Baby toys are meant to stimulate the senses of touch, sight, and hearing. Appropriate toys are boldly colored, have varied textures, and make sounds.
Rattles, bold-colored stacking rings, and cloth blocks may seem like extremely simple objects to an adult; you grab or touch them and they make a sound or fall to the ground. But, for a child’s development, the simplicity of such baby toys actually illustrates cause and effect – the toy responds with a sound or movement when the baby touches or grabs it. The result of discovering cause and effect principals allows a baby to develop a sense of his or her own power, which, for the very first time, is surprising.
Such toys that are typically for playtime actually are geared for learning developmental skills, as well. Although the phrase of “educational toy” conjures images of flashcards, memory games, and Baby Einstein videos, educational toys for babies under one year are used to stimulate the five senses. Such toys include wrist rattles, squeak toys, pop-up toys, pull toys, pull-string musical toys, and crib activity centers, like cloth books, mirrors, and mobiles.
Developmental stages are not set in stone – some babies may develop earlier or later than others – but, around two months, a baby starts to have more interest in the world around him. Around four months is the time to introduce him to something new – baby toys – as he has started to clearly move his legs and arms.
Toys, however, are recommended to be part of a baby’s environment for atmosphere, particularly because a baby might be taking an interest in bright colors at this point, and for education. In a baby’s room, the toys should be part of the space and not hidden in a toy chest or closet until playtime.
Educational or learning baby toys are geared toward stimulation of the five senses – sight, sound, and touch in particular. Although a baby has begun to develop these senses by this point, interaction with toys can be used to make the senses more acute. Some first toys include toy blocks, rubber animal toys, small mirrors, and musical instruments without sharp noises. The soft materials of the baby toys can contribute to strengthening teeth as well – but make sure the toys are clean. In fact, ring toys, if placed in a freezer, can aid with teething comfort, as long as the rings aren’t frozen until hard.
Another learning aspect toys encourage is playing one on one, whether with a parent or another child, and this can contribute to physical, social, and emotional development. Baby toys increase in complexity as a baby learns new skills. From six to twelve months, for example, new skills include locomotive abilities such as grabbing, pulling, and crawling. Awareness about what to do with specific toys becomes apparent in this time, as well. Such stage-appropriate baby toys include plastic animals, baby dolls, hand rattles, and push and pull toys. These types of toys can help develop attention span, hand-eye coordination, and manual dexterity, in addition to cause and effect.
How important are a baby’s toys in terms of development? One study done by the Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the December 19, 2004 edition of Nature Neuroscience concludes that playing with educational toys as an infant can help brain development later in life. Playing with educational toys can increase development of new learning skills which helps later in adulthood with quicker adapting skills.
The researchers studied a group of young owls to observe the impact of early learning in the part of the brain owls use to create spatial maps based on sounds for finding prey. The young owls were fitted with special goggles to shift their world and perception over to one side. Although the owls originally had a difficult time detecting their prey at first, they were able to adapt by creating new spatial maps. Once the goggles were removed, the owls went back to their original spatial maps.
The second part of this study tested this group of owls later in life with another group of owls, at the same level of maturity, who had not been exposed to the altering goggles when young. The result was the owls that used the goggles earlier in life were able to adjust to the perception shift again, while the owls that had never been exposed to the goggles were confused and unable to adapt. In terms of brain development, the doctors concluded that the brain cells in the spatial part of the owls’ brains had formed a connection with a new group of cells that link noises with the visual world.
For developing babies and educational toys, this could indicate that using such stimulation toys for unique, specific tasks as a baby could help build the child’s brain for future difficult tasks as an adult.