Toys that Teach: Making Age-Appropriate Choices
By Angie Dorrell, M.A.

Searching for toys and materials in the various early childhood supply catalogs, local toy stores, and specialty stores is both a fun and daunting task. Some toys and materials are a better choice for young children than others, and you can make appropriate choices by doing your homework. The best toys actively engage children in many areas of development and can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the child’s interests, ability, and imagination. 

Young children are naturally curious and providing them with high-quality (which may not mean expensive) materials is important to the learning process. Toys that encourage children’s imagination help them know that the world is a diverse and wonderful place. While children may clamber for the “toy of the moment,” don’t let the hype sway your decision. Jump ropes, jacks, and blocks continue to be favorites of children everywhere.

 Learning Across the Curriculum

Through play experiences, children learn about themselves, their environment, and the people in their lives; experiment with different ways to solve problems; develop body control; practice social skills; and express their creativity. Children gain confidence as they choose toys and materials that are of particular interest to them. An environment that encourages children to make their own choices helps them feel safe, valued, adventurous, competent, and confident to take the initiative. Observe children at play over a period of time, and you’ll see higher levels of thought form in all areas of development – physical, language, social-emotional, and cognitive.  

Physical Development

Appropriate toys and materials encourage children to build muscle control, strength, body awareness, balance, and dexterity. Children preschoolers to use their creativity and and develop his fine motor skills.

Language Development

Beginning with cooing games and evolving to sophisticated language levels, such as telling stories and jokes, children develop their language skills. Providing children with age-appropriate toys gives them unique and interesting topics to talk about. Books and recordings help children appreciate words, literature, and music, and pretend play objects encourage children to talk with each other.


Children learn to cooperate, negotiate, take turns, and obey rules through play. Creative art, movement, and drama materials foster creativity, are an appropriate emotional outlet, and provide another view of life. When children put on dress-up clothes, they learn to express themselves and to be comfortable in different roles, which in turn leads to self-expression and socialization opportunities. 


Toys and materials that promote active learning motivate children to pursue their own ideas and interests enthusiastically. Many toys, for example, encourage children’s interest in concepts like same/different, patterned/planned, classifying, and sorting. Construction items help children learn about science and number concepts, and hardwood unit blocks help children learn about geometry, gravity, shapes, and balance. Children practice problem solving as they figure out how things work, and when children create with paint, they learn to mix colors and to use their own unique ideas, which helps them in exploring and discovering consequences.

Age-by-Age: Selecting Appropriate Toys

Children are amazingly resourceful and creative. They will transform cardboard boxes into space ships, stones into animals, and cardboard tubes into telephones. Children don’t need the most expensive toys and equipment for optimal learning, but there are guiding principles and helpful processes to use in evaluating and selecting the most appropriate toys and materials for young children. The following suggestions will guide teachers and parents in making appropriate toy choices. 

Infants (Birth – 18 months)

Properly selected toys provide baby with opportunities to learn about size, shape, sound, texture, cause and effect, and repetition. Here are some other infant toy selections and guidelines. 

·         Brightly colored, lightweight toys with texture encourage baby to touch and explore. 

·         Mobiles, safety mirrors, musical and chime toys, crib gyms, busy boxes, nesting and stacking toys, simple pop-up toys, bathtub toys, simple rattles, and teethers all promote baby’s learning and development. 

·         Soft, squeezable toys help baby practice grasping and reaching.

·         Push-pull toys strengthen muscles.

·         Dolls encourage baby to imitate what he sees adults doing and to make sense of his world.

·         Simple press-together bricks, blocks, or pop beads develop eye-hand coordination.

·         Children’s books – cloth, vinyl, and cardboard – enhance language development.

·         Different types of music invite baby to experience different rhythms and sounds.

Toddlers (18 months – 35 months)

Toddlers are very active and physical. They enjoy playing make-believe and imitating the adult world they see. They are not yet ready to actively play with each other, but they may choose to play beside each other. The following selections promote these skills and more.

·          Pegboards with large pegs encourage the development of gross motor skills and strengthen the pincer grasp.

·         Stable ride-on materials powered by the child increase balance.

·         Play sets with people, animals, and cars expand language skills.

·         Objects that pop up with dials, switches, and knobs teach cause and effect.

·         Simple puzzles with knobs and chunky pieces develop eye-hand coordination and help toddlers understand how things fit together.

·         Push-pull items, such as shopping carts and doll buggies, encourage walking while giving children the opportunity to imitate adults.

·         Children’s music allows toddlers to experiment with different sounds, rhythms, and patterns and increase their body awareness.

·         Dolls help toddlers make sense of their world and imitate adult behavior.

·         Large items for stringing and lacing develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills such as grasping.

·         Children’s books with simple, colorful plots and pictures expose toddlers to different speech patterns and new vocabulary. 

Preschoolers (3 – 5 years old)

Preschoolers are masters of make believe. They are interested in each other and the world around them, and they enjoy showing off their new number and alphabet skills. Below are suggested products for supporting and encouraging a preschooler’s developing skills.

·         Dramatic play items such as dress-up clothes, pretend food and dishes, and dolls help children learn to cooperate and share with others.

·         Puppets encourage preschoolers to explore the difference between fantasy and real-life and expand language skills through storytelling.

·         Sand and water toys, such as boats, funnels, pails, and scoops allow children to explore size, weight, measurement, and other science and math concepts.

·         Complex construction materials that interlock in various ways encourage preschoolers to use their creativity and math skills such as patterning, classifying, and sorting.

·         Simple unit blocks and accessories such as animals, vehicles, and furniture provide opportunities for preschoolers to balance, understand size and weight relations, solve problems, and share materials.

·         Children’s music increases preschoolers’ self-confidence and body awareness and teaches them different rhythm patterns and appropriate ways to express themselves.

·         Simple games help preschoolers understand and follow rules and learn to cooperate with other children.

·         Active equipment such as jump ropes, balls, hula-hoops, and riding vehicles lead to increased body awareness, and the development of fine and gross motor skills, balance, and self-esteem.

School Age (6-12 years old)

School-agers are influenced by peers and have a strong gender identity. Older school-age children know how to cooperate and negotiate using advanced social skills. Mastery of academic skills enables them to pursue intellectual and creative experiences. 

·         Board games teach children to follow simple rules and enhance concepts such as math and reading in a fun way.

·         Complex puzzles encourage experimentation with cause and effect, strategic thinking, and problem solving.

·         Craft materials such as clay, beads, collage materials, paint, washable inkpads and stamps, washable markers, and scissors support creative expression and aesthetic awareness.

·         Complex construction sets and accessories allow school-agers to experiment with how things fit and work together, increase their fine motor skills, and express their creativity.

·         Fitness and fun materials such as balls, beanbags, and jump ropes help children gain self-confidence, exercise, release tension, have fun with others, and develop fine and gross motor skills.

·         Nonfiction and fiction books at different reading levels reinforce reading skills and provide information about other people and cultures.  


Angie Dorrell, M.A., is director of education for La Petite Academy, one of the nation’s largest providers of early childhood education programs. She also serves as an NAEYC accreditation validator and former commissioner. She is the proud mother of two young daughters.