You know about New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix.” Now, the Strategist has taken that model of what falls where on our taste hierarchies and applied it to toys. In this case, the four sides of the grid are “Educational” (say, a shape-sorter), “Brain Candy” (a mini lawn mower), “Reasonably Priced,” and “Splurgy.” Each toy in every quadrant comes highly recommended — click here to learn more about our sourcing process and the dozens of experts involved — and every age (up to double digits) is covered.
Below, we tackle the 2-year-olds. “Don’t constrain them” was the central piece of advice given to us by Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of child psychology at the University of Delaware and co-author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. The ideal toys for this age are open-ended and malleable, so the child can learn new things, develop imagination, and discover his or her own ways to have fun — whether that be with a Golinkoff–approved easel, a universally celebrated balance bike, or the colorable-and-washable pet chosen here by a toy historian (a nice companion to the mess-free markers appreciated by reality-TV star Lauren Conrad). You can jump directly to the section that interests you most — “Educational/Reasonably Priced,” “Educational/Splurgy,” “Brain Candy/Reasonably Priced,” or “Brain Candy/Splurgy” — or read through to get the full picture of what kids these days are into. Whether you’re shopping for a birthday or a holiday or any other day, it’s a list that keeps on giving.
“Two-year-olds are definitely interested in being read to,” says Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, the associate director of Bank Street College of Education’s Straus Center for Young Children & Families. “Repetitive texts help to build phonological awareness and draw attention to individual sounds in words, as well as rhymes and patterns.” That’s why she and Shannon Lockhart, a manager at education research foundation HighScope, both love the book Good Night, Gorilla. Not only does it repeat the words good night, allowing children to become familiar with the phrase, it also names each animal as the zookeeper goes through the zoo. Lockhart adds that if you’re going to give a book, look for any with recurring elements — like the pink balloon found in the first few pages of Good Night, Gorilla — which can help keep kids engaged.
Much as their inner Kehinde Wiley may be yearning to get out, the still-limited dexterity and motor control of 2-year-olds can make art sessions frustrating. The Eyelike Stickers books are the solution — usable for creating collages and decorating physical objects (and even, if they are so moved, clothing). Beyond being a great art medium, these sticker books are carefully curated around themes that help kids learn about, for example, farms (think horses and produce) or wild animals (bears, chimps, and hippos). And they’re a distraction that the adults in their life will appreciate: As Dr. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, who is Golinkoff’s co-author, reminds us, “If you’re buying a gift for a child, you’re also buying that gift for their parents.”
As with all Melissa & Doug toys, you can count on this cleaning set to be well made and safe for toddlers. Also, as with many of its toys, this will engage kids for hours. (One Strategist editor’s son was so motivated by the idea of cleaning with it that he took his first official steps while holding the green broom — and still does plenty of sweeping with the set now at 2 and a half.) Golinkoff says: “Kids always want to be like big people. So if they see you using something, they’re going to want to do it, too.” And toys like this “require children to be active and can spur the development of the imagination. And when used with another child, they can increase social interaction.”
Every day-care classroom has its own “It” toys — the ones that all the kids fight over, for whatever reason, some of them seeming very random (e.g., the blue ice-cream cone in the pretend food bin, the red squares among the Magna-Tiles). But an especially big hit for the 2-year-olds at Tribeca Kindercare, according to teacher Ms. Kelsey, are the finger puppets. Figueras-Daniel also recommends finger-puppet toys for this age, specifically citing the ones from Folkmanis, like this raccoon, because of how super-realistic the brand’s puppets are. In addition to helping kids work on their fine motor skills, puppets can also “inspire lots of language, as children can speak through the role of the puppet,” Figueras-Daniel explains. Plus, she says, you can use the puppets to start teaching 2-year-olds about specific animals.
Figueras-Daniel says that there isn’t a specific stage of development when concepts like science or nature really begin to take root in children’s minds, adding that giving a 2-year-old a bird feeder like this would be an unexpected way to “provide them with opportunities to make observations about the world around them.” While they’re certainly not going to go out and put food in it, she promises that, at this age, kids (including her own) enjoy watching the birds visit if this is stuck onto a window in their nursery or playroom. “It attracts all kinds of birds when filled,” she says, adding that this can be a gift that grows with a child. “We now keep a journal by the window for drawing and keeping track of all the varieties that come to visit.”
“Similarly, watching growing caterpillars and ladybugs can also be a fun way to encourage observations about how living things grow for little kids,” says Figueras-Daniel, who recommends Insect Lore’s butterfly and ladybug kits. The Butterfly Garden kit comes with a cup filled with five baby caterpillars and nutritious caterpillar food, as well as a pop-up mesh habitat, a chrysalis holding log, a butterfly feeder, food droppers, and a STEM journal. While setting everything up will definitely require the assistance of an adult (the manufacturer recommends 4 years as the starting age for this kit), a 2-year-old will definitely get a kick out of watching the caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies up close — and will perhaps be reminded of a certain classic board book.