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.” Language, she adds, also helps kids engage in self-regulation. “They understand when you say, ‘Can you count to ten? I’ll be ready then.’ If you tell your children, ‘Wait, just wait,’ then they can say that to themselves, or wait for this or that.” To aid the learning process and assuage the terrible twos, Dr. Golinkoff helped us pick out 15 great gifts for 2-year-olds. As a bonus, these toys can act as a distraction when they’re throwing a tantrum. We’ve also got gift guides for kids of all ages, including 1-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and 11-year-olds.
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Dr. Golinkoff likes this cleaning set because it not only promotes being active, it also encourages them to be helpful. “Kids always want to be like big people. So if they see you using something, they’re going to want to do it, too,” she says. And if they can play with another kid, even better: “[This and the other toys below] require children to be active and can spur the development of the imagination as well as increase social interaction when used with another child.”
Which brings us to the next pick, a play kitchen set. “I love that they showed a boy for the kitchen play set,” she says. “Everyone should learn how to cook.” The kitchen is another great tool to encourage their imagination, she adds. Two-year-olds can make-believe that they’re cooking dinner for the family and “have a great time.”
Although this basketball set may look challenging for a 2-year-old, Dr. Golinkoff says that children this age can learn pretty fast once you show them how it’s done. It’s also a time when they’re improving their motor skills. “They’re also learning patience,” she says, “which is a type of self-regulation, how to wait. They are increasing their executive functionability, which is the fancy name for being able to control their inhibitions.”
“Kids love to paint,” says Dr. Golinkoff. The fold-up easel makes it easy for the budding artist to experiment with colors and textures on a large-scale canvas. “I don’t care if parents get newspaper, butcher paper, or brown paper,” she says, as long as the child is free to do as she pleases.
For more casual, in-the-moment drawing, try these twisty crayons, whose shape makes it easier for kids to grip them. “Drawing starts teaching things like symbolic activity, even with scribbles,” Dr. Golinkoff says. “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.”
“Shape sorters are my No. 1 favorite 2-year-old toy,” Dr. Golinkoff says. “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.” This one, in pleasantly muted and pastel colors, also has a sound for each corresponding shape.
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.
Now’s the time to start them on a wonderfully classic set of wooden train tracks. “Kids love running cars on tracks,” says Dr. Golinkoff. “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. “This is cool. It can be a hat or a chair, that’s fun,” says Dr. Golinkoff. “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.”
When they’re not playing with their own kitchen, these fun magnetic men climb up and down the fridge to keep them busy while you’re cooking. “Once you stick them on you can move them around. They’re always there in the kitchen,” Dr. Golinkoff says. “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.”
Here are wooden pegs and rings to mix and match in every variation. “I think this kind of stuff is fun. Children love stacking things because they want to make things bigger, as big as themselves,” she says. “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.”
“Instruments are great because kids can do anything with them and collaborate with others,” says Dr. Golinkoff. “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.”
“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?” Dr. Golinkoff says. “It’s great because it’s another persona that speaks and allows them to engage.” Here’s a set of animals and family members to elevate the bedtime story — and further develop your child’s language-acquisition skills and imagination.
Try these translucent shapes, which are far more interesting than blocks and have hundreds of possible combinations. “Kids see these and want to learn how they work, how they go together, that there’s unlimited possibilities,” she says. “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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