Best learning toys for kids at every age

UCLA Health article

The first time your baby sits up. The first time your toddler starts to take little steps. The first time your child makes a friend in school.

All those beautiful moments are thrilling for parents to witness, and mark crucial developmental stages for every child to reach. Kellye Carroll, director of the Chase Child Life Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, says supplying children with the right learning toys can help them reach those important milestones on time.

Mother Jackie Finger is observing her baby’s rapid progress to a new stage. At ten months, Lucy is getting the hang of crawling.

“She’s always after the chase,” Finger said.

“Children go through very distinct phases, and at each phase they have very different needs,” Carroll says. “Toys are a really important part of children’s environment. They look for toys in order to make sense of their world.”

The right toys at the right time can help children develop their motor, social, sensory, and cognitive skills, according to Carroll. Here is her advice on the best toys that help children to learn at different ages:


Babies are not able to see all the colors of the spectrum. They see only black and white for a few months after they are born, and it takes several weeks before they can see their first color, which is red. Carroll recommends toys in their environment that are black and white or red to help newborns develop their sense of sight. Toys that make music and have textures also help their sense of hearing and touch be more defined.

Around 6 months, parents can present infants with toys that they can play in front of them to encourage them to sit up. When they're crawling, parents can encourage them with toys that they go after.

“As children get older, they learn things like cause and effect, so letting them have toys that they push and something happens on the other end is helpful,” Carroll says. “We know that understanding cause and effect is a very important skill all through your life, and we help infants learn that at a very early age based on toys.”

Toys at the next stage are those that encourage infants to stand, like small tables, along with toys that they can push or pull behind them, like toy shopping carts, and lawnmowers.

Toddlers: 1-3 years old

Toddlers are learning to be independent, and looking to do things on their own. Carroll recommends toys that will refine walking and running, and get toddlers moving outside, like balls. To develop gross motor skills, parents can offer toys that are a little larger which toddlers can manipulate on their own.

“Toddlers enjoy the great big trucks, cars and trains, the chunky ones that they can get down on the floor,” Carroll says. “Big things that they can handle and begin to play out the scenarios that they are seeing in the world around them.”

Pre-school: 3-6 years old

Pre-Schoolers begin to be aware of their gender, and the roles of the people in their lives. They start to play out those roles and experiment with fantasy dress up.

A lot of preschoolers will want to put on the clothes of the people that they see around them, especially jobs that have distinct uniforms, like doctors, or firefighters. They also love dressing up as fantasy characters like the princess, or the superhero.

Play kitchens are a favorite for pre-schoolers because they can act out a daily routine that they witness the adults doing. “In everybody's life, we have food and we have food being prepared for us,” Carroll says. “They love to play with play food, and play pots and pans.”

School age - 6-12 years old

School agers are firmly in the peers stage and leave mom, dad, and the family as the primary means of play. Carroll recommends board games for school agers to help develop social skills. Games give kids the safe arena to learn about rules, fairness, taking turns, handling conflict, winning and losing.

Games also teach a sense of teamwork, and Carroll says a lot of the new board games on the market are not about one person winning, but about everybody working together.

“Play is a child’s work,” Carroll says. “That’s how they learn about the world.”

“It’s amazing, you see this person develop right in front of you.” Finger says, while playing with Lucy. “You give them what they need and they do it on their own.”