You have one week until the party of the season: Your first college friend to become a mom is throwing a first-birthday party for her first child. But you’re at a loss. What do 1-year-olds even do these days? “You’re looking for toys that’ll help this particular child develop,” says Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of outreach and education at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “They’re starting to explore complex concepts like gravity through trial and error and trying new things, oftentimes repetitively, just to figure out how the world works,” so you want toys that allow for some experimentation.
At the end of the day, however, social interaction between children and parents is really the most important thing to remember. “Even if you’re laying the foundation for later cognitive development, all learning happens in relationships,” she says. “Spend as much time as you can with your child to make that time as uninterrupted and undistracted as possible.” To help you parse what that means (and to make sure you’re first in line as the friend-aunt of choice), we’ve asked the parenting team over at PopSugar Moms to pick out the grooviest age-appropriate toys on the market, with Lytle explaining what makes them the best gift for a 1-year-old specifically. We’ve also made a few additional selections based on what Lytle had to say.
At 1, kids are learning about the world around them through trial and error and experimentation. Puzzles and shape sorters are great for encouraging them to explore how things work. “Puzzles exercise children’s cognitive abilities to be able to think about both the physical manipulation of the pieces and understanding how something will fit into something else,” says Lytle. “It’s this idea of containment and fitting and what goes where.” This puzzle cube will appeal to the tactile learner, with its rubbery shapes and cutouts teaching little ones to experiment with size and fit. The tethered pieces ensure nothing will ever go missing.
Stackable cups and toys like this grippy tower also promote the concepts of containment, fitting pieces into other pieces, 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 just 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.
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 also applies to loveys, because at this age, children are capable of forming some type of relationship 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 fox Sshlumpie, which is not only a cuddly companion for a 1-year-old but also a great lovey that can be taken on the go — and to sleep.
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.”
It’s an old-fashioned jack-in-the-box, except instead of a creepy clown, it’s an adorable Curious George! It also happens to play “Pop Goes the Weasel.” “This deals with the concept of object permanence, meaning that even though you can’t see the toy that’s in the box, it still exists,” says Lytle. “Kids start picking up on this idea when they’re 1, and they continue learning it throughout childhood. Toys that surprise children are interesting because they appeal to a 1-year-old’s understanding of routine and patterns, and they’re always fun and playful. But if you have a child that will have a very strong, scared reaction, this is perhaps not the best toy for them.”
“One-year-olds are starting to notice routines and patterns in the world around them, so to the extent a 1-year-old is getting into a car or taxi and going somewhere,” explains Lytle, “that’s a fairly basic routine that they might like to role-play with toys that reflect their experience.” They might appreciate this Taxi Push Toy by Manny and Simon, which is known for its ecoconscious, American-made toys. It’s perfect for city babies who’ll learn how to hail a taxi before they can speak a full sentence.
“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 and math 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.
Push the buttons on BeatBo’s belly or feet to trigger a medley of toe-tapping songs. There’s even a baby DJ option where you can record short phrases for BeatBo to remix into a dance tune — great for a tot who’s beginning to discover music. “Young kids love to make 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.”
“At one 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’s tail 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,” says Lytle, “but in ways to do it, 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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