Most 2-year-olds aren’t picky when it comes to gifts, in fact some of their favorite things in life are so simple we take them for granted. “Fun things for 2-year-olds are turning on and off lights. They LOVE to switch on and off the lights. So anything that’s similar to that is great, and it teaches them causality.” says Dr. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, co-author of the New York Times best seller Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children and professor of psychology at Temple University. When shopping for a toddler you want to look for gifts that encourage their natural curiosity in the world around them.
Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, who co-authored Becoming Brilliant with Hirsch-Pasek and is a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware 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 can learn new things, develop imagination, and discover their own ways to have fun. Sounds easy, but we wanted specifics. So to help define what fits into these relatively broad categories we talked to Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek in detail about the what makes the best gifts for 2-year-olds. As a bonus, these toys can act as a distraction when your little buddy is throwing a tantrum. Lastly, Hirsch-Pasek reminds us “If you’re buying a gift for a child you’re also buying that gift for their parents.” So try to keep their taste, values, and style in mind too.
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.”
Hirsch-Pasek suggest getting your favorite 2-year-old their very own toddler-sized kitchen tools. “When kids engage in pretend play they’re building narrative skills and language skills. Get them cooking stuff, like their own little roller, or mixing spoon, and let them join in while you’re making dinner. They don’t have to know they’re not really helping.”
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 (or roll of paper). Plus this one is adjustable so it can grow with your child. “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 stack-able finger 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.”
“It’s fun to feel Play-Doh and to squish it. You may not make anything that’s so awesome, but who cares? It’s just fun to make a ball and sit and experiment with your parent.” says Dr. Hirsch-Pasek. Experimenting with sculpture at this early age is similar to drawing, 2-year-olds are excited by the simple fact that they can manipulate the clay. And it’s a good workout too. “Play-Doh builds dexterity in their hands and finger muscles.”
“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 attractive jewel tones doubles as a little house for pretend play.
Like shape sorters, bags and backpacks offer hours of fun for little kids who like to play with putting things inside of something and taking them out again. “They like to put things in and take them out, and if you get them a little backpack they can carry their toys around with them.” says Hirsch-Pasek. A backpack is also a fun way for them to practice and pretend doing grown up things.
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.”
In the realm of simple but exciting toys, bubbles are a big deal. They keep kids busy for hours, get them outside, and they’re just plain fun — even for adults. Dr. Hirsch-Pasek emphasized the importance of playing together. “Make it fun! If you make it fun, then they’ll think it’s fun and that’s what it’s all about.”
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.”
Board books are great for 2-year-olds who now have the dexterity to turn the pages themselves. “You don’t have to read the book verbatim to a child, you kinda go beyond the covers. Some are really cool, like those that have puppets built-in or holes that you can put your fingers through, or where something is half hidden and the kid gets to turn the page or slide something and see what’s on the other side. That’s fun because it offers an element of surprise and then they have to fill in the rest and of course you have to remember what was there before.” —Hirsh-Pasek
When in doubt get something soft and cuddly. “I think that the cuddly stuffed toys work better than the hard sort of dress-me-up dolls. So if you can find something that just feels good, kids love the feel good.” says Hirsch-Pasek. This woolly mammoth from Jellycat would make a nice addition to any kid’s stuffed animal family.
“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?” Golinkoff says. “It’s great because it’s another persona that speaks and allows them to engage.” Here’s a set of animals 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.”
When it comes to cognitive development, Hirsch-Pasek is a fan of building blocks. “Construction toys are amazing! They are learning spatial development by using construction toys, and when they do that they’ll be better later on in their understanding of spatial language–up, around, in, on, through–they’re better at understanding rotation and all this later predicts better math scores. So if you want STEM, buy puzzles, buy blocks.” Just make sure you buy the big Lego blocks which are designed to prevent children from choking.
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