My daughter is two years old. I will be coming to the United States soon, and would like to know the best toys to purchase for a two year old.
Hong Kong

Dr. Greene's Answer

Toys are one of my favorite subjects. Play is a child’s work. A child’s joy in playing encourages her to engage in those activities that stimulate her growth and development — provided that this mechanism isn’t short-circuited by a steady stream of passive entertainment (something only likely in the past 40 years of human history). Activities such as television, or fancy toys that perform while she watches, can artificially satisfy her inborn desires both for play and for adult attention, thus robbing her of joy-filled opportunities for growth (in much the same way that processed, partially-hydrogenated snack foods can replace the magic of a ripe peach).

To find clues as to the best toys at any age, turn off the TV, put away the passive-play toys, and watch your child. Many kids will begin to play spontaneously, using whatever is at hand; take note of what they choose to play with. Others will be directionless or frustrated; interact with them playfully, and their choices will begin to emerge. Spontaneous play gives us important clues to the cutting edge of a child’s development.

Children put the most energy into newly emerging skills. Activities of moderate novelty tend to be the most interesting and the most fun. Once a child has mastered something, she will want to repeat it to wallow in her success, but eventually she will begin to grow bored, either changing the activity slightly to keep it interesting, or moving on to something else. Activities that are too new, too difficult, or too overwhelming will frustrate her and fail to hold her interest.

One of the joys of parenting is finding that zone of moderate challenge for your child, and setting up fun opportunities for her to teach herself through exploration and play.

With this in mind, here are some ideas that will provide hours of child-directed play for many two year olds:

  • Kindergarten blocks — natural wood blocks in a variety of shapes and sizes, for creative building.
  • Sorting toys — sorting is one of the most important intellectual tasks for two year olds. A simple sorting toy can be made out of an egg carton and some buttons (make sure the buttons have open holes, in case the child gets one in her mouth — they shouldn’t be used unsupervised). Have the child put the red buttons in one receptacle, the blue in another, etc. Then, dump them out and put the round buttons in one, the square in another, and so on. As she learns how to organize the same information in several different ways, it will prepare her to receive and organize the massive information influx over the next year.
  • Dolls of all sizes, animals, puppets, toy telephones, toy buildings, simple vehicles (cars, trucks, and trains), old clothes, and simple costumes — all of these can encourage vibrant, imaginative play. Again, observe your child. Some kids would love to pretend with a toy lawn mower, others with a kitchen set, and others wouldn’t like either.
  • Balls of all shapes and sizes, connecting toys (large stringing beads), digging toys (bucket, shovel, and rake), a sandbox, a beginner’s tricycle, a child keyboard (or other musical instruments), and large crayons can all stimulate physical as well as intellectual and emotional development.
  • Books. Reading together is a rich experience which supports language development and nurtures your bond with your child. Story telling can also be quite powerful. Make your daughter and people she knows into characters for some of your stories. Use both everyday events and time-honored tales.
  • Computer programs — As we prepare to enter the 21st century, our children will need to be adept with computers. Many interactive computer programs now teach numbers, colors, shapes, and pre-reading skills. Children absolutely love these. This software is both far better and far worse than television. The programs are highly educational and promote the active involvement of children; they even satisfy children’s desire for praise and attention (with cartoon characters dancing and singing when children figure something out). As such, however, they can be even more addictive than TV. Use them as an enrichment, but don’t let them substitute for your praise, your attention, your involvement. Don’t let them supplant the wonder of the real world all around us.

Play is your daughter’s job. Toys are powerful tools. Nevertheless, don’t be lulled into the misconception that more is better. More toys, more lights, more sounds, and more money do not make for a happier or healthier child. Many studies have shown that even the most deprived environments are full of opportunities for play. If the toys are versatile, and someone is willing to play along, children with fewer toys will often experience even more delight and creativity. Children need safety, freedom, loving attention, and praise. They can often make their own toys.

Most parents have had the experience of giving their child expensive gifts, only to find the child more interested in the wrapping, the box, or some little party favor. Learn from this.

Often the best toys are made from wooden spoons, cardboard boxes, tubes, pots and pans, and other safe items that she ‘discovers’ around the house. As you observe her spontaneous play, you will begin to notice the leading edge of her development, and you can help seed her environment with items that will both delight and nourish her growing body and mind.

And don’t forget to play along with her. Play is an important part of a parent’s growth as well.

Last medical review on: July 11, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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