Most of us know to watch for it with newborns. Their tiny personalities accumulate junk toys, a lot of clothes, and too many cute tchotchkes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Once our children have reached the “terrible twos,” or our 3-year-olds are throwing tantrums, we begin to let our guard slip further. A new Lego set from the checkout at Target? Sure. A life-size Elsa doll for your little princess? Of course!
Before you know it, you’re living in a space that looks a lot like an enormous toy store, but with a kitchen. In case you’re wondering, I’m writing from experience. By the time my son turned 2, his toys started taking over our place. He’s 3 now, and we’ve finally curbed the toy mania. In our case, neither my husband nor I are toy-crazy. Our families, on the other hand …
Moving on. Curious how to keep the toddler takeover under wraps (or maybe even prevent it)? Let’s get down to business.
Kid Space vs. Your Place
Every home needs to be kid-friendly, and when toddlers come into the picture, baby-proofing reaches new and terrifying heights. Your kid might be a runner, a climber, or love hiding inside and under things. No matter what personality and physical prowess they have, you need to be ready.
Kid-proofing doesn’t mean giving up your space. You can still have adult space, and you need it. That’s step one. Define what space is yours, and what belongs to the little one(s). Next, identify what’s junk and what’s important in the toy department.
Stuff to Skip
I’m not going to advocate throwing out your tot’s toys. If you really are drowning in clutter, have them help you choose what to keep and what to pitch. Losing a favorite toy can be a crushing experience for a kid. If toys need to go, you need to say goodbye to them as a team – or dispose of a few things that aren’t played with when your kid is at daycare, out with your partner, or with friends or relatives. Don’t pitch all the junk in one foul swoop – you’ll be exhausted, and your toddler will be miserable.
Let’s focus on what you can do in advance. Tell friends and family what types of toys you’d like for your child for the holidays or birthdays and other special occasions. They’ll appreciate the gift hint (assuming the price tag isn’t over the top), and you won’t have to deal with unnecessary junk.
When you head to the toy store, no matter how much your little one pleads, the following types of toys aren’t worth it:
Toys that are too big for your space. Sand boxes and tables, play structures and houses, and life-size teddy bears are great fun, if you’ve got the space. However, for an urban lifestyle, they’re not usually a good pick. There are plenty of places to find alternatives that are better and cheaper. Most daycare centers offer similar items, and a children’s museum year-long membership is cheaper and better than buying even just one giant toy. Not to mention the peace and quiet you’ll get when your little one comes home completely zonked from the outing.
Age-inappropriate toys. Toddlers are fun, and they can do miles more than they could as babies. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready for big kid toys. Pay attention to age guidelines on toys; at this age, they’re a good indicator of safety hazards like choking or strangulation risks. Even when safety isn’t the issue, age-inappropriate toys may pose another risk. If your child tries and tries to complete a task with a toy but can’t, they may get frustrated and quit. Grit is an important characteristic, don’t nip it in the bud with the wrong toys.
Toys with too many bells and whistles. Toys that do too much mean that your kid doesn’t have to. Passive play, just being entertained by a toy, is pretty worthless. At this age, you’re trying to wake up their brains and inspire curiosity and creativity. Play is a learning experience for little kids, and there are some studies that show electronics don’t help at this age. From too much screen time impacting the likelihood of ADHD, to a study on moms that shows electronic toys decrease parental engagement and responsiveness.
Noisemakers and living toys. I’m not talking about normal musical instruments. Heck, I’m even ok with kazoos – although you might find they drive you crazy. Noisemakers are toys that don’t shut up and have extremely annoying sounds. My son got a cement mixer truck with shapes that fit into the mixer part and would pop out the chute while it drove around the room. It seemed innocuous enough, and then we turned it on. Its chorus of electronic voices screeched the most hideous kids’ songs in a high-pitched whine while it circled the room. We took it to our son’s school for show and tell and begged the teacher to make sure it broke. She was an angel, and obliged.
Living toys are ones that have a life of their own, such as the motion-sensing BBQ toy Brooke Kwatny Kravitz talks about in this Scary Mommy post, or the purple octopus that started shouting “green shoe” in the middle of the night from my living room whenever a truck rolled past. It seems so cute and fun until it comes alive in the middle of the night and terrifies everyone.
Toys that suck the fun out of your life. Any toy that makes you lose your sanity as you try to keep up with the pieces, keep it from staining the furniture or walls, or infiltrates everything in sight and leaves you looking like a playroom for days (can anyone say “sand art”?) shouldn’t be a regular part of playtime. Sure, you can drag them out for special occasions, but if your toddler’s playtime becomes your highest stress point of the day, something needs to change. Fast.
It’s Not Just a Toy, It’s a Necessity
Just like there are some toys that your sanity mandates not enter the house, there are others that you need to have on hand at all times. The good news is that they don’t have to be expensive, bulky, or make tons of noise – although a little bit of music does go a long way.
According to a 2011 article in the National Association for the Education of Young Children publication “Young Children," homemade toys and readily available materials can help with child development and are a lot of fun for little ones. Classic toys like blocks, fabric, paper tube telescopes, books, and puppets offer some huge benefits, too. I once spoke with a child psychologist who told me if she could only give her kid one toy, she’d choose a ball. Simple toys can adapt to different ages easily, teach important life skills, and – as anyone can tell you who has ever seen a kid unwrap presents and spend more time with the wrapping paper or the box than with the gift inside – are a lot of fun.
Let’s be honest. We all like to spoil our kids, but sometimes the toys we buy for them really are about keeping up with the Joneses. When you’re looking for the right toys for toddlers, there are certain things they do need. The list below should help you pick out some timeless toys that grow with your little ones throughout their toddler years.
Blocks, nesting cups, and toys that can be filled and emptied. These tools teach early math concepts, like capacity and mechanical-spatial reasoning. Your tot can make castles and towers to let their imaginations run wild. Infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and some school-age kids love these toys.
Stuffed and plastic or wooden animals and dolls. Teach your kid to nurture and care for living creatures, find out how they feel by asking how their “lovies” feel, and watch theatrical performances come to life with stuffed animals, super heroes, baby dolls, and plastic dinosaurs. This type of play is great for teaching them about caring for baby siblings that might be coming home in the near future, too.
Puzzles and shape sorters. These problem-solving-centered toys can be as fun for you as they are for your kid. The challenges they present change with age and the complexity of the toy itself, but can give your tot a self-esteem boost when they manage to solve a difficult puzzle or sort all the shapes correctly.
Arts and crafts supplies. Creativity is huge for toddlers, and the ability to create something of their own is captivating. Squiggles turn into smiles and straight lines become houses. The skills learned playing with art supplies can help with handwriting, problem solving, and selfexpression later on.
Dress up clothes and pretend-play accessories. What kid hasn’t put on your dress shoes or pranced around in your favorite blazer, pretending to go to work? Pretend play helps toddlers test their roles in society, try on different identities, and find things they like. Keep plenty of dress up clothes and accessories on hand, from play foods and cooking supplies to pretend computers and cell phones or doctor’s equipment. They want to be like you, so let them.
Musical instruments. You might want to hide these far, far away, but resist the temptation. Toddlers are the perfect age for learning basic music skills such as rhythm, and music is also a great way to strengthen math skills. Musical instruments also teach concepts such as cause and effect. Note: make sure your kid is the one making the music. That’s what teaches the lessons.
Books and other early-literacy toys. Hoping to mold a young scholar? Play hard, read often, and invest in magnetic letters for the fridge, letter-tracing cards, and other fun toddler toys that reinforce early literacy.
Balls. Playing with balls isn’t just for jocks – it’s a great way to teach a vital skillset including bilateral skills, hand-eye coordination, sequencing, timing, attention, and motor planning. From aiming at targets to throwing, catching, dribbling and kicking, ball skills can be a lot of fun, too.
Outdoor and active toys. Being outside and active leads to some significant health benefits for kids – from stronger immune systems to a better understanding of their environment and healthier longterm life choices. Help them get outside and get moving by picking a few toys from this category. And remember, it’s about getting them to dig in the dirt, master gross motor skills, and have fun. Look for toys that help that process, not hinder it.