.

All that changed a few weekends ago when my husband, toddler and I attended an art show… with a DJ. We were sitting on one of the couches when the DJ played a James Brown song. Well, apparently my toddler digs himself some funk because he sprung from that couch and started grooving on the floor, completely on his own. And it wasn’t just his Flashdance foot shuffle; he was moving arms, legs and hips!

A few days later, we were at home when I turned on some of his children’s songs and tried to initiate some dancing. And while he loves singing to them, he wasn’t in the least bit interested in dancing to Hokey Pokey. So I said, “Do you want me to play some James Brown?” And he replied, “James Brown!” And sure enough, once the music got down and funky, my toddler joined me on our dance floor. Suffice it to say I had James Brown on loop the rest of the day.

And while my toddler and I dance to some James Brown, below are a few reads I found this week:

  • First, The Wall Street Journal features a blog post discussing Women’s Success: At Work And At Home. The author takes a look at working women who choose to work and notice that most of them shoot for the top. Apparently they feel that if they don’t advance in their careers and that there’s no payoff to the hours they put in, that  they don’t see a point and will choose to be a stay-at-home mom instead.
  • Next up is a TED Talk video with babble.com publishers called Let’s talk parenting taboos which deliberates “…4 facts that parents never, ever admit — and why they should. Funny and honest, for parents and nonparents alike.” The highlight four taboos—not falling in love with your newborn at birth, feeling lonely after having a baby, talking about your miscarriage, and that your average happiness has declined since having a child. I actually have read somewhere that child-less couples tend to be happier than those with kids, but that the happiness of parents skyrockets as the children get older, particularly once they leave the house. Of course now I can’t remember where I heard that. Has anyone else heard of this?
  • And finally, The New York Times reveals A surprising risk for toddlers on playground slides. Apparently, kids sliding down sitting on a parent’s lap (instead of alone) increase their chances of injuring their legs. My kid doesn’t even like slides but I do remember taking him down on my lap once in a while. Who knew?

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My love/hate relationship with Susie Tallman and children’s songs

My love/hate relationship with Susie Tallman and children's songs-ipod
Several months ago, my toddler and I stopped by the library and sat in the children’s area. Another mom was already there, playing with her little girl when suddenly I heard the mom sing under her breath, “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was heeee…” Old King Cole is a popular children’s song, but this woman sang it in the same eerily slow and scary tune as the one that had been playing in my head. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say, “Susie Tallman is in your head, too!”

According to my iTunes, we have 7.7 hours of children’s songs we’ve somehow amassed. And we hear them—all the time, so much so that I now know the lyrics to almost every single one of those songs. I’ve learned that some words are real (“What the heck is a ‘kookaburra’?” I asked my husband), while others—’tisket’ nor ‘tasket’—are technically not. I can sing the longest name (“John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt”) and sing a tongue twister in four different speeds (“Skidamarink kadink kadink skidamarink kidoo”). And some of the songs just make me blush, like the one where a grandma sings “The Owl and Pussycat” and mentions… oh, about five hundred times how beautiful the *ahem* is.

I am mired in a web of children’s songs, all on constant loop, shuffling through our home and our cars. Hundreds of these songs have made their way into my subconscious as I sing or hum about ants marching ten by ten, how easy it is to count by tens, or why ten little monkeys were jumping on the bed.

Still, my toddler seems to enjoy these songs. He went through a phase where the song hasn’t even started yet and he was already asking, “What’s this song?” Or he would be able to identify the songs on just two seconds into it. The best part is hearing him sing the lyrics to songs I never even knew he paid attention to (unfortunately when he’s supposed to be napping). He has even convinced me to make a fool of myself and dance to “Six Little Ducks,” flapping my arms on each “quack” while he laughs hysterically at his crazy mom.

I’ve since stopped playing children’s songs exclusively, for the sake of my sanity and so that my toddler can hear other styles too. For instance, he likes songs from the Beatles, Chuck Berry, James Brown and Eddie Cochran (we figured he’d like a few songs about yellow submarines and jellybeans). We also play classical music since it sounds beautiful—and has no tongue twisters.

That said, I don’t think we’ll be giving up “The Suze,” as my husband and I affectionately call Susie Tallman and all our hundreds of other children’s songs. My toddler still enjoys listening to them, and sadly, I think I secretly like them too. That may be the reason why I will gladly dance a hip hop number to Susie Tallman’s “Buffalo Gals,” to the embarrassment of my husband and toddler.

Do you listen to children’s songs in your house?

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