Educational Toys and Baby Development Interview

Susie McGee
Sandra Gordon discusses educational toys.

Sandra Gordon is a mom of two children and the author of Consumer Reports Best Baby Products, 2007. She writes frequently about health, nutrition and parenting for books, leading consumer magazines, and Web sites, including Parents, Fitness, American Baby, and Family Circle. Sandra took the time to offer a few comments on whether educational toys work and how parents can enhance playtime so that it's a learning experience.

Is there any evidence that supports the importance of using educational toys with babies?

There's no credible supporting evidence that electronic toys that claim to stimulate infant development or creativity really work long-term. If it's a new toy, then for an hour or so, a baby or toddler is a little more alert and involved with the toy. But, you wouldn't want to make profound predictions, such as "If my baby plays with electronic toys, he'll be smarter." In fact, child development experts contend that the typical American household already provides enough sensory stimulation to make such toys unnecessary. Children will get far more meaningful stimulation from the sounds of the people, animals, and objects around them. Babies need to play with toys with their parents, or other caregivers.

What stimulates an infant?

Playing helps develop a baby's social, emotional, language, intellectual, and problem-solving skills. Batting at a mobile, giving a musical ball a shove, or transferring a rattle from one hand to another are just a few of the infinitesimal ways that play helps babies learn about the world. It also helps a child connect sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell to objects as well as recognize shapes, patterns, and colors, develop hand-eye coordination and memory, and bond with you and other caregivers. It's how your baby learns and so much more.

How can parents interact with their babies?

When you choose toys and activities that track with your child's development, you're speaking your baby's language and helping him foster cognitive and social skills he can build on. Don't give toys all the credit, however. You're a key player in the process. The most important toy is the parent and other caregivers because babies crave one-on-one social interaction and need the security it provides. The right toy, though, can make key developmental stages more fun-for your child and for you.

I recommend the following playtime suggestions for babies from newborn to around age 2.

Newborns

At this stage, babies gather information about the world through their five senses.

  • Suggested toys: Rattles and play keys with high-contrast colors that make interesting noises, musical crib mobiles with bright, primary-color objects or patterns.
  • Game Plan: For newborns, mold your baby's fingers around a rattle or key ring and have him shake it or help him make the sound. (For babies 6 months and younger, play is parent-driven; after that, your baby takes over.) Shake a rattle or keys at various points in your baby's sight lines so he'll enjoy the surprise of hearing the toy's sound from different angles. Also, have your baby grab for toys with either hand to help develop both sides of her brain; sometimes present toys on her right side, sometimes on her left.

Your baby won't show true hand dominance until age 2. Try tracking; hold a toy six to 12 inches from your baby's face, which is where babies 4 months and under see it best, with your baby sitting in your lap or lying down, and move it back and forth slowly. This technique helps develop eye coordination and vision. In time, take turns playing with the rattle to help establish the notion of taking turns, an important lesson for kids of all ages.

Four to Ten Months

Now, babies can reach for and grasp objects, move them from one hand to the other, and play with their feet. They'll reach for the source of sounds.

  • Suggested toys: Activity gyms, soft balls with music inside, musical toys, washable baby books, and toys with flaps or lids that can be opened or closed.
  • Game Plan: If your baby doesn't like tummy time (some babies don't initially), distract him with an activity gym's lights, music, and crinkle toys until he gets used to it. Also, take turns with your baby making the activity gym's elephant ear crinkle and helping her pull the giraffe's tail. Detach her favorite toys, and have her reach for them, either lying down or supported by you or a Boppy. At first, your baby might just make general movements in direction toward the object, but eventually, she'll be able to reach out and pull objects forward.

Nine to Twelve Months

Starting at about 9 months, babies play by shaking, banging, throwing, and dropping toys. They enjoy searching for hidden objects, taking objects out of containers, and poking their fingers into holes. A baby will be able to grasp objects with her fingers and put one object on top of or into another, such as a ball into a box. At around age 1, he'll also start trying to put shapes through their designated slots on a shape sorter and by 15 to 18 months, he'll have the hand-eye coordination to ace the feat.

  • Suggested toys: Lightweight balls, nesting and stacking blocks or cups with rounded edges, pop-up toys that require sliding, toggling, pulling and turning, squeeze and bath toys, soft dolls, puppets, and baby books, musical toys, toy telephones, and push-pull playthings.
  • Game Plan: Play with your child with shape-sorting toys and puzzles and hide another toy inside a nesting block to see if your baby can find it. That adds the element of surprise and builds on the concept of object permanence. You can also enrich the experience by simply helping balance the block creation when it gets too high or even just commenting ("Oh, what a big tower!"). Talking to young children as you're playing helps them assimilate words and concepts. Even though your child may not say her first words until 12 to 18 months, she's taking it all in.

Ages 1 to 2 Years

Playtime can get messy starting at age 1, when children begin to take an interest in emptying, transferring, and rearranging their environment. Turn your back and you're likely to find your toddler emptying the salt shaker, overturning the dog's dish, or upending the baby wipes. Filling and dumping are organizing skills that help your toddler experience how things work and relate to each other. They also enhance hand-eye coordination and teach basic spatial concepts like "in" and "out." Starting around 12 months, your baby may also begin walking.

  • Suggested toys: Those that encourage your child's budding ambulatory skills such as push toys; filling and dumping toys to use in the bathtub such as bathtub beakers, plastic pitchers, measuring cups and plastic spoons.
  • Game Plan: Encourage your baby's cruising confidence with plenty of praise as she pushes her way across carpeted or hardwood floors. Bath time is a good time to encourage filling and dumping by adding spoons, a plastic pitcher, measuring cups, and bath toys to the mix so your child can fill and pour without a mess.

Where can we read more about your ideas?

Check out my website at Sandra Gordon.com

Educational Toys and Baby Development Interview