If you are a parent of a young child, we have excellent news for you. Young children learn through play! They don’t need in-depth instruction in colors, letters, numbers, or most anything you can imagine. In most cases, babies, toddlers, and the preschool set learn much of what they need to know by exploring their environment independently and with a caring adult. A child’s environment is anything in their range of experience—their meals and bedtime routines, their time outdoors, the people they see, and, of course, the toys and materials provided for them to explore.
We asked Emily Newton, Ph.D., to select her favorite toys that enrich early learning. Emily is a child development researcher specializing in infant/toddler care, early childhood education, and kindergarten readiness. Emily also leans on her expertise as a parent of two young children. The toys Emily selected for this post all offer engaging opportunities for your child to learn through play! Now, let’s dive into her picks.
The Plan Toys Beehives is a great way to practice color matching. As your child discovers that each bee has a matching hive, they are also learning to recognize each color. As you name the colors with them as they play, they connect the words to those colors! If your child uses the tweezers to put the bees into the hives, they exercise and strengthen the same muscles they use to draw, paint, and write. Though fun to play with independently, the Plan Toys Beehive can also work with multiple players. Early games like this one are rich with opportunities to practice essential social and emotional skills, like taking turns, waiting, and learning how to succeed and fail with grace. All of these require practicing self-regulation, or the ability to control your reactions and behavior. Preschoolers are just learning these skills, so it’s great to practice them before encountering kindergarten’s social and emotional expectations.
Eco Dough All Natural Play Dough (3+)
Eco Dough provides an excellent opportunity to explore the concept of representation (the idea that one thing can represent another thing), which is a big part of learning to read. When your child plays with Eco Dough, they can practice making something that represents another object—like making a dough butterfly representing a real butterfly. Understanding representation can help children understand that symbols, like letters and numbers, represent concepts, like sounds and quantities.
This Eco Dough is also helpful for color learning. As your child hears you name these colors, they’ll start to associate the color names with the dough colors. As they continue to explore, they may notice that blending specific colors makes new colors. Red and blue make purple! Yellow and blue make green! Playing with Eco Dough can also help your child understand the concept of “conservation of mass”— the fact that the quantity or volume of something doesn’t change even if you change what it looks like. If you make a ball of dough and then squish it, it is still the same amount of dough. It may look bigger when flattened, but it is still the same! This concept takes years to learn, as your child’s maturing brain processes experiences with materials like Eco Dough.
Haba Shakin’ Eggs
These Haba Shakin’ Eggs aren’t your everyday egg shakers. Each egg makes a unique sound, and one even twists! When young children grasp and shake them, they strengthen both their fine motor skills (little hand and finger muscle movements like grasping) and gross motor skills (large muscle movements like swinging their arms). They are also learning a crucial science concept—cause and effect. They observe that their actions can cause reactions by shaking the egg and hearing the sound it produces. Likewise, different motions and speeds can yield differing results. Rolling the egg may create a softer, slower sound. Finally, the same actions can cause different reactions with different objects, like how each egg makes its own sound when moved in the same way.
Though it might not be obvious, experience with music can also help your child practice their early math skills. Practicing a steady beat with a rhythm instrument like these eggs can help children internalize counting, that each number or beat is one more. And making different rhythms along to a song can help them recognize and learn to make patterns, a foundation for many future math concepts!
Animal Alphabet Flash Cards
Emily isn’t always a big fan of flashcards because they are often used to quiz children, and quizzing young children isn’t how they learn. But these beautiful alphabet cards from Wee Gallery offer so many more opportunities for learning beyond quizzing. First, these cards are perfect for newborns. Newborns see high contrast images the best. A few of these black and white drawings propped near an infant or spread out on the tummy time mat will hold their attention and help strengthen their visual system.
As your child gets older, you can name the animal images on the cards they point to or pick up, helping grow their vocabulary. If you have animal toys that match the cards, you can play a fun matching game with them to help them learn animal names in an engaging way. As your child enters the preschool years, they can associate the words for each animal with the beginning sounds and link those sounds to the letters. These cards have both upper and lower case letters so that your child can start to associate them together—a big task in preschool and early elementary school. These cards offer continuous opportunities for learning from infancy through school-age!
Organic Girl/Boy Waldorf Dress-Up Dolls (3+)
Getting a doll dressed and undressed can be challenging for little hands. These Organic Waldorf Dress-Up Dolls have flexible arms and legs, helping children bend them through the clothes’ holes. While they are doing this, they strengthen the hand and arm muscles that they will later use when writing with a pencil! They are also practicing a life skill that is important for everyday experiences—getting themselves dressed and undressed.
Of course, these beautiful dolls also provide pretend-play opportunities that strengthen imagination and encourage the development of problem-solving skills. As children act out the things they’ve experienced with their doll, like going to the doctor or playing with a friend, they are practicing what they can expect to happen in those situations (known as “scripts” or “schemas”) and working through their feelings about them. This practice will help them to feel safer and more secure in those situations. It can also help them build the cognitive, social, and emotional skills they’ll need to problem-solve.