One of the most joyful rewards of parenting is seeing your child grow and learn—and toys can be an engaging part of the journey. Better yet, thoughtfully chosen toys can actually promote skills vital to your little one’s development—in areas like creative thinking, language and literacy, early math, problem solving and social-emotional growth. Plus, several research studies have shown that hands-on, interactive toys in particular can boost cognitive skills that help contribute to success in school. 

But, with so many choices available, you might wonder, “Which types of toys are best for supporting my child’s development…but are still interesting enough to become a real favorite?” The good news is that you don’t need to be an expert to find answers to this question. Here are a few simple tips to consider as you choose toys for your child:

  • Pick toys that match your child’s interests and abilities. Before a toy can contribute to your child’s development, she must be interested in playing with it. If your kid is into dinosaurs, look for games and toys that focus on prehistoric concepts. Or if your preschooler likes building, think about incorporating a set of alphabet blocks to encourage letter and sound recognition. Also, keep your child’s age in mind when selecting the right toy. A toy should be challenging enough to be fun, but not so difficult that it’ll frustrate your child enough to stop playing with it.
  • Look for toys that are open-ended and can be used in a variety of ways. Open-ended toys like blocks, builders, building bricks and arts and crafts materials are often a great buy because they can be used over and over again—and in different ways. In a very real sense, these toys can grow with your child. Another great benefit to open-ended toys is many of them encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning in a fun and non-intimidating way. Children can use them to invent and build their very own creations—all while experiencing the design process firsthand!
  • Choose toys that spark imagination and provide opportunities for pretend play. Pretend play is a great way to develop creativity while promoting language and literacy skills at the same time. When children engage in pretend play, they build new vocabulary as they take on different characters and act out new situations. Play kitchen sets and pretend foods quickly become a home or restaurant. A toy cash register and play money can provide hours of fun as a make-believe store. Blocks and play animals, cars or other figures can encourage your child to build a miniature zoo or city.
  • Opt for toys that promote social skills and collaborative play. Toys that encourage cooperation are vital for development of social skills at a young age. Board games are obvious choices—but experiment kits, puzzles and builders are also excellent. All of these toys show children how to take turns, how to share and how to compromise. For older children, these kinds of toys provide opportunities to learn how to work together and problem solve as a group.
  • Seek out toys that encourage exploration of the real world. Toys that invite kids to explore the world around them can spark a natural curiosity and stimulate the desire to learn. A set of binoculars or a bug-catching kit will provide hours of discovery while prompting children to ask a variety of different How? and Why? questions—and you can follow up together by reading books that answer these questions. Experiment kits and science toys are great choices, too. Who knows? You might end up inspiring a budding scientist or STEM enthusiast.
  • Find age-appropriate board games that involve math and language skills. Multiples studies indicate that board games can improve math skills. For young children, playing board games provides the perfect opportunity to build counting skills as they move around a game board. While playing, they also learn how to strategize—which helps build both math and cognitive skills. There are also a number of different board games that encourage reading skills.

Good educational toys are those that capture children’s attention—and keep it. No matter which toys you choose, one of the best things you can do is get in on the fun. Set aside a block of time each day and join your child during playtime to encourage learning and bonding. Finally, remember that you know your child best—and that makes you a great judge for choosing which toys will provide the best outcome for their growth and development!

Patti Rommel is Director of Research and Development at Lakeshore Learning Materials, one of the country’s premier producers of children’s educational products. A former elementary educator, Patti leads Lakeshore’s efforts to create quality, standards-based materials for early childhood programs, elementary classrooms and homes nationwide.