Advice comes from all directions: “Don’t give your baby toys—he’ll be spoiled.” “Give your baby lots of toys—they develop his brain!”

Sound familiar and confusing? As a new parent, you’re constantly bombarded with conflicting advice, which can leave you exhausted and overwhelmed. Your baby’s ready for some playthings, but you don’t want to spoil him—so what’s a parent to do?

There’s truth in both sides of this debate. Your baby will indeed learn from the things he plays with—and with a variety of toys to tinker with, he’s bound to learn a lot. With the prospect of a baby Einstein on the brain, many parents spend a pretty penny buying toys, only to have their child lose interest in his state-of-the-art playthings three or four days later.

When approached with an open mind, toys can be great teachers in your little one’s life, engaging him with the world by using all five of his senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Between your little one’s favorite set of blocks, push and pull toy and board books, he’ll:

  • learn how to control his movements and body parts
  • figure out how things work
  • figure out how he can control things in his world
  • learn new ideas
  • build muscle control, coordination, and strength
  • get the hang of using his imagination
  • determine how to solve simple problems
  • learn how to play by himself
  • set the foundation for sharing and cooperating with others

The Trouble with Technology

You may think that getting your baby cutting-edge electronic toys could give him a leg up in today’s wired world, but playthings boasting flashing lights, sounds, moving parts and music could actually damage your budding learner’s developing ability to imagine and manipulate. If a toy does everything by itself, it loses its potential as a tool for developing creativity. Also, if your little one gets used to these toys, then simple pleasures like wooden blocks seem boring by comparison because he expects the blocks to play for him—and those simple toys are among the very best for baby playtime.

Instead of purchasing the tech toy equivalent to an iPad for your baby, look for these qualities the next time you’re shopping:

  • Long-term play value. Let’s face it—no one likes to waste money, so ask yourself: will this hold your little one’s attention for more than a few weeks? If the answer’s no, shelve it. You’d be much better off giving him a plastic bowl and wooden spoon than spending a fortune for something that’s bound to lose his interest.
  • Durability. It’s no secret that your child will put his rattle through the ringer, so it’s crucial that you make sure your purchase will hold up when sat on, thrown, jumped on, or banged. However, skip test-driving in the store—most kid-friendly places still operate with the “you break it, you buy it” rule.
  • Solid simplicity. Sure, a box of colorful blocks may not captivate you for long, but you’re an adult. Examine the toy from your little one’s viewpoint. Babies don’t need complicated toys, so avoid over-stimulation be sticking with something simple.
  • Challenge. Age-appropriateness is one of the most common reasons babies lose interest in toys, so keep your little one interested by choosing playthings that are slightly above his skill level—but not so hard that he’ll be crying in frustration.
  • Interactiveness. The only way to benefit from play is to get involved! Does this toy engage your child—or just entertain him as he watches passively? If your baby’s interacting with his plaything, he’s an active part of the learning process.
  • Versatility. Can your baby play with this in more than one way? A set of plastic animals can become a farm, a zoo, a tool for sorting by color, size or type, or they can decorate a block structure or be the characters in a story…the possibilities are endless.
  • Washability. Between crawling through the sandbox, a trip to the grassy park, a lunchtime companion on a messy high-chair tray and everything in between, well-loved toys tend to get very dirty! Pick an option that’s easy to clean to keep your child germ-free and healthy.
  • Fit with your family value system. Does this toy reflect your family’s particular values? For example, is the toy friendly to the environment? Does it promote diversity? Are you comfortable with what the toy represents?
  • Novelty. Variety is a tried-and-true way to hold attention, so mix up the toy box! Make sure you purchase playthings that are different from others your baby already has, to avoid ending up with 30 different kinds of rattles.
  • Fun appeal. As a parent, sometimes the call of duty requires you to roll up your sleeves and plop down on the floor to play—so make sure that you’re into tinkering with whatever you buy. Toys that encourage you to play along with your baby are ideal.

Throughout your little one’s childhood, play will play a central role in shaping his development, honing important skills and setting a foundation for a lifetime of learning. Shop using the tips outlined below, and you’ll ensure your baby gets the most benefits toys have to offer.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.