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The Power of Developmental Play

2020-09-18 by Melissa & Doug
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This is the second in a series of blog posts on the skill-building power of different types of play.

Shape sorters and stackers. . . Activity centers that have kids pushing, pulling, pounding, flipping, and turning. . . “Manipulatives” that can be moved around to explore cause-and-effect. . . These are the kinds of “first toys” that set kids on a path to acquiring important developmental skills for life! Through play with hands-on, developmental toys, kids learn to master new skills and explore their own ideas. This helps confidence and a sense that learning can be challenging but also rewarding.


As the American Academy of Pediatrics points out in a recent study, toys that are most likely to facilitate development are those that encourage rich language experiences — a “back and forth” or “serve and return” quality between grown-up and child. The kind of “guided play” where kids take the lead but are supported by parents or caregivers in their exploration is especially helpful for learning and discovery. The toys in the list below do just that.

The 15 Best Developmental Play Toys for Kids

These developmental play toys can help build kids’ hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills and so much more. We’ve included extra play ideas for each to keep the developmental play going!

  1. Latches Board

    Age: 3+
    Why it’s great: Undo a lock or latch, swing open the numbered door and count on finding fun when the picture beneath is revealed on this wooden play board and educational toy.
    Sweet detail: Latches hook, snap, click, and slide!
    Skills: Fine motor
    Countless Ways to Play: Have fun giving kids shape- and number-based clues as they search for houses that match: “Which house has a circle with the number 5?”
  2. Wooden Doorbell House

    Age: 3+
    Why it’s great: Ring the bells for fun at this soundly-built charming wooden cottage. Then unlock the four unique locks with matching keys to open the doors. The keys are attached to the house so they won’t get lost, and the sturdy handle makes this a great take-along toy!
    Sweet detail: Includes four poseable play people!
    Skills: Fine motor
    Countless Ways to Play: Tell knock-knock jokes as you play or make up stories about who is at the door.
  3. Deluxe Pounding Bench

    Age: 2+
    Why it’s great: The pegs on the sturdy wooden bench go up and down as kids pound them with the mallet.
    Sweet detail: The non-removable pegs take turns playing peekaboo with their smiles!
    Skills: Color recognition, fine motor
    Countless Ways to Play: Have kids pound pegs as you call out their colors!
  4. Shape Sorting Cube

    Age: 2+
    Why it’s great: This classic, award-winning shape sorter features 12 chunky, vibrantly colored shapes that fit into the holes of a natural-finish hardwood cube.
    Sweet detail: Shapes make a satisfying “clunk” as they drop into the cube!
    Skills: Problem solving, color & shape recognition
    Countless Ways to Play: Encourage kids to practice counting to 12 as they drop the blocks into the cube.
  5. Stacking Train

    Age: 2+
    Why it’s great: The 15 easy-to-grasp wooden blocks slot onto rods on the flatcars, providing a great opportunity to practice fine motor skills. For even more play value, the blocks can also be used for stacking, building, and sorting.
    Sweet detail: The smooth-rolling train cars detach to shorten the train or let children play with the cars individually.
    Skills: Color & shape recognition, sorting
    Countless Ways to Play: Sort blocks into piles by color making four “train station.” Have kids push the train around the floor, stopping at each “station” to load up the train with the blocks!
  6. First Play Jungle Activity Table

    Age: 12 months+
    Why it’s great: This hands-on multi-activity table features gears to turn, a tube to roll, beads to slide, flaps to open, a wheel to spin, and easy-to-grasp pieces to flip, push, and pull! Sturdy wooden construction, paired with whimsical jungle-themed designs, make this a long-lasting and welcome addition to any playroom.
    Sweet detail: The bold colors and beautiful, original artwork will look great in any playroom or bedroom.
    Skills: Gross and fine motor, sensory development
    Countless Ways to Play: Encourage kids to make each animal’s sound as you point to the animals on the table.
  7. Pull-Back Vehicles

    Age: 9 months+
    Why it’s great: The “rev up” mechanism inside each of these four cars and trucks makes it easy for babies and toddlers to get big acceleration with just a little input. Pull back one of the soft vehicles, then release to see it zoom off across the floor! The action of grasping and pulling back is great for fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination; the activity of “driving” and collecting (pull, release, crawl) benefits large muscle groups and coordination, too.
    Sweet detail: The vehicles have a removable wipe-clean wheelie insert and washable fabric surface!
    Skills: Gross motor, hand-eye coordination
    Countless Ways to Play: As you play with baby, name the different types of vehicles (taxi, police car, fire truck, and school bus) for an extra vocabulary-building exercise.
  8. Take-Along Shape Sorter

    Age: 9 months+
    Why it’s great: More than a shape sorter, this is an on-the-go activity center! Using nine plastic shapes and the padded carrying case, children can lift crinkly flaps, identify the pictures, match the shapes, and drop the textured blocks through the sorter . . . then pull the plush dog around the edge to unzip the case and start it all again!
    Sweet detail: The easy-to-grasp padded handle makes it easy to carry the whole set from place to place, even for crawlers, scooters, and emerging walkers.
    Skills: Sensory, fine motor, communication, problem solving
    Countless Ways to Play: Encourage kids to grasp the dog zipper pull and help them slide it from side to side, moving the zipper back and forth. This is a great exercise for finger strength, which will be needed later for writing.
  9. Geometric Stacker

    Age: 2+
    Why it’s great: Match and sort these 25 colorful wooden pieces, and skill-building is just part of the fun. Rings, octagons, and rectangles can be slotted onto the three rods, stacked on top of each other, or lined up to compare shapes, sizes, and colors. This first-concepts set is a manipulatives all-star!
    Sweet detail: The blocks are fun to play and explore with off the rods.
    Skills: Shape & color recognition, sorting
    Countless Ways to Play: Have kids sort the pieces by shape and make the tallest towers they can without the rods.
  10. Bead Maze

    Age: 12 months+
    Why it’s great: Multi-shaped and brightly colored beads swoop and slide along roller-coaster wires to encourage color and shape recognition and fine motor development. With a sturdy wooden base, this eye-catching activity will keep a little one busy for a long while!
    Sweet detail: Features 18 wooden beads in a variety of shapes and sizes.
    Skills: Fine motor
    Countless Ways to Play: Try a bead race with up to three contestants, seeing who can get their beads moved from one end of the wire to the other the fastest!
  11. First Play Wooden Safari Zig Zag Tower

    Age: 12 months+
    Why it’s great: Get the fun rolling with this sturdy wooden tower and four pieces that spin down the zig-zag track! Babies and toddlers will delight in matching, stacking, and rolling the smooth, solid wood pieces with friendly safari animal faces.
    Sweet detail: Pieces store in the tower when it’s turned sideways!
    Skills: Fine motor, cause-and-effect
    Countless Ways to Play: Point to an animal on one of the pieces and have kids find the matching animal on the tower.
  12. Basic Skills Board

    Age: 3+
    Why it’s great: This wooden bear is always smiling, but he’s happiest when fully dressed! Getting dressed won’t be such a puzzle once zipping, buckling, snapping, lacing and tying, and other dressing skills are mastered.
    Sweet detail: Each skill is contained on a separate, removable wooden puzzle piece for easy practice.
    Skills: Fine motor, confidence
    Countless Ways to Play: Make it into a game by timing kids to see how quickly they are able to complete each of the skills and then undo them.
  13. First Play Spin-and-Feed Shape Sorter

    Age: 12 months+
    Why it’s great: This is the perfect toy when kids are hungry for hands-on play! Spin the playful puppy’s nose, then “feed” it five colorful wooden shape blocks! Babies and toddlers will delight in sorting and stacking the smooth, solid wood pieces that store in a tray behind the puppy.
    Sweet detail: Pieces store in shape sorter tray.
    Skills: Fine motor, color & shape recognition
    Countless Ways to Play: Explore sensory skills by encouraging kids to clap two pieces together, softly at first, then loudly.
  14. Rainbow Stacker

    Age: 18 months+
    Why it’s great: Talk about a classic childhood toy! All the colors of the rainbow are represented by these eight smooth, easy-grasp wooden pieces.
    Sweet detail: The solid-wood base is designed with rocking edges for safe and engaging play!
    Skills: Fine motor, color & shape recognition
    Countless Ways to Play: After mastering stacking from largest to smallest, try it the other way!
  15. Wooden Animal Magnets

    Age: 2+
    Why it’s great: Everyone is attracted to these magnetic animals! Twenty favorite wild and domesticated animals in a compact wooden storage case are waiting to play.
    Sweet detail: The detailed images of the friendly animals is likely to inspire kids’ storytelling!
    Skills: Fine motor, vocabulary
    Countless Ways to Play: Get kids stretching and learning opposites. Call out where to put the animals on a magnetic surface: “Put the cat up high. Put the horse down low. Pig on the left. Cow on the right. Let’s go!”

In its “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era” study, the AAP noted that “High-quality toys in each of these categories can facilitate caregiver-child interactions, peer play, and the growth of imagination”:

Pretend Play Activity centers, dolls, play food, cooking toys, role play sets, puppets, vehicles
Developmental Play Fine motor manipulatives, activity stations, sorters & stackers
Problem Solving Blocks, construction play, puzzles
Creativity Craft kits, coloring activities, painting & drawing
Language & Concepts Alphabet activities, number activities, games
Physical Activity Balls, tunnel, gardening & nature

Stay tuned for our product picks for the best toys in these pediatrician-recommended categories!

Read The Power of Pretend Play >


Melissa & Doug

Our team of play experts occasionally enjoys sharing news about our company, new product launches, and some of the #CountlessWaysToPlay with our toys, crafts, and games. At Melissa & Doug, we’re on a mission to inspire the innovators of tomorrow through kid-powered play!

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