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Science-Based Tips on Buying Toys for Kids

Selecting developmentally appropriate toys for children is discussed.

Christmas is around the corner. For those parents and caregivers who have not decided what toys to get your young children yet, I hope this post provides useful psychological tips. The suggestions below are based on a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, to be published in the January issue of Pediatrics.1 Written by pediatricians Healey and Mendelsohn (of the Council on Early Childhood), the report urges reversing the trend of a preference for digital toys, and supports a return to traditional toys.1

Toys that support children’s development

Electronic media usage has been displacing play-based interactions between children and their caregivers. Worse, many claims regarding digital toys supporting children’s development have not been backed by scientific evidence.

On the contrary, the use of electronic media and digital toys has been associated with negative outcomes, like a decline in some psychological functions and a reduction in gross motor activities like balancing or running that use large muscles of the body. For instance, compared with using traditional books, electronic console books may result in less story comprehension.2

Simply put, many electronic toys do not appear to have the same benefits as traditional (i.e. physical) toys.

Common types of traditional toys

So which traditional toys support children’s development? These toys can be categorized in the following way:1

Toys that strengthen fine motor skills

Some toys support the development of fine motor skills (e.g., finger dexterity, wrist flexibility). Playing with these toys requires the child to grasp, hold, or manipulate objects. Examples of toy-related activities which facilitate fine motor development include building structures with blocks, putting together puzzles, and cutting shapes.

Toys which stimulate imagination

These toys—toy cars and planes, dolls, accessories, kitchen sets, action figures, costumes, and others—encourage symbolic and pretend play. Simpler toys are better because they give kids more freedom, and encourage greater imagination. The child can create new worlds and stories each time she uses these toys.

Source: Efraimstochter-jarmoluk-dimitrisvetsikas1969-zilaseger/Pixabay

Toys that foster creativity

Children often enjoy creative activities, such as drawing and painting, especially if they feel the freedom to express themselves and do not fear being criticized. Materials required for creative activities include (colored) papers of various sizes, child-safe scissors, colored pencils, paintbrushes, watercolor paint, modeling clay, etc.

Toys which promote conceptual and language learning

Board games (e.g., Chutes and Ladders, checkers), and card games (e.g., Go Fish) are helpful in teaching children new mathematical concepts, strengthening their problem-solving abilities, and improving their social skills. Also beneficial is talking about and reading books together (e.g., with their caregiver); not only will children learn new vocabulary, but they will improve their language skills too.

Toys that encourage physical activity

Many toys, especially media-based toys, do not encourage active play. Sedentary games are associated with health problems (e.g., obesity), and provide little opportunities for the development of gross motor abilities. Toys which promote physical activity include push and pull toys, big toy cars, bicycles and tricycles, balls (e.g., basketball), jump rope….

Source: 6979608/Pixabay

Concluding thoughts

A major purpose of playing with toys is to facilitate warm and supportive communication and engagement. Therefore, toys—traditional or digital—should not be used to replace social interactions but to enhance them.

Ideal toys are those which encourage child/caregiver engagement in interactions “rich in language, pretending, problem-solving, reciprocity, cooperation, and creativity (and potentially for older children in solitary play).”1

The Pediatrics report summarized here concludes that parents or caregivers should choose toys that are safe and developmentally appropriate.

So select safe toys which stimulate the imagination, support child-caregiver interaction, promote exploration and problem solving, and encourage both mental and physical activity. Bells and whistles do not necessarily make a toy better. As hinted at earlier, “sometimes the simplest toys may be the best” because “they provide opportunities for children to use their imagination to create the toy use, not the other way around.”1


1. Healey, A, & Mendelsohn, A. (2019). Selecting appropriate toys for young children in the digital era. Pediatrics, 143, e20183348.

2. Parish-Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. F. (2013). Once upon a time: parent–child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7, 200–211.

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