The 3 kinds of toys that really help your child

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Every holiday season, parents are inundated with ads for toys that will make their child happier, smarter and more successful. They usually involve the latest technology, make noises or are unique in some other way — and are often expensive. Or, they are spin-offs from the latest movie or the latest edition of a popular video game.

As a pediatrician, the ads make me sad — because they are rarely for toys that actually help children be happier, smarter, or more successful. Based on what we know about child health and development, here are the three kinds of toys I wish all parents would give their children.

Toys that require imagination — and that can be used in lots of different ways. The toy should be what gets things started; the rest should be up to the child. Children need to learn to think things through, come up with ideas, and be creative. In the days of video games and Lego sets that are meant to make only one thing, this is getting lost — and it can have all sorts of implications for how children learn and think.

Here are some examples of toys that spur creativity and imagination:

  • blocks (plain wooden ones are great), or building sets that can build lots of different things
  • materials for writing, drawing, and painting — with lots of blank paper. You can buy blank books or blank comic books instead of pads of paper for older children.
  • dollhouses — the simpler the better — with people to go inside them (for both girls and boys).
  • cars, boats, airplanes—simple, non-electronic ones. If you buy tracks, buy ones that can be rearranged. Consider getting a playmat of a town that the cars can drive around.
  • a play kitchen (add an apron and chef’s hat)
  • Dress up clothes — simple things, like capes, robes, wizard’s hats, cowboy hats

If your first reaction is that your child would be bored by these, then all the more reason to buy them. As odd as it sounds, children need to be bored, because boredom breeds creativity. If they are constantly entertained, they will never learn to entertain themselves — and they will miss out on important opportunities to create and explore.

Toys that encourage interaction — especially with their parents and caregivers. One thing we have learned about child development, especially with small children, is that the “serve and return” interactions between children and adults are crucial for building connections in the brain. They are also crucial for building relationships, and strong parent-child relationships make all the difference in the emotional health of children. Building that foundation in childhood also really pays off when they become teens, as a strong relationship with a parent makes them less likely to have sex early or get into trouble.

So buy toys that you can share with your child. Many of the examples above can offer shared experiences; for example, you can play restaurant with your child, or build blocks with them. Here are some other ideas:

  • Games! Whether it’s Checkers or a board game, games can be a great way to play together. There are a myriad of games out there for every age group; doing a “best family board games” Google search will get you lots of suggestions.
  • a model you can build together (make sure your child can do it too, so it’s not just you), or something else you make together
  • a tent — either a big one to camp in together, or a smaller one that you can use in the living room and hang out in together
  • walkie-talkies

Toys that get your child moving. Not only is exercise important for your child’s health, the exercise habits started in childhood can last a lifetime. So wrap up a few that will encourage exercise! Some examples:

  • a ball (soccer ball, baseball, basketball) with something to use it with (like a bat, mitt or basket).
  • jump ropes
  • roller skates or ice skates
  • a scooter or bike (remember to pick up a helmet, too)

If you get moving with them, all the better.


  1. Alex Evers

    What a great article! Kids have so much fun LEARNING. Often I see adults trying to teach their kids how to play “properly” when in reality that adult is getting in the way of kids learning in their own optimized ways.

    Besides toys there are, of course, numerous different activities that also empower children learning, as well as promote exercise and motor skill development.

    Kids Kick Obesity day is an event that we sponsor at my job each year to help kids learn and have fun in a healthy way!


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