During the toddler and preschool years, children experience change at a pace and depth that is unequalled during any other stage of life. Their capacity for awareness, relation and the production of meaning undergoes expansion on an exponential level. As such, children must reorganize themselves constantly and they do so in two primary ways: through their relationships with their caregivers and through play.

Some theorists regard play as a child’s work: the way she actively engages the tasks of a particular stage of development. Others regard play as natural phenomena: a means of organizing experience and practicing expression that is intrinsic to the human psyche. However you view your child’s play as a parent, it’s likely that you’ve had moments when you found yourself watching your child in amazement, aware that she was working out some mystery in the game she was playing or the story she was telling herself. It’s clear to anyone who has spent time with young children that play has a purpose. Development presents children with specific tasks to master during each stage and their play will reflect this. Parents can facilitate the growth that happens through play by understanding the tasks their child is working on in a particular phase of development and by furnishing age appropriate toys.

The debate over what kinds of toys are good toys is perennial: How much color should toys have? How many moving parts? How realistic should they be? We would say there are few universal absolutes. Of course, safety considerations are a matter of fact – toys with small or loose parts that children can choke on, get body parts caught in, or be suffocated by are not safe for children who are too young to understand the danger or to have the necessary impulse control to resist hazardous activities. Beyond that, there are significant differences in temperament that will affect the match between a child and toy. While bright or busy toys may provide an attractive level of stimulation for some children, they can be over-stimulating to other children. While in general, young children need less “flash” than many mass-produced toys offer, finding toys with the right balance of curb appeal and functional engagement will be an individualized process.

Toys can be used for two very distinct purposes: to aid a child in play and to keep a child occupied. While both are valid and important, they are not always complimentary. Review their toy box to be sure you have a good collection of toys that encourage development as well as those that accomplish entertainment. You’ll also want to think about whether those toys are well suited to your child’s developmental tasks. There is nothing wrong with retaining old favorites, just be sure you have materials that are current to your child’s needs and experiences.

Below are some general guidelines regarding the function of play at various stages of development. As with all guides that delineate developmental progression, they are broad and general. Children develop at different rates and in different areas.  For example, if your child is highly verbal, expect him to be ahead the curve when it comes to symbolic expression, but not necessarily with motor skills. For each stage we have listed one or two examples of toys that are appropriate.

  • 0 – 6 months: Play helps to establish sensory-motor neural pathways and facilitates gross and fine motor development.

Key toys/games: Mobiles and simple grasping toys.

  • 6 – 12 months: Infants are applying fine and gross motor skills to directed action. Psychologically, they are working on self-soothing and attachment.

Key toys/games: Soft toys, stacking blocks, objects that have texture or make  sounds and games of peek-a-boo.

  • 12 – 24 months: Children are occupied with themes of possession, repetitive testing of cause and effect, impulse control and fine and gross motor skill development.

Key toys/games: Specific skill toys like blocks, simple musical instruments and art          materials, transportation toys, dolls and stuffed animals with removable accessories, vehicles for pushing or riding, games of hide-and-seek.

  • 24 – 36 months: Play offers an opportunity to experiment with power and control, affect regulation and is an important means of symbolic and literal expression. Fine and gross motor development continues to be a focus.

Key toys/games: People and animal figures, books with narrative stories. Riding and  rolling vehicles. Play-doh and more complex art materials.

  • 3 – 5 years: Children focus heavily on social learning and gaining social influence, they experiment with goal setting and attainment.

Key toys/games: Role play materials, simple caretaking accessories, construction  materials, durable art projects, puzzles, cameras, photos and self-made storybooks.

By Lele Diamond, MFT & Noelle Cochran, PsyD.  Symbio offers services geared to meet the real-life needs of modern families as they move through the early years of child rearing. For more information, visit www.symbiosf.com. To get questions answered regarding child development and family psychology, email Lele or Noelle here, symbio@symbiosf.com or call (415) 648-3243