When buying toys for a 1-year-old, it’s not so simple as deciding between fancy boutique toys and literal wooden blocks — you want things that will stimulate and surprise their growing mind. “Babies’ brains develop so quickly — something like a million neural-connections per second,” says Sarah MacLaughlin, a child development expert, author, and senior writer at Zero to Three. “So you have to add sensory features or mobility features to the mix because then that’s a different part of the brain that’s getting developed.” We spoke to MacLaughlin and Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of outreach and education at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, about the best gifts to give babies on their first birthdays.
Based on Lytle and MacLaughlin’s recommendations and advice, we pulled together a short list of can’t-fail gifts that are sure to keep you in the running for coolest aunt or uncle. And if you’re shopping for older kids, we’ve got gift guides for all ages, including 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and 11-year-olds.
Simple peg puzzles are just as exciting as shape sorters for growing toddlers, especially if they involve more than one way to interact and experiment. This gear toy offers babies the option of both turning the gears to make the caterpillar move and removing and putting the pieces back in place.
Stackable cups and toys like this grippy tower also promote the concepts of containment, pieces fitting together, and manipulation, all important aspects in a child’s development, according to Lytle. The weighted, cracked-egg-like components can not only be stacked but also toppled, spun, and balanced.
Children can learn to explore the world through a number of toys — or simply through simple household items like pots and pans. For parents and caregivers, the important thing is to facilitate this experimentation. Says Lytle: “You really want parents to be there playing with their children, following their lead, allowing them to figure out what happens, and asking them questions about it like, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see that? Did you see what happened? Do you think that would happen if we did it again?’ If you think about it, asking those questions get at the scientific method.” No wonder this award-winning toy is beloved by parents and children everywhere. In addition to being a musical instrument, it allows kids to experiment with cause and effect.
In the same way they enjoy stacking, dropping, and hitting things, 1-year-olds love emptying containers and filling them back up again. This set of tubes you can suction to the side of the tub allows kids to experiment while in the bath, and each piece has a different moving part that’s activated by water. “The idea that there are moving parts goes right along with that curiosity of the in, out, up, and down,” says MacLaughlin. “Moving parts are pretty attractive to a 1-year-old, which is why you’ll find them going after everything in your home that’s not a toy.”
Engaging sensory toys make great stroller accessories because they can soothe a bored baby when you’re stuck in line or on the subway. “I’m sure the temptation for a lot of parents is to hand them something like an iPhone that makes a lot of noise. But the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) doesn’t recommend consuming electronic stimuli in that way for children under 2 years old,” explains MacLaughlin. This squishy bead toy will hold their attention and stimulate their motor-skill development. “It’s like a more sophisticated rattle. It rattles when you shake it but it also has beads that move around the bars, and it has a sensory aspect to it.” MacLaughlin recommends attaching any stroller toys to the stroller, lest they get chucked into the street by a gravity-curious baby.
At 12 months, children are learning about patterns in the world, which also extends to routines. Predictable routines, like ones at nighttime, for example, “both help them feel very safe and secure, but also help them learn about the world and learn what to expect next,” says Lytle. This feeling of security can also come from stuffed animals, because at this age, children are capable of forming relationships with nonhumans, even characters on a favorite show. A familiar doll or toy can add an element of predictability in a situation that may be foreign. “Objects and dolls can’t respond to the child, but it is something that makes them feel secure,” she adds. Even if they don’t know what is going on around them, they will feel safe knowing that they have their favorite toy in their arms. Try this elephant Sshlumpie, which is not only a cuddly companion for a 1-year-old but also a great toy that can be taken on the go.
This vintage-inspired, all-sustainable-wood camper play set comes with four peg people and a pet dog ready to hit the road — or the front hall. “One-year-olds are just figuring out how they can influence the world around them, so they love putting things into containers and taking them out,” says Lytle. “This really speaks to that urge. It’s also nice that it’s a bus because a child that young is more likely to have been in a car or bus than a boat or plane, so this is more relatable.”
“At 1, kids are probably starting to pull themselves up on furniture and maybe even take a couple of steps,” explains Lytle. “When they’re up and walking, they’re most interested in toys that might support them but can also be part of their playtime.” Try this classic toy that an early (or soon-to-be) walker can operate on their own, while toting around their most prized belongings, slash some Cheerios.
This classic board book — it was published in 1982 — has lift-the-flap options on every page, but it shows easy-to-digest animal images that kids can recognize. “One of the things we know about 1-year-olds is that they really thrive on interacting with adults, so books that encourage that interaction and allow parents to give in to that moment beyond just reading the page are the best,” says Lytle. “Books that involve sounds the parent can make and children can imitate, or a book that has windows you can open and talk about, or anything else to that effect are best.”
“Most 1-year-olds have recently become quite mobile and they’re very, very curious, so something that is repetitive and has a rhythmic cadence to it is more likely to keep their attention.” This book about an elephant stacking blocks mirrors a familiar activity as well as “laying the groundwork for early math, science and music skills,” says MacLaughlin.
“There’s actually been some research looking at kids using blocks with parents, and it turns out that building blocks are a really good way to promote early STEM skills,” says Lytle. “Think about the language you’re using when you’re building blocks: bigger, smaller, shorter, taller. If you have kids and parents building bridges with blocks together, you’ll start talking about concepts like stability. Even if you don’t actually use the word stability, you’re still talking about complex engineering concepts.” The pastel-hued wooden building blocks in this 14-piece set have built-in magnets, so they won’t fall down as easily as regular blocks. Plus, they’re made in Honduras, with the goal of creating living-wage jobs for Tegucigalpa residents.
This colorful wooden set of blocks can often be found in Montessori and Waldorf classrooms alongside more basic rectangular versions. Each arc in this nesting set can be stacked, balanced, and combined with the others to create imaginary city scenes with bridges and buildings, or simply to experiment with texture and gravity. “Stacking is fun, but even if they’re not coordinated enough to stack their toys, they would love to watch you stack, and then be able to knock it down,” says MacLaughlin.
“Young kids love to making music and noises and exploring things, like, ‘Can I make it softer? Can I make it louder?’ Lytle says. ‘What happens when I hit it harder? Does that make it louder?’ That’s a really interesting learning process.” Tap the colored keys on Baby Einstein’s Magic Touch Piano to play classic tunes or create your own melodies — a great way for babies and parents to play together.
“At 1 year, kids might just be starting to walk, so they’re interested in toys that can walk with them and encourage them to keep going,” says Lytle. There’s little that is cuter than watching a new walker pull their wobbly new best friend behind them. Janod’s Rocky the Dog Pull Toy has a tail that wags as he moseys around the house.
This activity center features tracks for wooden beads, with hidden animals that will keep tots busy for hours. “One of the things I always like to look for in a toy is one that allows kids a lot of options, not only in terms of things to do, but in ways to do them,” says Lytle. “Because at this age you want a child to learn by figuring out the pathway to using the toy and not necessarily direct them with a specific set of rules. A toy like this has a lot of different options, so they can do things like move the beads and just explore around the whole toy. They’ll always find a new feature and something new to do.”
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