I haven't done a toddler specific guide before but I felt like it was really important this year. When you think about it, toddlers are entering a whole new world and even if they were born before Covid they don't remember life before it. One of the things I am seeing a lot with my younger kids is a lot of sensory seeking behaviors so I am including some gift ideas to help with that. The other thing I am noticing is that this particular group of kids hasn't really known anyone outside of their circle of people without masks so I am also including a handful of toys and games that will work on feelings, emotions and being able to read facial expressions. And each and every one of these toys will also help with the development of fine motor and grasping skills as well as improve visual motor and visual perceptual skills.
1. The Hope Learning Tray-sensory play is so important for little hands and overall development. I've always been so jealous of those who don't live in the city who can set up elaborate sensory play set-ups for their children but that is not always possible for people. That's where this sensory tray comes into play. This beautifully designed and very sturdy sensory tray is perfect for all children and can be used in a million different ways. My 11-year old uses hers for jewelry making and I use it at the office for all kinds of sensory play such as water beads, kinetic sand, play dough and so much more. Pictured here is the limited edition Winter Sensory Kit which comes fully stocked with homemade play dough, snowmen peg dolls, stampers and SO much more.
2. Learn A-Lot-Avocados -I am a sucker for any toys that have a built in a social-emotional component so when I saw these I fell in love. Kids can work on developing fine motor skills, increase grasp strength and manipulation skills in addition to color matching while also learning about feelings and emotions. In this set of 4 avocados that are perfectly sized for toddler hands, kids work on bilateral coordination and manipulation skills by pulling them apart. Once they are open, kids can work on matching the colors inside. Each avocado has a spinning pit inside with two emoji-style faces that change which is great for working on labeling and talking about a variety of feelings and emotions. Another added bonus, this comes with a storage case which makes clean-up a breeze.
3. Wobbel Board-this is what I call an investment toy because it has a big price tag but will last for years and years. I have always had a balance board in my office and when Covid, lockdown and remote therapy began, I needed to give families ideas of what they could get to not only assist during therapy sessions, but to offer a safe movement option for kids during their remote school day. The Wobbel Board is something that will last forever and can be used to provide sensory input to help with improving focus and attention, works on improving overall body strength, balance and coordination skills. Be sure to check out the WobbelCards that are free and in a bunch of languages.
4. Plus Plus Big Picture Puzzles-I am a huge fan of the original Plus-Plus blocks and was really happy when they created these larger blocks for little hands. This set of blocks can be used as an open-ended building toy or you can use the 60 different color Plus Plus blocks and complete the puzzles on the cards. Each card has two sides with the same picture but one has lines for the kids to match the blocks up to and the other side is free-form. Great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination and visual motor and perceptual skills.
5. Fine Motor Peacock Pals-Learning Resources has so many great toys for early learning and these peacocks are definitely one of my favorites.Young children work on building hand strength and manipulation skills while pulling out and replacing the peacock's feathers. Kids can work on matching the correct color feathers to each bird or mix and match. One of my favorite features of this toy is how the feathers are all different textures so children can work on sensory and tactile exploration while also encouraging bilateral coordination and visual motor and visual perceptual skills.
6. Peekaboo Lock Boxes-this is one of my all-time favorite purchases from Norman and Jules and my kids love it as well. This is a shape sorter on steroids because it so much more than just matching shapes. It works on developing fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, works on learning colors and shapes and encourages problem solving and motor organizational skills. This six box set comes with a tray which kids have to match the colored boxes to. Additionally, each large and durable box has a different kind of fastener which kids have to problem solve how to open and close. I love watching the kids figure out different ways to play with the boxes once they put the shapes in. One of their favorite things to do is build a big rainbow tower with them which is great for working on increasing overall body strength and coordination.
7. Silly Sortin' Monster Puzzle-another fun game that will help your little ones develop fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills in addition to developing hand-eye coordination and visual motor and perceptual skills. This comes with four colorful shapes for sorting, a spinning roller with three funny facial expressions (great for working on identifying feelings and emotions for these little ones who have spent most of their life seeing people in masks) and feet that move up and down when they grab them. This toy is great for working on tactile and sensory exploration
8. Sesame Street MagnaTiles-Magna-Tiles are easily one of the biggest hits at my gym and always make my holiday gift guides. The benefits of these open-ended building blocks are endless but include encouraging imagination and creativity, problem solving and organizational skills. Additionally, they are great for developing fine motor and grasping skills, improves bilateral coordination and hand-eye coordination. When I discovered these Sesame Street Ones (which are compatible with all other of our other MagnaTiles) I had to get some of them. There are many to choose from but the Cookie Monster set is a favorite of mine. Kids can help build a giant cookie for Cookie Monster using the tiles. One of my favorite features of this set is that kids can work on learning and matching the shapes that are on the cookies.
9. Pop-Up Toy-simple but very satisfying wooden toy for little hands that works on matching and cause and effect. Children can also work on developing hand-eye coordination, bilateral coordination and grasping skills when playing with this toy. They quickly discover that if the push down hard enough on each of the peg people once they are in their spot that they will pop out of the box. While so many think kids are much more motivated by the toys that light up and have all kinds of sounds, I find that those kinds of toys become overstimulating for children fairly quickly and that they seem to hold their attention and focus for these simple toys for much longer.
10. Monkey Around Game-Peaceable Kingdom has been my go-to for early childhood games for years. First of all, they are typically super easy to learn how to play and are incredibly well made which is great for those sometimes little and destructive hands! What I love about Monkey Around is it is a movement game which I think is really important at this age. Sitting down and playing a game can be challenging for 2 and 3 year olds but add movement and you'll find they will be super successful. In this non-competitive game, kids work together to place all the bananas on the tree. The directions are very simple: take a card, do the action pictured (some are solo and some are done together) and place the banana on the tree. Playing Monkey Around works on the following developmental skills: improves gross motor skills such as motor planning, balancing and coordination skills, works on identifying body parts and works on developing social emotional skills such as turn taking, working together and being a good sport.
11. Stampies-these interchangeable stamps are great for little hands and can be used in a variety of ways. I plan on using them at work with play dough and stamp pads but they would be great for baking as well. Each set comes with a wooden stamper perfectly sized for toddler hands and 15 food-grade silicone animal stamps. In addition to learning about all kinds of animals, kids work on developing fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, increase grasp strength, work on visual motor and perceptual skills and improve bilateral coordination skills. Use this with your favorite play dough or make it even more therapeutic by making your own play dough.
12. Zingo Matching Game-this is another one of those super simple games that packs a powerful developmental punch. The game is a child-friendly version of Bingo where kids will increase their vocabulary while working on developing visual motor and visual perceptual skills, matching skills and improving hand-eye coordination. The kids love when it's their turn and they can slide the Zinger tile holder (which is great for developing fine motor and manipulation skills) to reveal two tiles and then the race for the players to grab tiles that match pictures on their board. Playing games with kids at home, and playing fairly, is crucial for developing healthy peer relationships. I always encourage parents to play fairly when at home so kids learn how to be both a good winner and a good loser when they are playing with friends.
13. Easel-this is another one of those investment pieces but one that will last forever. My daughter got an easel for her first birthday and used it for years and years. I encourage getting one that has multiple options such as a magnetic dry erase board, chalkboard and one that has a rod on top to hold a roll of painting paper. Working on an upright surface such as an easel is really great for development and helps with increasing upper extremity strength and encourages appropriate grasp on writing instruments.
14. Ooly Art Supplies-Ooly is my go-to art supplies company. If you were to come to my office you would see that I have tried just about everything of theirs. I believe that good and well-made art supplies are important in encouraging creativity and interest in drawing, coloring, etc. with little kids. One of my favorite gifts to give young children is a collection of art supplies. Below, I will list a handful of my favorite Ooly products perfect for those little hands:
a. Mighty Mega Markers-these brightly colored markers are a perfect height and width for little hands. I find young kids, especially those with decreased grasp strength, are much more successful when using markers because it doesn't require as much work on their end. Because these markers are thicker than most, they encourage children to use a more appropriate grasp on the marker.
b. Brilliant Bee Crayons-I always encourage parents/educators/caregivers to use smaller, triangular crayons with young kids in order to encourage a proper grasp on crayons. If you find that your kids are still using more of a fisted grip when holding these crayons, make a game out of it and break the crayons into smaller pieces. The smaller the crayon, the more likely it is they will use a tripod-like grasp.
c. Chunkies Paint Stix-these are great for kids who have decreased grasp strength as they don't require a lot of pressure to make marks on paper. These brightly colored stix are easy to hold, dry easily and are far less messy than traditional paints.
15. Suction Cup Animal Toys-I have shared Squigz suction cup toys every year on my gift guide and while I still love them and gift them to so many people, I have become obsessed with these creature toys. This 36-piece set of animals comes in an adorable and convenient egg-shaped storage container. These cute little suckers can stick to each other and a variety of surfaces including windows, mirrors, bath tub walls, high chairs and so much more. Kids work on improving fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, improve hand-eye coordination and improve play and imagination skills.
16. Lalaboom Snap Beads-pop beads or snap beads (whatever you call them) have been a staple in my closet for years and years but I got rid of my traditional pop-beads when I discovered these. This set of snap beads not only works on bilateral coordination by pushing together and pulling apart the large beads, each bead is two pieces that kids can twist and turn to mix and match with other beads which is awesome for the development of fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills. Each part of the beads offers a different tactile experience which is awesome for little hands and they are BPA-free so if you have a teething kiddo, you don't have to worry about them putting them in their mouths.
17. Inny Bin-I truly love this baby toy and wish I had had it at the ready for when my daughter was little. Leave it to Fat Brain Toys to come up with a simple but brilliant toy that encourages sensory exploration, object manipulation and problem solving for your babies. The Inny Bin comes with 6 shapes with varying textures which they have to pull out and push back into the bright colored elastic bands. What's really nice about this toy is that you can use whatever objects you want and that you know will motivate your curious little ones. I have put Frozen figurines, trains and cars and other character toys in it and it's always worked like a charm!
18. Busy Poppin' Pals Pop Up Toy-cause and effect toys are timeless and should be part of every babies toy choices. Introduce this toy to babies while they are in tummy-time and do hand-over-hand assistance for the five buttons. Babies and toddlers learn about problem solving, cause and effect and grasping and manipulation skills as the figure out how each animal comes out of their boxes. I love that this toy is still around and have witnessed the joy it continues to bring kids after all of these years! I remember having the Sesame Street one as a child and am really happy that simple cause and effect toys are still being made.
19. Jaq-Jaq Bird Reusable and Erasable Paper and Markers-over the last couple of years, I have begun to be more conscious of how much paper I use during my sessions and have been trying to alternate ways to have kids practice drawing and writing. I have been so happy with this reusable/erasable and feel better that I am not throwing away tons of paper every day. The set comes with 10 pieces of double sided sheets of paper that you can use chalk markers, gel crayons, traditional chalk or the Jaq Jaq Wishy Washy Markers. These clean easily with a wet paper towel or a baby wipe. The paper is lightweight and durable so it's perfect for on-the-go entertainment to keep kids busy while waiting for an appointment, out to dinner or while traveling.
20. Multicultural Alphabet Peg Dolls-SOOOO obsessed with this peg doll set and just might have to add it to my work collection! I have a set of rainbow peg dolls at work and it's one of the most asked for toys to play with. While many still believe in teaching the alphabet to young ones the traditional way like flashcards, I believe that kids learn better through play and exploration. So when I stumbled on these peg dolls, I knew that they were going on this year's list. The set includes 26 peg dolls with uppercase letters on one side and lowercase on the others and comes in 6 different skin tones. Another investment piece that your children will go back to for years and. years. Be sure to check out all of the beautiful products from this Etsy store owner, Twenty-two Turtledoves. In addition to working on learning and identifying upper and lowercase letters, playing with peg dolls encourages creativity and imagination skills.
I have tried to link some of my favorite local toy stores whenever I could as I have always found it very important to support our local businesses but even more so now. Many of the items listed above are ones that I have seen in most toy stores I have visited all over the place. And since are all hearing about shipping nightmares and problems with supply chain, why not take out some of the stress and support your local stores where you don't have to worry about toys arriving on time. If you are shopping for family members who are not local, find out their local toy stores and see if you can shop from there. If you are in the NYC area, be sure to check out the following stores: Lulu's Cuts and Toys, Little Things Toy Store, Norman and Jules, Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store, West Side Kids, Stationary and Toy World, Mary Arnold Toys, Kidding Around Toys and Boomerang Toys.
If you are looking for specific ideas for your kids or kids on your shopping list, please do not hesitate reaching out to me for suggestions. I have so many more thoughts on great gifts for the important toddlers in your life. I am only an email away at firstname.lastname@example.org and love to hear from and help in any way I can.