Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, professor of psychology at University of Delaware and co-author of the New York Times best-seller Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, has one main tip when it comes to toys and gifts for 2-year-olds: “Don’t constrain them.” Leave every toy open-ended and malleable so the child herself can learn new things, develop her imagination, and discover her own ways to have fun. At the same time, “They’re starting to put two words together so they can talk to us, and complain if they don’t like something.” The stakes are higher now compared to a year ago (we have gift suggestions for that age, too). To aid the learning process and assuage the terrible twos, Dr. Golinkoff helped us pick out nine great gifts for 2-year-olds.
Update, November 30, 2017: For the 2017 holiday season, we’ve updated this post with a couple of newer toys we think are just perfect for 2-year-olds. We’ve used our own Strat judgement alongside Dr. Golinkoff’s definitions of what makes the most educational and fun playthings for tots. The newest toys are up top.
Shape sorters like these are actually Dr. Golinkoff’s favorite toys for 2-year-olds, who are just starting to notice things like shape and color. The great thing about this Sesame Street version is that they’re also nesting dolls.
Active kids just starting to get really comfortable with walking will love that the balls fly out of the top of this bulldozer when they walk it, only to be caught right back in the cab. The faster they walk, the more challenging it is to make the catch.
A shape sorter — in pleasantly muted and pastel colors — that also has a sound for each corresponding shape. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Shape sorters are my number one favorite 2-year-old toy. They love them because they’re just starting to pay attention to things like shapes and colors, and they can hold things, and they love shoving things through holes. They can put things in, take things out. It’s just got it all.”
Now’s the time to start them on a wonderfully classic set of wooden train tracks. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Kids love running cars on tracks. They’re not very sophisticated at putting the track together, but they love to take the different engines and cars to run them around. As they get older they grow with it and can start to rearrange the tracks themselves.”
This weird-looking Swiss-designed Bilibo is for every preposition: sitting in, climbing over, filling up with stuff — whatever comes to the imagination. Dr. Golinkoff says: “This is cool. It can be a hat or a chair, that’s fun. I go by certain principles, and my first principle is that the toy shouldn’t control too much of what the child is going to do. Ask, is this 90 percent child and 10 percent toy or 90 percent toy and 10 percent child? If there’s only one thing to do with it, then the toy is controlling everything. This one’s more open-ended so he gets to make his own world.”
Fun magnetic men climb up and down the fridge to keep them busy while you’re cooking. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Once you stick them on you can move them around. They’re always there in the kitchen. When parents are cooking, the child can move the stickers around and it’s also a learning process to find out all the places they stick.”
Wooden pegs and rings to mix and match in every variation. Dr. Golinkoff says: “I think this kind of stuff is fun. Children love stacking things because they want to make things bigger, as big as themselves. Whenever kids find something they can do and it’s a little bit of a struggle, but not a huge struggle, that’s the key. It’s just a little bit hard to put those pegs in the holes. That builds some fine motor coordination.”
Start up the family band with some colorful maracas. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Instruments are great because kids can do anything with them and collaborate with others. With maracas you can get up and walk around with them and play with mom and with friends. They’ve got to start learning how to collaborate with others, how to share, how to have impulse control — these predict a lot of what’s gonna happen as they approach school. Forming relationships is the basis of everything.”
Put a twist on your old classic crayons. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Drawing starts teaching things like symbolic activity, even with scribbles. You might think that what comes out is mush, but they’re starting to have intent, and they have enough control to put dashes on the paper. Imagine how cool it is to be a 2-year-old and actually put something on a piece of paper and see art emerge on the other end.”
Mini elephants, frogs, and hippos to elevate the bedtime story. Dr. Golinkoff says: “I love puppets. They’re a personification of this really cool looking thing that seems to talk and engage with them. How fun is that? It’s great because it’s another persona that speaks and allows them to engage.”
Translucent shapes that are far more interesting than blocks, and have hundreds of possible combinations. Dr. Golinkoff says: “Kids see these and want to learn how they work, how they go together, that there’s unlimited possibilities. You don’t want to teach your child that there’s only one right answer or one way to put the block together. That’s constraining them too much and doesn’t allow them to have a free will and imagination to create something new. When kids are playing with things like blocks, they’re learning things like, How tall can you go before it falls down? Why do these things stick together in the way that they do? They want to experiment.”
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