Human Development and Family Studies
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension


Copyright/Access Information


Playing is important to children. It is the way they practice growing up. Toys are the tools children use in play. Toys can be purchased, or they may be as simple as kitchen pan lids or paper sack puppets. Anything children can play with safely can be a toy. In fact, you may have watched infants open presents and noticed that they spent more time playing with the ribbon and wrapping than with the toy inside.

Try to remember two or three of your favorite toys. Were they ones you created yourself or ones someone made for you?

Toys can be divided into several groups, depending on the part of the child it helps to develop.

  • Toys for physical or muscle development such as wagons, bikes, boxes, puzzles, blocks, brooms, and shovels.
  • Toys for sensory (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) development such as water toys, musical instruments, bubbles, play dough, and sand toys.
  • Toys for make-believe and social development such as dolls, dress-up clothes, cars, trucks, games, and books.
  • Toys for creative and intellectual development such as clay, crayons, paints, books, paper, and scissors.

Sometimes toys fit into more than one category. A wagon can help develop children's muscles and also be used as the “ambulance” in a hospital game. Children need a balance of toys from each of these groups to ensure their whole development.


Children need to have direct experience with the world in order to make sense of and learn about it. Have you ever thought about all the things children learn after they are born? They learn how to talk, sit up, walk, and run. They learn what things are and how they work. They learn about people and the world. They learn all of these things by playing with toys.

For example, babies are not born knowing about gravity. They do not know that anything dropped will fall to the floor. They learn this, by playing with toys. Infants may accidentally let go of a rattle and notice that it falls to the floor. When you give it back, they may deliberately drop it to see if it falls again. Sure enough, it hits the floor! They enjoy the game “drop the toy” for as long as you are willing to play. Soon everything in their grasp becomes a toy for dropping – bottles, spoons, balls, and even bowls of food. They practice this “experiment” and play this game with everything they touch. They understand about gravity because they have actually experienced it with their toys.

Toys are important for other reasons, too. Children exercise their muscles with toys. Next time you see children rocking horses or riding bikes, notice the muscles they are using.

Think of the coordination and balance they practice when they climb to the top of the jungle gym or the muscle control they develop when they put one more block on the tower without it falling down. All these necessary skills are developed easily through toys.

Toys also invite children to create and use their imaginations. Give an empty cardboard box to a child and watch all the things it becomes – a train, house, or cage at the zoo. Children start many play times with “Let's pretend…” and toys encourage this. For more on how toys can help develop creativity, read *Good Times Being Creative*.

Children gain self-confidence as they play with toys. As children master their toys – as they finish a puzzle, ride a trike, or blow a bubble – they develop a sense of power. They say, “I can do this. Look at me.” As a caregiver, you often may find children want to show you what they can do with their toys. It is important to recognize their accomplishments. When an adult pays attention to children's play, they feel worthwhile and gain self-confidence. Their self-concepts grow stronger.

Along with building self-esteem, toys can be the basis for friendships. Toys like teeter-totters only work when children cooperate. Projects like building sand castles go faster with friends.

Children often talk more easily to one another over toys. Playing with toys in a group helps children discover how others think and feel and what brings approval or disapproval. They learn what happens when they share the truck they are playing with or when they refuse to share and the truck is taken from them.

With toys, children can use energy and discover emotions. Children have lots of energy. It may not be okay for them to use their energy to jump on the bed, but it is almost always okay for them to use it to ride a trike or bike. Toys also are useful as a way to deal with working through emotional conflict or anger. Splashing water or pounding play dough can help children release tension.


Children and caregivers sometimes use television as a toy. In fact, studies show that children watch an average of 30 hours of television a week, and many people feel that is too much.

The time children spend watching television is passive time. It is time that children could be using to do something active. Remember how children need to be actively involved with real things in order to develop their muscles and their minds? This usually does not happen with television.

A moderate amount of television can lead to fun learning experiences for children. The secret is to balance television time with other activities and to help children get the most out of that television time. There are several ways to do this.

  • Check with children's parents to see if there are any family rules about how much television the children can watch or what programs they are allowed to view. Always follow these rules.
  • As a caregiver, do not use the television set to do the caring for you. You need to pay attention to the children and spend time with them. They usually will not object to limited television time if you provide attractive toys and play alternatives, using the ideas in *Good Times with Play* or *Good Times Being Creative*.
  • If children are watching television, watch with them and talk about what they are watching. This can mean talking about what is real and what is pretend; explain how stunts are done; or ask about their reactions to what they see. Even a 3-year-old can discuss simple ideas about television programs. This helps them participate in what they are watching instead of being inactive.


Some toys are better choices for children than others. When children come to you and say, “I don't have anything to do!”, you can help them choose a toy or game. But, what makes a toy a good choice?

First, look at the children themselves. How old are they? What interests do they have? What do they like to do? Judge an idea that you have for a toy by asking:

  • Is it safe? In the ages and stages to follow we will discuss what safety means for a particular age. Always keep in mind that any toy can be unsafe if it is misused. For example, roller skates are unsafe if they are worn to go up and down stairs. Toys that are safe for one age may be unsafe for a younger age. As a caregiver, you need to make sure a 6-year-old's marbles cannot be reached by a 1-year-old.
  • Does it capture the child's interest? Is it attractive? Children automatically play with a good toy; they do not have to be forced or tricked into it. Toys that can be used in a variety of ways keep children's interest longer than those with only one use. Will they think the toy is fun? Is the toy appropriate for their age and abilities?
  • Can the child use it alone or is another person needed? Children need to have both kinds of toys.
  • What kind of activities will it encourage? If you want to settle children down, books or puzzles are better choices than balls.

Once you and the child have selected a toy, there are five simple “rules of play” to be aware of as a caregiver.

1. Watch children without interrupting their play and make-believe games. Observe their interests and skill levels. What toys are their favorites? Why?

2. Ask children to tell you about what they are doing. Do not judge their projects.

3. Join in and play at the child's level. Let the child lead. If you try to add ideas too quickly, it might confuse the child and disappoint you.

4. After playing for awhile at the child's pace, introduce a slightly more difficult stage of play. For example, if a child can build a tower of five blocks, encourage him or her to try seven. Show the child how to use cars with the blocks by making the tower a garage.

5. Watch again to see if and how the child explores this new way to use a toy. After children learn to do something new by themselves, you can get involved again and suggest another new activity.

People who study children's play have found that when caregivers play with them and slightly expand on what the children are doing, the quality of the play improves. Children learn more from playing and enjoy it more. As you read the following suggestions on toys for different ages, remember, there are no perfect lists of toys. Also, remember that it is important to choose toys based on a child's particular age and interests.


Infants need bright-colored toys of many textures. They should be washable, non-breakable, and have no sharp edges that might cut or scratch. Toys should be large enough so they cannot be swallowed and they should have no small attached pieces (like eyes on a stuffed animal or bells on a shaker) that could be pulled off and swallowed. At this age, babies put everything into their mouths as part of exploring their worlds. Any toy they are given must be safe when used in this way.

Infants are interested in looking at toys, touching them with their hands and mouth, fitting pieces of things together and making sense of their worlds. Choose toys for them to look at, feel, chew on, hold, and drop. As infants begin to walk or crawl, they also will be interested in push-pull toys and balls. Appropriate infants toys include: rattles, squeak toys, blocks, crib mobiles, stacking toys and rings, push-pull toys, stuffed animals or dolls, nested boxes or cups, books with rhymes, simple picture books, noise making toys, small soft toys for throwing, strings of beads (large, plastic), and music-making toys.

How you can help

1. Be understanding when you play with infants. Play with them for short periods of time so they will not get overly excited. Babies do not understand or enjoy teasing. For example, when they reach for a toy, let them get it instead of dangling it then snatching it away. Teasing frustrates babies and may make them cry.

2. Make a noise maker for infants by stringing the outer lids of mason jars on a ribbon and knotting it. The ribbon should be small enough that infants cannot slip it over their heads and be accidentally strangled.

3. Collect different size cans and make a set of nesting cans. Make sure there are no sharp edges where the lids have been cut off. Cans can be covered with decorative contact paper or painted with non-toxic paint.

4. Play “pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo” and simple games with infants.

5. Let babies play with your fingers and hair.

6. Read *Good Times with Music and Rhythm* or *Good Times with Play* to get more ideas about what to play with infants.


Toddlers are active and enjoy climbing, running, and jumping. They need toys to meet these needs. They also are interested in doing things with their hands as the small muscles in their fingers become more developed. However, toys for this age group should be simple and require little coordination. During this period, toddlers become interested in playing with others and in imitating grown-up activities. Toys like dress-up clothes are great for this!

As a caregiver, be careful about imposing sex stereotypes on toddlers' toy choices. Boys will sometimes show interest in dolls or want to be “the mommy.” Girls may want trucks or to be “Superman.” That is okay. This exploration is normal and necessary for them to learn about the world.

Toddlers also are interested in sensory materials such as paint, play dough, crayons, and chalk. They usually are not interested in drawing or painting a specific object. They like to scribble and mix colors. When talking to young children about their creations, it is better to say “Tell me about your picture,” rather than “What is it?”

Toddler's still put toys in their mouths, so you will need to watch for objects with small parts. Also, watch out for items, such as paint and chalk, as toddlers think it is great fun to eat these! Toys should be sturdy and should not have sharp edges or points. Toddlers enjoy balloons, but caregivers should be careful to keep uninflated or broken balloons out of reach. A child could suffocate if these are swallowed.

Appropriate Toddler Toys


push-pull toys
pedal toys
truck/cars big enough to ride
balls and bean bags
balloons (with close supervision)
climbing structures
books with simple stories
peg boards
creative materials (crayons, playdough, paint)
water play toys
simple dress-up clothes
dolls and stuffed animals


How you can help

1. Play pretend games with children. For example, create a traffic jam with the toy cars they use. Make believe you are animals like kittens, dogs, or horses.

2. Play tag, bounce, or catch with balls or bean bags.

3. Make a bean bag. Use a rectangle of fabric and fold it in half. Sew it on two sides. Turn right side out. Fill with beans. Sew the final edge shut. Be sure to fix it right away if the beans begin to spill out. Beans are small enough to be put in a toddlers mouth and might be dangerous, if swallowed.

4. Play follow-the-leader or design a toddler-size obstacle course.

5. Let children imitate your activities such as sweeping the floor.

6. Read *Good Times Being Creative* for playdough, paint, and other craft recipes and for more ideas on encouraging play.


This is a dramatic and creative age. Many conversations between preschool-age friends start with “Let's pretend….” Children become social. They become interested in playing with each other instead of preferring to play alone. Many toys become props for cooperative play.

Preschool-age children also are interested in active physical play. They have more control of their muscles at this age and this can be seen in the move from a tricycle to a two-wheel bike. Preschoolers also are increasingly curious about the world around them. They enjoy realistic toys such as farm and animal sets, grocery store prop boxes, model cars, and trains.

As hand coordination increases, so does the child's interest in simple construction sets and more difficult puzzles. They can manage more difficult creative projects, and enjoy cutting and simple sewing projects, in addition to the paint and play dough of earlier stages. Since children at this age also are busy learning to read and write, give them play equipment that encourages these interests.

You may notice that preschool children play with many of the same toys as toddlers, but do so in different ways. As a caregiver, encourage them to be creative and to experiment. There are fewer safety concerns in this stage, but sharp or cutting toys and electrical toys are still too dangerous.

Appropriate Toys for Preschoolers


farm and community play sets
transportation vehicles of all types
simple construction toys
creative materials
books and records
wheel toys
simple musical instruments
climbing structures
prop boxes
water play toys
cognitive games
dress-up clothes
housekeeping props
dolls and stuffed animals
character toys


How you can help

1. Get a book on puppets from your local library, and make or help the child make a puppet. Then act out a scene.

2. Act out fairy tales or other children's stories. *The Three Bears*, *The Three Billy Goats Gruff*, and *Caps for Sale* are good starting stories for this. For more ideas on things to do with children and books, see *Good Times with Stories and Poems*.

3. Reverse roles with the child. Let him or her pretend to be the caregiver and you pretend to be the child.

4. Preschool children enjoy card games like Concentration and Go Fish. They also enjoy board games such as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. Remember, do not place too much emphasis on winning. At this age doing is still more important than winning.

5. Make a prop box to take with you when you care for children. This means you collect the “props” children would need to pretend they are certain make-believe characters. For example, for “mail carrier” you might have a carry bag of some kind, some old envelopes, and a shoebox for a mailbox. Use your imagination to create prop boxes that fit the interests of the particular child; for example, police officer, firefighter, ballet dancer, store keeper, farmer, or veterinarian.


This is the age that children start collections or hobbies. Toys occupy less time for this age group because children spend more and more time playing with friends in groups. Early school-age children start to show more awareness of sex role stereotypes, that is, what girls and boys are supposed to do. Often girls play with girls and boys with boys. Girls may play with dolls as “babies” and pretend they are doing “real” housekeeping. Often boys enjoy electric trains and construction sets. Encourage children to change these stereotypes. Boys can play with dolls and be happy, if they feel it is okay for them to do so.

School opens a whole new world for early school-age children. They begin to make use of reading and writing skills, as well as their improved muscle control. They can do many things for themselves now; they previously needed your help with reading stories, doing more complicated, creative, and craft projects, and acting out stories by themselves. Your role may be “behind the scenes” or as a member of an audience more often than as a participant.

This is the age of active games. Ball games, biking, swimming, and hiking are popular with this group. There also is an increased interest in table games that require two or more players. These include games that use simple number skills and increased coordination, such as dominoes, jacks, or marbles.



board games
electric trains (UL approved)
construction sets
science kits
craft kits
larger bicycles
prop boxes and costumes
fashion and career dolls
doll house and furniture
jump ropes
art materials of all kinds
work bench with real tools
roller and ice skates


How you can help

1. Play games with children and help them practice sport activities that interest them.

2. Play table games with children. Remember that early school-age children tend to take rules seriously.

3. Ask children about their toys and play. “Tell me about it,” and “What did it feel like?” are good questions. Show an interest in their hobbies and collections.

4. Children this age feel big and important when they can do things with you. Let them be a real part of what you are doing. Be careful not to do things for them that they can do themselves.

5. Read *Good Times with Play* and *Good Times Being Creative* for more ideas.


1. Ask your mother and father about what toys you liked as a child. Did you have a favorite household item to play with? How did you play with your toys? Do you still have any of those favorite toys?

2. One complaint that people have about television is that children want everything they see in commercials. Think about what you would do if a child asked you for a toy that was too advanced for him or her.

3. Make a card file of activities that children can do indoors to use their energy. What are acceptable physically active games for indoors? What quiet activities might you do with each particular age?

4. Make a kit of homemade toys that you can take with you as a caregiver. Read the suggested books in the resource section for ideas or get a book on homemade toys from your public library.

5. Learn some new games to play with children. Listed below are three books that have excellent cooperative games for school-age children. Some of them also are good for preschoolers.

*New Games Book*, edited by Andrew Fluegelman;
*More New Games Book*, edited by Andrew Fluegelman;
*The Cooperative Sports and Game Book* by Terry Orlick.

6. Observe children watching television. Think about ways you could help them participate in what they are watching. How could you help make their television watching a valuable experience?

7. Make a poster or a display to show your club what you have learned about toy safety, toy-making, or toy selection.

8. Make a toy that could be used by a child in one of these age groups. Write a short paper explaining why this toy is good for this age. Include the child's reaction to your toy.


There is a lot of material available on making children's toys and on children's games. Check sources like public libraries, local book stores, and your county cooperative extension agent.


Auburn University, *You Can Make It: Free and Inexpensive Toys for Children* by Catherine H. Foree.

*The Best Toys in Life Are Free* by Mary Scott Welch (prepared by Gordon G. Geddes).

Iowa State University, *Family Daycare Exchange of Information and Ideas – Inexpensive Toys and Equipment* (North Central Regional Publication No. 128a) by Dorothy Pinsky and Jane Ann Stout.

North Dakota State University, *Directions for Making a Quiet Book* by Jane W. Winge.

University of Missouri-Columbia, *Play Materials and Activities for the Young Child* by Lou Isbell.


Consumer Product Safety Commission has free publications about toy safety. Write Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, DC 20207 or call toll free 1-800-638-8326.

*Toys: Fun in the Making*. U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Washington, DC 20250.

*Be What You Want to Be: The Complete Dress-up and Pretend Craft Book* by Phyllis and Noel Fiarotta. Workman Publishing Company, 1 West 39th Street, New York, NY 10018.

*More New Games and Playful Ideas*, edited by Andrew Fluegelman. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1981.

*New Games Book*, edited by Andrew Fluegelman. New York: Doubleday and Company.

*Steven Caney's Toy Book* by Steven Caney. New York: Workman Publishing Co., 1972.

*The Cooperative Sports and Games Book* by Terry Orlick. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

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