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, rainbow nesting blocks), “Brain Candy” (baby shark), “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, all of which you can see by also clicking here.
Now let’s begin with the 1-year-olds. The key to pleasing this age, we learned, is in finding toys that will stimulate and surprise their growing minds. “Babies’ brains develop so quickly — something like a million neural connections per second,” points out Sarah MacLaughlin, a child-development expert and the author of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. “To keep them interested, you have to add sensory or mobility features to the mix.” Shannon Lockhart, a manager of early-childhood applied practices at HighScope, an early-childhood-education research foundation, agrees: “The more senses that you can appeal to within an experience, the more learning is going to happen.”
To that end come the following 31 suggestions, with input from professionals like MacLaughlin and Lockhart as well as a range of other discerning shoppers, from many-time grandparents to the singer-actress-mom Jordin Sparks. 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 all the way 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.
Crawl tunnels are a thrill for this age and get big giggles, to be sure, but they also help young toddlers with spatial awareness and a better understanding of object permanence. Older kids and adults know that the person whose face leans into and out of the tunnel is always nearby, but for a 1-year-old, these types of lean-in, lean-out peekaboo games genuinely help them learn about the way the world works. Says Dr. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of outreach and education at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences: “You really want parents to be there playing with their children, following their lead, allowing them to figure out what happens.”
It’s never too early to start affirming your kids, which is exactly what these fun flash cards are for. We heard about them from leadership speaker Jovian Zayne. “We’re very intentional about showing our daughter a diversity of images; it matters early, the messages you receive,” she told us. “I got these ABC affirmation flash cards when Jorgie was about 4 months old, and it’s still a daily practice for us: You’ll see a Black girl on one side of a card and a Black boy on the other; A is for amazing, and the little girl is saying something like, ‘I am amazing and can do great things in my community.’” Zayne credits affirmations like these that she heard growing up as being critical for her growth and abilities to “operate with conviction, clarity, and joy, and build a sense of resilience.” Beyond being inspirational, the flash cards are also a fun way to learn the letters of the alphabet.
Editor’s note: The flash cards are currently on back order from Darlyng & Co. and Amazon, but both allow you to preorder them and say the cards will ship once restocked in April.
“Young kids love 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.
In addition to music, 1-year-olds also love creating art, especially if they watch big siblings drawing or painting. But most art supplies simply aren’t suitable for small, less-than-deft hands: Pencils have a dangerous point, paint makes a mess, and regular crayons snap into pieces. “Palm-grasp crayons are a great way to get young children to have interest in writing and drawing,” says Dr. Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, the associate director of Bank Street College of Education’s Straus Center for Young Children and Families. “These are perfect for tiny hands to build fine-motor skills.” They’re also almost impossible to break and will go a long way in encouraging artistic expression. Even if it just looks like messy scribbling at this point, this kind of exploration is key to laying the foundation for getting them to eventually write letters and numbers, according to Lockhart. “If we want children to eventually write their names, they have to have lots of experiences with different writing materials,” she says.
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 says. And by the way, she recommends attaching any stroller toys to the stroller, lest they get chucked into the street by a gravity-curious baby.
Speaking of sensory: There is a simple joy that comes with repeatedly popping the soft rubber discs set into this toy’s frame in and out (as an adult, even, it might well provide you with a sort of mindless relaxation). One-year-olds certainly enjoy pushing the discs back and forth, but for them, the Dimpl Duo also creates opportunities to learn shapes and colors and to work on fine motor skills. The Braille element, inclusive for the seeing-impaired, adds interest for those with normal vision.
“Toddlers are beginning to think more critically about their world, improving their attention to detail, and using their eyes and hands together to develop coordination,” says Keri Wilmot, pediatric occupational therapist and toy expert, a.k.a. the Toy Queen. “Match the Baby puzzles are a great opportunity for kids to not only learn about animals but focus on developing their visual-spatial skills as they learn to identify concepts that are the same, even if they might be a different size or color.”