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How to Buy Great Baby Toys

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When I was a baby, my mother’s mother showered me with dozens of toys—so many toys I didn’t know what to do with them. In fact, my second Christmas I absolutely refused to open another present, even with a pile left for me under the tree. While her heart was in the right place, my grandmother was so excited to buy me things that she didn’t take the time to think about what kinds of toys I would really enjoy.

There’s nothing like the joy of giving someone just the right gift. While adults show their gratitude with thanks or gracious notes, a baby rewards your thoughtfulness by gleefully playing with your gift over and over again.

The secret to thoughtful baby toys is to think about toys as tools. Ask yourself what toys would best help a baby do what he or she is learning to do at any given time. Things that make learning and exploring more fun make the best toys.

The Wonder Weeks is a great resource for parents, grandparents, and friends who want to know what a baby is learning. Two evolutionary biologists outline what skills babies are developing week by week and what toys help them hone their new skills.

For example,

Babies who are… are learning to… They might enjoy…
8 weeks old recognize simple patterns. a moving mobile, especially with high-contrast designs.
26 weeks old understand distances between two things. a cupboard full of baby-friendly things to explore.
37 weeks old group related objects together—for example daddy, mommy, and baby are part of a family! a basket full of balls of many different sizes.
46 weeks old follow simple cause-and-effect sequences. a toy car to sit in and ride.

Once you know what tools a baby needs, here are a few other ideas to for great baby toys:

    44-week-old Thomas plays with a thoughtful gift from his grandparents.

  • Look for “un-toys.” A baby wants to be just like you—and that means playing with what he thinks are your favorite toys. My husband likes to joke that our infant son chooses what to play with based on what looks least like a toy. His favorite “toys” have included a whisk, his bedroom door, and (with careful adult supervision) a small step stool. Just be sure that “un-toys” are still baby-safe.
  • Recycle. Toys don’t have to be store bought. A cabinet full of paper-towel tubes, empty boxes, and plastic containers is an excellent toy for a baby. Thomas loves a basket full of ribbons leftover from shower gifts.
  • Help a baby pick his or her toys. One toy is fun. Two toys are more fun. But put those two toys in a basket or box to give a baby the special treat of deciding what to play with for him or herself. A basket of child-friendly percussion instruments keeps Thomas entertained for hours.
  • Choose quality over quantity. A baby can only play with a few toys at once. Invest in a few items he or she will really enjoy over filling up the toy box. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also spare yourself the trouble of cleaning up an explosion of toys every evening.
  • Don’t fall for the “educational toy trap.” A toy doesn’t have to play classical music or speak Spanish for a baby to learn from it. In fact, at one or two years old, almost everything a baby does is educational. A baby will learn more from a thoughtful toy he or she really loves than an “educational” toy he or she doesn’t.
  • Think about mom and dad. Help parents out by avoiding toys that will drive them crazy. Electronic toys that sing the same song over and over again are almost guaranteed to “disappear” after a few days of play.
  • Practice good buying habits. Set a few ground-rules to help you get good value for your toys. For example, we choose to avoid toys with PET-plastics and toys that might have been manufactured by children. Plus, we shop local or homemade whenever we can.

The Wonder Weeks is a wonderful book on how to understand and cope with babies when they are difficult and understand them as they grow. You can also read more about the book on-line.

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