Help toddlers learn through play

Kids need toys that spark their imagination—not ones with batteries


Diana Oleszczuk


Ten tips Whether they’re nibbling away on the plastic food, setting the table, buttoning up dresses or rocking baby dolls, the toddlers at Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago are pros at acting like their moms and dads.

"Our biggest thing here is housekeeping," says Toria Horton, who supervises the toddlers, ages 15 months to 3 years.

And playing, especially playing pretend, is an essential development tool at this age, says Jennifer Leigh, who runs the center. "There’s so much that goes on in the first three years of life."

Toys are also important because they facilitate interactions with other kids and adults, says Stevanne Auerbach, an author and toy expert also known as Dr. Toy. Her most recent book is Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ* (*Play Quotient), $14.99 at www.

Holiday shopping means sifting through piles of new toys full of bells and whistles and promises to enlighten your child. Keep these tips in mind before you shell out the cash:

1 Stick with old favorites. At the Robertson Center, traditional toys such as blocks, trains, dolls, kitchen sets and dress-up costumes outlast the shiny, plastic, battery-powered gadgets, say Leigh and her coworker, Katherine Falen. They don’t even stock battery-powered toys anymore. They want kids to play with the toys rather than the toys playing with the kids.

When it comes to new toys, "There are a lot of things that look nice but don’t stand the test of a lot of kids," says Auerbach, who also operates a Web site,, detailing her top toy picks for kids.

2 Stimulate their senses. Give babies and toddlers toys that intrigue them by sight, touch or sound. "They’re experiencing the world through eyes, hands and feet, in a very sensory way," says Gillian McNamee, a professor at Chicago’s Erikson Institute. Water, Play-Doh and sand engage kids because the materials are interesting and different, she says.

3 Buy toys you can stand. In the same way toddlers toss their spaghetti-stained spoons off the high chair again and again, they’ll repeat play. "Play is the opportunity to practice," Leigh says. "It’s trial and error." So decide whether it would be easier on your nerves to hear the periodic crash of a tower of wooden blocks collapsing or the regular incantations of the mechanized alphabet contraption repeating, "Find the letter."

4 Help them develop muscles. If your toddler is starting to walk, look for miniature lawn mowers and other toys that will encourage him to pull himself up and strengthen his leg muscles. Eye muscles are also important—younger toddlers and babies are attracted to bright colors and mirrors since their eyesight isn’t fully developed yet.

5 Look for quality. Toddlers are into everything, so durability is key, Auerbach says. Look for sturdy construction and test the moving parts. Companies such as BRIO, Fisher-Price, Playskool, Tiny Love, Little Tikes and Discovery Toys have reliable products, she says.

6 Safety first. If it can fit inside a cardboard toilet paper roll, keep it away from small children. Also watch out for sharp edges, strings and latex or plastic wrapping. Even if a young toddler can play with big-kid dolls and trains, check the box to make sure the age range matches up—often, those ages refer more to safety than intellectual ability, Auerbach says. And before you buy, check for recalls at or read the recall roundup in Chicago Parent or online,

7 Don’t rush to spend money. "Every household already has all the toys an infant or toddler needs," McNamee says. Tape up cereal boxes and oatmeal containers to make drums, offer old clothes for dress-up, let kids make music with pots and wooden spoons or show them how to perform in front of a big mirror.

Kathy Hymson, Oak Park mom of Nicholas, 3, believes in the teaching power of Mother Nature. "We have gotten a lot out of just walking around our neighborhood—identifying neighbors, landmarks, picking up rocks, leaves and sticks, looking at birds and dogs and talking about different sounds and things in the sky and how the weather is different from one outing to the next," she writes in an e-mail.

8 Parents are a kid’s first big toy. "[A toy] facilitates play, but it doesn’t substitute for you," Auerbach says. Talking, singing and teaching nursery rhymes also develops kids’ language skills, McNamee says. "Infants respond so well to the voices of their caregivers. Enjoy the language as if it were delicious and fun."

9 Encourage imagination. Toddlers are just beginning to use their imaginations. Encourage that with dolls, animals and trains. "I’ve seen children completely walk into fantasy and put their toys to sleep," McNamee says. Books serve the same purpose. And these skills are precursors to abstract thinking, says Joan McLane, a professor at Erikson.

10 Test drive a toy. This is Heidi Gassel’s approach. The Oak Park mom of two lets her kids play with toys in a store or at a friend’s house. If they lose interest quickly, she crosses those toys off the list.

And don’t forget to relax. Play should be fun, says McLane. "[Kids] learn all kinds of things during play because they don’t have to worry about failure. This kind of freedom lets them try out different things."

Diana Oleszczuk is a senior psychology and journalism major at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a former Chicago Parent intern.

Kids Eat Chicago

Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint