Choosing toys that help a baby learn, and specifically learn speech and language skills can be challenging. This article is the first in the “Best Learning Toys” series. I will outline the best learning toys for babies and give you ideas for what you can do with these toys to engage your baby. By engaging your baby and following some of my recommendations, your little one will be learning so much all while playing!
Keep in mind that it is not the toy that teaches, it is you, the parent/caregiver. This is one of the reasons why I always advise parents stay away from electronic toys for babies and toddlers. Babies learn best through interacting with others, not by listening to and looking at an electronic device or toy. So you won’t find any “educational baby apps” here.
Keep in mind, just because the manufacturer of a toy claims that it is “educational” or is great for learning, doesn’t mean much. They are trying to sell their products. I actually stay away from “educational” toys, especially for babies. The simpler the toy the better!
***For the purposes of this article “babies” refer to children under the age of 2.
7 Must Have Toys For Your Baby’s Development
These toys are presented in no particular order. Click on any of the following toy recommendations to find out how that particular toy can help facilitate your babies language development and learning!
A baby activity play mat is a must have for all new parents! I have written an entire post on play mats (or play gyms) where I go into details about the benefits of them from a language and learning perspective. I also discuss how to
choose the best one for you and your little one. If you are interested in learning more about baby activity play mats, please read that article here.
Facilitate Early Language and Learning Skills With A Play Gym:
♦ Low tech toy without many bells and whistles (although some light up when baby kicks/touches a certain part).
♦ Great for cause and effect learning – baby touches a toy hanging down and it squeaks or crinkles.
♦ The toys that hang down are typically early vocabulary words (e.g. star, ball, animal names, etc.) – talk to your baby about the items hanging down.
♦ Baby gets to practice fine and gross motor skills such as grasping, reaching and rolling over
♦ Can be used to encourage tummy time.
Learning Opportunities That Can be Found With Balls:
♦ Sounds: /b/ as in “ball” is a great first sound to work on. Make sure your baby is watching you as you say “ball” so he can see the shape of your mouth and how your lips come together. Pretty soon he will be imitating you!
♦ Concepts: Hide a ball “in” a box and then take it “out” of the box. Let your baby hear these kinds of words. As your baby gets older you can add other concepts while playing with balls, such as “over” and “under”, “in front of” and “behind”. Use the balls with other items like a basketball hoop or a tunnel. Watch the ball roll “through” the tunnel!
♦ Verbs: “throw” and “roll” are some verbs that can be used during a simple ball activity!
♦ Descriptive Words: Talk about how the ball feels. Some are soft while others are hard. Here are some more examples: smooth, rough, bumpy, squishy. You can also describe the ball based on its size: big, small, biggest, smallest, tiny, large, etc.
♦ Problem Solving Skills: Try fitting a large ball into a small box. Watch your baby to see what she does. Hide a ball under a blanket and see if she can find it. This skill is known as object permanence. A baby has developed object permanence when he realizes that an object continues to exist even if it is out of sight. A great example of how babies learn object permanence is by playing peek a boo.
♦ Social Skills: Rolling a ball back and forth is a social activity. Your baby must be watching you to see if you roll the ball to her. Then she must watch you to see if you are ready to have the ball rolled back. During this back and forth ball rolling, make sure you talk to your baby. You can say things like “it’s my turn, I have the ball” and then “now it’s your turn, here comes the ball”.
♦ Fine and Gross Motor Skills: picking up and releasing a ball, throwing, kicking, etc.
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Every baby/toddler needs a ball drop! The language and learning skills that can be targeted with a ball drop are pretty much the same as those with balls. So I won’t re-write them all here. I wrote an article dedicated to one of my favorite ball drops, the Castle Marbleworks ball drop by discovery toys! In that article I go into quite a bit of detail regarding the language and learning opportunities that can be created with a ball drop. You can read that article here.
One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is some ball drops come with clear balls with objects inside of them. You can talk to your baby about the object inside of the ball (usually an animal) to enhance vocabulary. Some ball drops also come with animals in addition to balls. The animals can go down the “slides”. The Kidoozie Super Spiral Play Tower (pictured below), for example comes with 2 balls as well as a penguin and a frog.
Balls and ball drops also present an opportunity to talk to your child about different colors as each ball is usually a specific color. However, try not to teach or test your baby. Keep your interactions as natural as possible. You can say “I have the green ball”, but don’t always ask your baby to show you a specific color. This is fine to do here and there, but don’t go overboard.
Toy phones are wonderful for babies. One of the first things a baby most likely sees (probably minutes after his arrival into the world) is a parent talking on a phone. Seeing someone talking on a phone is a regular occurrence
nowadays. If they aren’t talking on it, they are typing on it. Babies observe everything around them. This is how they learn. Babies also want to be like their parents and will imitate things that their parents do. This can be a good reminder to watch what you do and say in front of your baby, toddler and even older child.
Using A Toy Phone For Skill Building:
♦ Social Skills: Talking on the phone is a social activity. You can say greetings such as “hello” and “bye” while you pretend to talk on the toy phone. Perhaps your baby/toddler will try to imitate you. It is also a good opportunity to learn about conversations and the flow that back and forth communication has.
♦ Intonation: When talking on the phone your voice will change depending on the topic of conversation. Emotions such as happy, sad, angry, excited, scared can all be heard in the tone of someone’s voice. A baby will pick up on this. This can be seen when a baby puts a toy phone to her ear and starts to “talk”. It may be complete gibberish, but the intonation and inflection will be there. If you have more than one toy phone in the house, you can have one to your ear while your baby has the other. Have some “phone” conversations with your baby. If your baby says something (even if its not an actual word/sentence), respond back as if you have understood. Carry on
a conversation as if it was with a friend. Your little one will have a great time with this!
♦ Vocabulary: hello and bye, open and close (assuming it is a flip phone), on and off (assuming it has batteries), questions such as “who`s there?” or “who are you talking to?”
♦ Motor Skills: picking up and releasing the phone, isolating a finger to push a button, etc.
♦ NOTE: Some toy phones that I have seen are more like small “tablets” for kids and are marketed as an educational toy. I am not talking about these kinds of phones here. The simpler the phone is the better. They will all have buttons to push and sounds will be made, but as long as they don’t have any “apps for learning” it’s a great toy phone for the purposes we are discussing.
Stuffed animals for babies and toddlers are a great way to introduce pretend play! Unfortunately not all children will become attached to their “stuffies” but they are still great to have around. My son and daughter have had many great moments and lots of imaginary play with their 2 favorite stuffed animals, Seeme and Liz (which happens to be who this site is named after). They each have about 10-15 stuffed animals and they all get played with, however Seeme and Liz are their sidekicks.
Fun Ways To Use Stuffed Animals To Enhance Language and Learning!
♦ Vocabulary: label the stuffed animal (bear, dog, cat, etc.) – if it has a nickname, use that name but also point out what kind of animal it is. Stuffed animals are also great for labeling body parts such as: eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tummy, and feet.
♦ Early Pretend Play: show your baby/toddler how you can feed the bear, as they get older they will start doing this on their own. You can also give the bear something to drink. Or maybe he is tired and needs to go to sleep. Lay him down and cover him with a blanket. There are all kinds of adventures the bear could go on. Keep in mind, your baby won’t start trying to do these things until he is about a year old or even a bit older. Narrate what you are doing while you are doing it so your baby is exposed to new vocabulary words.
♦ Peek A Boo: Playing peek a boo is a fun and engaging way to interact with your baby. Involve a stuffed animal in peek a boo. Have the bear hide and then pop out from behind a chair. Your baby will soon be trying to imitate you.
If you are interested in learning more about how great stuffed animals are from a language and learning perspective please click here.
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Nesting cups (or stacking cups) seem like such a simple toy, but there is so much than can be done with them. My children had the Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Stack & Roll Cups (as seen in picture below). We loved these ones because you could take two of the “cups” and put them together to make a ball. You can also put the little yellow ball with the face inside the larger ball you have made and listen to it rattle around. Or place the yellow “face” on the top of the cups once they have been stacked to make it look
like a person!
Language And Learning Tips For Nesting Cups
♦ Colors: Most nesting cups are different colors. So when you and your child are playing with the cups, you can label the colors.
♦ Prepositions: You can put other items “in” a cup and then take it “out”. You could also talk about “on” and “under” by hiding smaller objects.
♦ Counting: Count the cups as you stack them. However, don’t make counting or colors your focus with this activity.
♦ Size Concepts: Find the biggest cup and then look for the smallest. You can also talk about “big, bigger, biggest”. These concepts are more suited to an older toddler, but it is ok to still use these words when playing with your baby. However, keep it natural. You don’t want to “teach” your baby all the time.
♦ Problem solving: A big cup won’t fit inside a smaller cup, however a small cup will fit inside a larger cup. Watch and see what your baby does with these. If he is struggling, show him how the cups should stack and nest.
♦ Object Permanence: Hide smaller toys in a cup and turn it upside down. See if your child remembers which cup the toy was hidden under.
♦ Fine Motor/Gross Motor: Picking up cups, banging them together, placing small cups inside large cups, letting go of cups, etc.
But don’t be surprised if your little one simply enjoys banging the cups together! Remember, let your child lead and see what happens.
Shape sorters are another great first toy! However, I encourage you to not look at a shape sorter simply as a way to learn the names of different shapes. While that is certainly important as a child gets older, it is not necessary for a baby/toddler.
Skills Babies Can Learn While Playing With a Shape Sorter!
♦ Problem Solving: It can be challenging, especially for a child under 12 months, to get a shape into the right cutout. A good way to help your child without actually giving them the correct shape would be to give them 2 choices so they aren’t overwhelmed with shapes to choose from. As your child gets older, add another choice.
♦ Colors: Most shape sorters have colored shapes. You can label these colors. As I mentioned in the nesting cup section, do not make this a focus with young children. Just include the color names as part of your conversation when playing with this toy.
♦ Counting: Count the shapes and see how many there are! Again, just as with colors, don’t focus too much on the counting with a baby.
♦ Sorting: Most shape sorters come with several different different colors of the same shape. Find all of the triangles and put them in. Then find all of the squares, etc. Or find all of the “red” shapes.♦
♦ Opposites: Once all the shapes have been put into the sorter talk about how it is “full”. Then dump them out to see what it looks like when it is “empty”.
♦ Shapes: I would really only focus on the basic shapes: square, triangle, circle, rectangle, star. But even then, as I previously mentioned, this should not be a goal with a baby.
When choosing a shape sorter try to find one without any batteries. My daughter was given a “talking shape sorter” as a gift and I ended up taking the batteries out. The toy talked too much! It counted, it named shapes and it sang some songs. An interesting study has been done that looked at young children who were interacting with their parents while playing with an electronic shape sorter. You can read more about this here.
Toy Choosing Basics
Educational toys for infants should be simple and low tech. The fewer bells and whistles the better! Everything is new to a baby so everything is stimulating to him. You don`t need toys adding to that stimulation which in turn may lead to over-stimulation.
I hope this list helps you when trying to find some of the best learning toys for babies! If you have any of these toys in your house, let me know how you are using them and which one your baby likes the best!