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Why Toys Are Important for Child Development

Play and toys support child development. Playing  is what children do. Toys are their tools. When adults shop for tools, quality counts. We want safe ones that work well and enable us to do our best. We look for thoughtfully designed, well-made, sturdy, built-to-last products that we’ll enjoy using over and over again. All this, and more, holds true for toys.

Here’s what I have learned. Play is essential. Quality developmental toys support skill- building and, thereby, enhance play. Consequently children flourish. So what does that mean?

Safety Matters

Safety matters. Sound construction is a must. But that’s not the whole picture. The developmental age of the child matters too. Safety is a collaborative effort. Even the safest toys require adult supervision.

Manufacturers are required to label products that pose a chocking hazard. The most common reads  WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD – Small parts. Not for children under 3 years old. That’s one of six. The others apply to a toy that is or contains a small ball or a marble or, likely the most serious hazard, contains magnets.

Yet another warns that children under 8 years of age can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. That Children with balloons require adult supervision. Safety warnings alert us to hazards. Beyond that we must take into account where our children are developmentally. We do well to remember that some need more time to grow out of the habit of putting everything in the mouth. No blame, no shame. Every child develops at his or her own pace. 

Thoughtful Design and Careful Construction

Thoughtful design and careful construction are hallmarks of the best tools for  play. First and foremost these attributes reflect an understanding of child development and an appreciation of how children acquire skills while playing.

When a toy is well-made, it is not only safe, but also satisfying. It works as intended. That’s important. Just as we want our tools to perform well, children want their toys to meet their expectations. Otherwise play becomes frustrating, and the toy is cast aside.

Building Beakers

ten graduated cups for nesting and stacking

Let’s look at two toys that exemplify top-notch design and construction. These are Building Beakers and Lock a Block. Made by Ambi, both are classic early childhood toys that engage infants and toddlers in skill-building play. Moreover both are toys that support child development.

The manufacturer recommends Building Beakers beginning at 10 months old. A true developmental toy, these cups offer new ways to play as the child develops new skills. At first, I suggest offering only the smallest and the largest cups. That invites putting one inside the other, turning the larger cup upside down and watching the smaller one fall out. That’s filling and spilling, an activity the toddler will repeat over and over again.

What’s happening here? The child is experimenting. Observing when-I-do-this-that-happens. Confirming the cause and effect through repetition. Developing fine motor skills: grasp and release  while filling and wrist rotation as the child spills. When we offer words to describe such attributes as color and size of the cups, we’re encouraging language development.

Features  Make A Difference

Rolled Rims

Rolled rims are an important feature of Ambi Building Beakers. On the one hand, they make separating nested cups easier. On the other, stacking becomes more successful. When a toddler is learning to stack, eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and dexterity are only beginning to develop. Obviously stacking is challenging. Quite often the adjacent block slides off as the child attempts to place another on top of it. The rim helps hold the beakers together and makes the stack more stable.

Raised Patterns

Each cup also features a unique raised pattern on its base. These invite both visual and tactile exploration. Pressing the cups into sand, play dough or clay creates patterns and encourages creative expression. Furthermore recognizing patterns is a pre-reading skill.


Sand and water provide further opportunities for play. In the sand, the cups become molds. Two pinholes in the bottom of each beaker add another dimension to water play. The graduated sizes allow young children to explore how the cups are alike and different. All the beakers are round, but each is a different size. Small or large or big or little, short or tall. These are important math concepts learned through play. 

Lock a Block

shape sorter toy with lock and key

Lock a Block – an inclusive toy, if ever there was one – is my favorite shape sorting toy. Because all children like saying, “I did it.”  Note the high contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening. That makes “hitting the target” easier. Dropping a shape into its slot not only requires shape discrimination. It also takes eye-hand coordination and the ability to grasp and release the shape. Developing fine motor skills takes practice. Success motivates.  Lock a Block is a must for the blind and visually impaired. As well as for those with fine motor challenges.

Furthermore, three dimensional shapes drop more easily into place than shaped dowel pieces that require precise fitting. Again motivating the repetition that leads to skill-building. This shape sorter toy includes two each of three shapes, a plus that encourages one to one matching games. Furthermore naming the colors and shapes encourages cognitive and language development.

In First, Then Out

Retrieve shapes through a door on the front of the box. Permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. As the key turns, the lock clicks. Following the sequence of steps required to get the shapes out involves problem solving, memory, and concentration. Eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and wrist rotation  increase with each repetition.

Thoughtful design makes toys adaptable and versatile. More inclusive and engaging. Children naturally enjoy playing with toys that  work well. A delighted “I did it!” not only announces success but also shares the joy of achieving a goal. As they play, children build competence and confidence. Through play, children acquire the skills they need to reach their fullest potential. Toys support child development by enhancing play.

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Artistry in Alphabet Blocks

Classic Early Childhood Play

What early childhood toy is more classic than wooden alphabet blocks? Long before they are ready to learn the letters and numbers on the blocks, children engage in block play. They “fill and spill”, dropping blocks into a container, then dumping them out, again and again. They arrange blocks into a row. Progress to stacking and knocking down. Incorporate blocks into their imaginative play.

Progressive Skill Building

Their play builds fine motor skills from grasp and release to eye-hand coordination and controlled placement required for stacking. Some alphabet blocks feature simple pictures that develop vocabulary when an adult or older child supply the name of the objects. Gradually the child will associate the word with the object and begin to identify the objects by name. Only later do children begin recognizing specific letters and numerals and later still that they combine letters to make words.
Wooden alphabet blocks come in many forms, from smooth cubes with printed letters to cubes with embossed letters on the ends and printed ones on the sides. On some the letters are carved. Blocks handmade from natural hardwood stand out. My favorite are made in the United States of sustainably harvested native hardwoods.

Alphabet Blocks in Multiple Languages

Uncle Goose in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hand makes alphabet blocks in 23 languages, from the most common to the esoteric. These 1 3/4 inch basswood cubes are true artisan blocks designed by creative artists and made by master craftspeople. Four smooth sides with vibrant graphic designs reflecting the culture of the language and two with deeply debossed letters make every set an invitation to cultural awareness.

Upper and Lower Case 

English alphabet blocks are available in both upper case and lower case sets. Children may learn lower case letters more quickly than upper case because the ascenders, as in b, d, h, and t, and descenders, as in g, j, p, q, and y, make the letters easier to identify. Capital letters, by contrast, lack such visual distinctiveness. While playing with alphabet blocks in both cases, children gradually develop an interest in identifying the letters, matching upper and lower case, arranging blocks in alphabetical order, and beginning to spell their names and other simple words.

Alphabet Blocks for Inclusion

Committed to inclusive play, Uncle Goose also offers alphabet and number blocks in Braille and Nemeth math code for the blind and alphabet blocks in ASL, American Sign Language. Indispensable to children who will be learning Braille, the blocks also introduce Braille to the sighted, making children more aware and socially competent. The same applies to children learning ASL. For hearing children, learning to sign the alphabet reenforces competency and bridges gaps between the hearing and the deaf.

 Visually Appealing

Uncle Goose alphabet blocks are visually appealing, whether artfully displayed on a table or waiting in a basket for someone to come along and explore the possibilities. Designed for children three years old and up, these exquisite blocks are made for play. Beautiful alphabet blocks encourage children and adults alike to play, arranging blocks, matching letters, spelling words, whatever brings joy. The time spent playing together fosters attachments and makes fond memories.
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Balls, Blocks, and Babies

There are a multitude of distinctions for babies to discover between and among balls and blocks. What’s likely their first impression? Balls are round, blocks square? I suspect experiential learning of the difference between roundness and squareness marks the beginning of awareness. When a six month old grasps a ball between the palms of her hands and senses its roundness, she internalizes this basic attribute. Taking hold of a block, she’ll explore, with her senses, and internalize its squareness. Although lacking words to describe these concepts, she’s taking in and processing information.

stacks of wooden nursery rhyme blocksThat she uses multiple senses is important. Multi-sensory exploration leads not only to discovering more about blocks and but also to developing emerging skills. Take mouthing. Grasping and purposefully bringing a block to her mouth takes coordination. In doing so, she’s developing skills that will eventually allow her to successfully feed herself.

If the blocks are wooden, she’ll likely bang a couple together delighting in the sound. Repeatedly. Baby has discovered her actions cause reactions, and like any scientist, she needs to replicate her results. As she gains muscle control, she may vary the force of her banging and discover she can create a range of sounds, thereby developing sound discrimination.

Baby transfers both balls and blocks from one hand to the other and in stretching to reach for a ball or put down and pick up blocks, she is likely to cross her midline, an imaginary line down the center of her body. Such spontaneous crossing of the midline develops fine motor skills that strengthen hand dominance. Writing and reading both depend upon our ability to reach an arm and a leg across the center of our body to the opposite side. Crossing the midline develops our ability to track from left to right, a critical skill for reading and writing.

Just as baby delights in filling and spilling activities with balls, when she drops blocks, she’ll likely look for them on the floor. Learning object permanence, the concept that an object exists even though we cannot see it, can evolve from playing hide-and-seek while looking for a dropped block. Someone hides a block under a cover and prompts baby in a search for the missing block. Following the hints shows emerging cognitive and language skills.

We learn while playing. Play is essential. For all ages. Become an official citizen of play.

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Have An Oball, Baby!

Oball is another ball  that encourages grasping development. Variations offer different play experiences that infants and toddlers find engaging. Both are round, allowing babies to internalize the feeling of roundness. All roll, inviting visual tracking of an object in motion. What makes Oballs unique is the construction. These lightweight, hollow balls feature a surface of open circles, easy for fingers to explore and ultimately grasp.

The four inch Oball Rattle features four see-though disks containing brightly colored beads. Shaking the ball and seeing that the beads colliding against each other creates a sound is a powerful example of cause and effect. Often when a toy makes a sound in response to a baby’s action, the source of that sound cannot be seen. So the baby misses an opportunity to make a connection.


4-inch oballThe Oball  invites finger play that can become more complex as fine motor skills develop. When a child begins learning to bring thumb and adjacent finger together, a process known as pincer grasp, consider stuffing a lightweight, silky scarf inside an Oball and watch as baby explores and finds she can employ her new skill to pull the scarf out. When the silky scarf becomes too easy, replace with another more challenging fabric. Try a bandana. It’s also lightweight and thin but not likely to pull through as easily as silk. As long as the child enjoys the game, incremental challenges enhance not only fine motor development but also tactile discrimination.

Babies learn to grasp and let go as they approach their first birthday. Mastery of grasping and releasing takes practice. That’s why fill and spill games are such important skill builders. Infants and toddlers like to drop balls into a bowl or pail, box or basket, and then dump the container and repeat the process again and again and again. Developing the fine motor control and finger strength needed to latch on to and let go of an object takes practice.

 Lightweight, easy to grasp, crush, throw, catch, and chase, Oball supports early learning and skills development.      

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Play and Learn Dough

Nesting, stacking, and shape sorting contribute to a child’s understanding of attributes, those characteristics that define objects, from color, size, and shape to auditory, tactile, and visual. These play experiences develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, and language skills. So does play dough. And the play is open-ended and creative.

little boy and play dough

Working with play dough strengthens hand muscles and develops fine motor skills. Consider all the ways a child can manipulate dough using only her hands: forming a ball or a brick, rolling into a rope, smooshing, squeezing, squishing and squooshing, flattening, patting, poking, pounding, and tearing.

Tools introduce more ways to play and further develop fine motor skills. Consider rolling pins, both smooth and patterned, plastic knives, pizza cutters, and scissors, garlic presses, cookie cutters and presses. Each tool works differently, engaging and strengthening different hand muscles. Incorporating new ways to play enhances cognitive and language development.

Adding popsicle sticks, plastic straws, golf tees and pegs, found objects from a nature walk, from acorn tops and small pine cones to leaves and twigs, encourages creative explorations. Seashells, pebbles, both natural and glass ones, and bottle caps press easily into dough and invite arranging into patterns or outlines of familiar objects. Provide the provocation, step back and watch. You’ll be amazed.

One of the joys of play dough is its centering effect. Simply manipulating a ball of dough relieves stress, calming the mind and soothing the body. Play dough is beneficial to all ages. Keeping a supply on hand means being able to quickly respond to meltdowns. Kneading dough aids self regulation and focus.

Making your own play dough is easy and allows for variations in color, scent, and texture. “Variety is the spice of life,” as the saying goes, and children benefit from similar but different experiences.

You’ll find a world of choices, including gluten free, by searching recipes for making play dough, but here’s the one I learned as a parent at Pacific Oaks Children’s School decades ago. The cream of tartar is the secret to its longevity. Enjoy!

Cooked Play Dough

1     cup flour

1/2  cup salt

1     cup water

Add food coloring to water.

For more vivid colors and scent, add Kool Aid.

1     Tablespoon vegetable oil

2     teaspoons cream of tartar

Mix ingredients and heat in saucepan until ball forms.

Stored in an airtight container this dough lasts months.

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Tips for Selecting Shape Sorters

Remember the expression “a square peg in a round hole”? Immediately we understand what’s being said; someone is a misfit, an individual who does not fit within a specific group. The observation creates a visual impression. We see in our mind’s eye the misfit between a square peg and a round hole. Perhaps because as toddlers we played with one or more shape sorters and learned to “post” shapes into their corresponding spaces.

Shape sorters take many forms, and what works well for one child might not be the best choice for another. When considering shape sorters, remember that toddlers are just beginning to distinguish shapes. Limit shapes to basic ones: circle, square, triangle. The goal is to balance challenge with the likelihood of success. Acquiring skills is an ongoing process that moves forward with experience, repetition, and incremental success.

Shape sorters develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, and language skills. Rewarding matching with a distinctive sound also develops auditory awareness and discrimination. Value-added features expand play possibilities.

Children need to feel competent and confident of their skills before moving on to the next level. If a toy is too complex, the child will avoid it, and we will need to “walk backwards in our minds” to identify the missing link between where she is now and the activity we’ve offered.

With discriminating shapes, stepping back means assessing multiple skills. Does she easily grasp and release? Does she relish every opportunity to” fill and spill”? Are her eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills well developed enough for her to fit a peg in a hole? These activities come before posting shapes. The Classic Pop Up Toy is an engaging, traditional wooden toy featuring four peg figures that pop up and down on concealed springs as the child presses one after another. The removable figures can be color matched to stripes on the front of the box but that’s optional. The focus is on developing eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills required for successful posting. Matching colors and shapes are a next step.

Ambi Lock A Block is my favorite shape sorter. Features that make Lock A Block most successful to Raised rims make sorting shapes easierbeginning sorters also make it a must for inclusive play. Unique attributes that support success in identifying and matching primary colors and basic shapes include high contrast between white top and color matched, raised rim openings and three dimensional shapes that drop into place more readily than shaped dowel pieces. Retrieving shapes by unlocking a door on the front of the block adds another dimension to play. The permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. The lock clicks as the key turns, adding auditory input.


3-shapes sound emitting shape sorterA perennial favorite among the blind and visually impaired is Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter. Each shape makes a unique sound as it slides down its clear tube. The basic shapes – circle, square, and triangle – require more precise fitting than the three dimensional ones in Lock A Block, but the auditory response rewards the persistent. For children needing tactile re-enforcement, the openings for the shapes can be outlined with a Wikki Stix. When no longer needed, Wikki Stix peels off easily. Retrieve the shapes by turning Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter upside down.

When choosing a shape sorter, consider the child who will be playing with the toy. Once you’ve figured out the appropriate skill level, you’ll be able to choose confidently.

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How to Make Coloring Inclusive

Children build skills while playing. Think cause and effect, eye-hand coordination, fine and gross motor, cognitive, language, problem solving, social and more. PlayopolisToys sells toys that engage the senses and invite open-ended, child directed play.

Children learn while playing, each at his or her own pace. They explore what’s at hand, whether a puddle of muddy water after a rain or blocks. They devise, execute, assess, and adapt their plans based upon their experiences. When playing with others, children sharpen their social skills, learn to communicate, negotiate, and cooperate.

Because play builds bridges among children with diverse abilities, PlayopolisToys sells toys that appeal to and work well for a wide range of abilities and preferences. Inclusive play reduces social isolation among children with disabilities and raises awareness and acceptance of individual differences.

A classic childhood activity for enhancing fine motor skills is coloring. Raised line drawings for coloringColorSENSEation features 12 raised line drawings perfect for use with crayons, markers, watercolor, or tempera paints. Each spiral-bound book includes the printed word and Braille for each design, along with a plastic page protector. Raised lines enhance spatial awareness and give structure. Beneficial to both children and adults, ColorSensation develops eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, language, color concept, and spatial awareness skills, provides visual and tactile stimulation, and enhances social engagement. Ideal for the visually-impaired, these spiral bound coloring books benefit anyone working to develop fine motor control or who simply learns best through touch. With ColorSENSEation coloring becomes inclusive and meaningful for a wider audience.


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Tangles = Stress Relief and Joyful Play

The ultimate universal playthings, Tangles feature a series of 90 degree curves interconnected to pivot 180 degrees at each joint. Just as a Tangle has no beginning and no end, there is no end to the satisfaction children and adults alike experience when turning, twisting, bending, and coiling. Compact, lightweight, and quiet, Tangles are ideal stress relievers and fidget toys, perfect for take-along play.

Manipulating a Tangle relieves stiffness and improves flexibility in fingers and joints, a boon to anyone with arthritis. By strengthening muscles involved in fine motor control, Tangles also benefit those learning to hold a paint brush or a pencil or to play a musical instrument. Communicating by sign language requires finger flexibility and motor control, functions enhanced by Tangles.

Movement is critical to cognitive development, and Tangles invite movement. The brain is divided into hemispheres, the left and the right. Research associates linear, analytical thinking with the left hemisphere and creativity, imagination, and emotions with the right. Learning requires the passing of information through the corpus callosum, a function is not fully developed until the ‘tween years.

The motor systems inside the brain run along the right and left hemispheres. Movement allows information to pass from one to the other through the corpus callosum. The more movement, the more efficient the process. This passing of information maximizes storage and recall of information. Making a presentation? Don’t just stand there. Move around.

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Making Music – Rhythm Instruments for Young Children

We know how quickly music gets children moving, grooving, and skill building. Percussive rhythm band instruments invite kids to explore different ways to make music. In the process, they hone fine and gross motor,  auditory discrimination, and social skills. All while having fun.

large box drum for hand drumming


Rhythm Box II is an adaptation of a Peruvian cajón box-a drum designed for sitting on the top and drumming on the front with both hands. Rhythm Box II rewards experimenting with sound. Attached to the inside of the front panel is a section of wire mesh that alters the sounds made by drumming.





Plastic maracas for small hands




Egg Shakers and Mini Maracas are our two most popular shakers. Latin Percussion makes the best weighted and best sounding shakers. The eggs are easy to grasp and shake, and their Mini Maracas, called Chickitas, are perfectly sized for little hands and properly weighted for crisp tone.





Tambourine shaking improves wrist rotation

Available open or with a head, tambourines jingle too. Those who like to hold a tambourine around the rim, slip it over their wrist, or shake it against their legs need an open tambourine. Those valuing versatility choose a tambourine with a drum head. That way they have a choice: shake, shake, shake, or drum the head with fingers or open palm.





Percussion instrument for making sound of thunder




Thunder Tube issues an irresistible invitation to explore sound. Create the sound of rolling thunder and other wild and wacky sound effects. No batteries required. The sound is all in how you move your wrist.





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Week of the Young Child

April showers bring May flowers, but that depends on where you live and what the weather holds, which is anyone’s guess. Week of the Young Child, an annual celebration of NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Child, is more predictable. “Celebrating Our Youngest Learners” is being observed April 12-18.

In preparation for the week, NEAYC has posted daily themes with developmentally appropriate activities for our youngest learners. On Music Monday, children actively celebrate music with singing and dancing. Besides the physical benefits of movin’ and groovin’, music develops language, math, and social skills. The website offers music resources for parents and teachers alike, including a collection of lively songs celebrating childhood and introducing six different recording artists performing different musical styles.

Tasty Tuesday focuses on fitness and healthy eating. Cooking with children encourages healthier eating and develops fine motor skills as children scoop, pour, cut, mix, and stir. Measuring ingredients introduces math, and in following the steps of a recipe, children learn sequencing. Language and social skills develop as children learn new words and practice collaboration.

Work Together Wednesday encourages building together and offers resources exploring how play is essential for learning. Five Essentials for Meaningful Play is a must read. For more “thoughts on the value of PLAY, how we learn best, and how best to play well together,” explore Play is Essential.

Artsy Thursday focuses on the benefits of open-ended arts experiences that allow children to make artistic choices expressing their own individual preferences. In the process, children develop fine motor skills. Creativity and problem solving flourish. Think you don’t have time for art projects? To get motivated, read Meaningful Art Projects Parents Can Fit into a Busy Day.

Engaging and Celebrating Families concludes this Week of the Young Child. Resources include “Eight Tips for Making Home Made Books.” Making a book with your child can be a rewarding collaborative experience. Creating parent-made books for a child is fun and satisfying too. Whether co-authored or parent-made, homemade books are treasures to be read and re-read together.


 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play