Skill-Building Toys For Toddlers

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While I’ve always been interested in toys that were educational as well as fun, having a developmentally delayed autistic child has spurred my interest in finding toys that help my both of children build necessary skills. Unfortunately, a lot of the general toy lists I’ve seen online suggest items which can inhibit skills, while the special needs lists often contain toys that my boys find boring. I wrote these lists to help parents find toys that kids generally love and will build developmental skills including gross motor, fine motor, imagination, and communication/speech. I based them off of recommendations from books and therapists, as well as suggestions from my friends.

What’s wrong with the other popular play toys? Well, nothing is wrong with them, per se, it’s just that a lot of them aren’t open ended, which means that their use is limited. Not only do open ended toys encourage a greater use of developmental skills, but they tend to last longer and are still fun to play with even if a few parts go missing or are destroyed. Plus, a lot of the popular toys tend to make annoying noises.

To help parents find the perfect items for their children I’ve divided these lists up by skill category and age. Since my boys just recently turned 3 and I only want to recommend toys we’ve personally played with, the age categories I cover are toddler and preschool, although I plan to expand as my boys get older.

For ease of shopping convenience for busy parents, I provide amazon affiliate links, but most of my items I’ve obtained through sales such as consignment and yard. One of my favorite things to do is to visit craft stores immediately after the holidays. You can pick up seasonal versions of your favorite craft items at great prices.

There are way too many items to list all of them. For each category, I’ll give general ideas as well as pick out our absolute favorites. A lot of these toys, like art supplies, really belong in multiple categories. For the age range lists, I’ll put it in just one.

First, the toddler toys:


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Gross Motor Toys

Gross motor toys are those that get your child moving! General ideas are swings, slides, play climber/house, push and pull toys,  Basketball Set, kick balls, bowling set, Cozy Coupe, Bubble Mower, Sit ‘n Spin, gardening and digging tools, etc.

Our five favorites:
1. Trampoline

If I could only guy one gross motor item, this would be it. The trampoline has been a great way for both of my boys to burn off energy on rainy days. We bought the Little Tikes 3′ Trampoline and have been very happy with it so far. My boys did gnaw off the protective covering around the bar pretty early on, but it hasn’t hampered our usage. If you do have very hyper boys like mine, I recommend putting the railing up towards the wall so they can’t tip it over. It may scuff the wall some without the railing, so put a piece of tape on the wall if you don’t plan to repaint when they are older.

2. Balance or Push Bike

I asked my son’s physical therapist which bike she recommended for a child under 3 and she suggested a balance bike.

Or a car that you push with your feet, known as a push pedal car.

She started working with my son on pedaling about the time he turned 3. If your child has sensory issues, don’t make the mistake I did of just buying a bike. My son still refuses to ride our balance bike I bought for him over a year ago. The PT suggested that we go to a store a let him pick out a bike. He picked out a little tricycle which he ‘pedaled’ by pushing his feet on the floor. He may not have used it ‘correctly’ at first, but he enjoyed being on it and that mattered more. We also tried out a tricycle that the boys loved, but the positioning of the seat made it impossible for them to push with their feet.

 3. Rody Horse or exercise ball


The rody horse or the hopper ball weren’t a huge hit for my boys, although their friends seemed to love them whenever they came to visit. Instead, we had more fun with a large size exercize ball and peanut ball

The link for the peanut ball goes to the small size, but unless you are starting out with a 1 year old, I’d get the medium ball so that your child can grow into it.

For the exercise ball, I bought one to use for myself that ended up being a huge hit for our boys. They practice balancing on their bellies while I gently roll them forwards, back, and side to side to work on their core strength. We also play bouncing games where I sit on the ball and bounce with them. This is the Way The Farmer’s Ride, William Tell’s Ride, and Trot to Market are all fun games to play with babies and infants.

4. Shopping cart or large dump truck for hauling things around.

I don’t know what it is about shopping carts and large dump trucks, but at one of the playgroups we attend, they always seem to be in high demand, and my boys can’t get enough of their trucks. We have the Mega Bloks Large Dump Truck, the Tonka Classic Steel Mighty Dump Truck, and the Green Toys Truck amongst other trucks, but the most popular one by far was a cheap model made by Target that no longer exists.

Hard at work

Hard at work

I think dump trucks are one of those toys were bigger is better. My boys have owned these giant for over 1.5 years now and they still enjoy them as much as always. They love to fill up the backs with things and dump them out. Great when they are helping me pick up pine cones. A pain when I’m trying to rake.

5. Sandbox/water table/sensory bin.

My boys absolutely love digging in sand and it’s great for fine motor and gross motor practice.
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Since half of our back yard is wooded and there are stray cats in our neighborhood, I’ve had a really bad experience with a sandbox on the ground. Perhaps I didn’t purchase one with a tight enough lid, but either way, the sand got dirty very fast. We’ve had a bunch better experience with our Step2 Sand & Water Table that has an umbrella and a lid.

In the summer, I love to turn it into a sensory bin.

Water and cornstarch

Water and cornstarch

When we lived in an apartment, we used a long tupperware bin as our pool/sensory bin. It worked really well and you often can find them for cheap at thrift stores.

 

Fine Motor Toys

Nesting blocks (this car set is amazing) or cups, stacking rings, geometric stackershape sorter, hammer and peg, bath toys that stick on the wall (you can make your own with craft foam), etc.

Our five favorites:

1. Blocks – wooden, mega blok, and duplo

I’m sort of cheating by throwing wooden blocks and building blocks together under 1 category, but they basically have the same function – building!

For wooden blocks, as a nerd I have to recommend the Uncle Goose Periodic Table Blocks. They are bright, sturdy, and a great way to introduce your child to chemistry! Otherwise of these, we’ve collected all the rest of our blocks from consignment and garage sales.

If you are trying to decide what to buy for building blocks, I personally found mega bloks first builders model outgrown too quickly. The pieces were too large to stack together in tall structures and my one son grew frustrated with them easily. Instead, I recommend starting with LEGO DUPLO or mega bloks Jr builder (the two are interchangeable) unless your child really struggles with fine motor skills.

2. Puzzles

The Melissa & Doug First Shapes Jumbo Knob Puzzle is an excellent puzzle for very young children or those with fine motor difficulties.

My boys also loved the Melissa & Doug Musical Instruments Sound Puzzle, which was one of the few exceptions to our “remove all batteries from toys” rule. One of my son’s first words was violin, which he called, “wee woo” from me mimicking the sound of a violin whenever we played with this puzzle together.

Really though, the best puzzles are those that feature the items your child seems to love the most. One therapist brought over an interlocking puzzle featuring Disney’s Cars. I thought it was above the boy’s level at 2, but my one son fell in love with it and was soon putting it together.

3. Activity board

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I made mine, but there are some great ones you can buy such as this Melissa & Doug Deluxe Latches Board

although the door thwangee (door stop) was the biggest hit of my homemade activity board, and helped the boys keep away from the ones in the house we needed to actually work.

 4. Pinchers, grabbers, and other tools for fine motor movements

Learning resources has a great set of fine motor tools.

Learning Resources Fine Motor Tool Set

I recommend this set so that you can see the tools your child naturally gravitates to and enjoys. I thought my boys would love the scoop scissors, but they  much prefer the Squeezy Tweezers

We also enjoyed the Jumbo Eyedroppers with Stand

Although I do not recommend this set for outdoor play. The temperature differences ended up breaking the droppers. For our next set, I bought cheaper regular droppers. For a toddler though, I think these jumbo ones are easier to use.

 5. Make-your-own games with craft supplies

Craft items

As I mentioned earlier, I like to go to craft stores and purchase items after the holidays to use with upcoming craft. It’s not unusual to find pompom balls, pipe cleaners, tissue paper, jingle bells, etc on sale after holidays pass. The craft store is also a great place to just get fine motor items in general.
You can do a lot with a few items
Stringing help:
Pipe cleaners + buttons, beads, cheerios or other loops cereal, dyed pasta, etc

Shakers:
Old containers + jingle bells, buttons, beans, rice, etc

Hand-eye coordination:
Colander + pompoms (great for throwing skills), pipe cleaners (another way to thread)

Home made sorter:
Take an old container with a flat lid such as a coffee or oatmeal container. Punch holds in the top either in shapes or have the holes be the same size but ringed in different colors. Now your children can sort their pompoms, popsicle sticks, buttons, etc. I also love these colorful Silicone Baking Cups to encourage sorting (they also make great snack cups and paint holders!).

 

Imagination Toys

So many of the toys we love belong in this category. Almost any good toy can be used in imagination play. One of the things I love to do is buy used versions of adult items that the boys seem interested in. For example, my boys have their own toy vacuums as well as an actual small working vacuum, which they love to use. Likewise, they have their own dustpan and broom set, which they also use to clean up real messes.

Although they do have a play kitchen well-stocked with play food, I also encourage them to help me cook as much as possible. They even have their own set of slightly smaller colorful kitchen utensils. Because they’ve helped me out in the kitchen or with cleaning, I’ve noticed that they are more likely to incorporate those concepts into their imagination play.

Our five favorites:

1. Dolls and stuffed animals

I know that there are a lot of people who scoff at the idea of giving boys dolls, but I think it’s one of the greatest toy any child can own. Sure, you can use stuffed animals instead, but I think a doll helps really children understand certain concepts better. It was in playing with our doll that my autistic son first exhibited imagination play:

2.5 months after starting ABA therapy, he spontaneously pretended to feed the doll after observing me pretending to feed it while playing with both boys. Lack of pretend play is a characteristic of autism.

Pretending to feed the baby

I also used the doll to discuss certain concepts when my boys were 1 and both had limited language. My one son was being aggressive towards me at times and I figured out that he wanted to rough house, but lacked the ability to put it into words. Taking our doll, I demonstrated the concept of rough and gentle with him. He got a kick out of this and soon was bringing me the doll as a cue to rough house. Not long after that, he managed to put it into words.

With the doll you can also rehearse upcoming events or talk about events that happened in the past that might be problematic for your child. My autistic son liked to have his doll break a rule and then would lecture it, including separating it from the other toys when it couldn’t stop stealing other people’s toys. Our therapist said it was a way for him to work through his feelings.

2. Art supplies

Here are a few suggestions outside the basics to help with various developmental skills:

Crayons – The egg or triangular shaped ones are best suited for helping children develop that grip needed to hold a pencil or pen. You don’t have to rush out to buy anything fancy though. Small broken pieces of crayons work just as well.

Paints – My autistic son didn’t seem interested in all in painting. Then we discovered the secret to getting him painting was to put the paper on the wall or use a standing easel

Not only does he paint more on the easel, but he’ll drawn more with chalk as well.

Playdough – great for working on cutting, rolling into shapes, smashing, building stacks of cubes or balls, etc. There are many recipes if you’d like to make your own. Again, if you go to craft store and supermarkets after the holidays, you can often find Peeps on sale. They make a great edible playdough!

Dot markers – I’ve tried a bunch and these are the best.

3. Dress up clothing and pretend profession kits

Used Halloween costumes are great substitutions to a lot of dress-up clothes and can often be bought at great discount after the holiday has passed. I also like to purchase character pajamas (neat Darth Vader set) and jackets, which tend to be made of better material and last longer.

Profession kits are things like play medical kits and they are wonderful to use when discussing things children might find problematic, especially if you pair them with your dolls and stuffed animals. We spend a lot of time playing with our various doctor sets before and after an appointment.

I pretend to be the patient, I pretend to be the doctor, and I invite them to make their dolls and stuffed animals the patients. Although my autistic son hates the doctor’s office in general, this has gone a long way to helping him being OK with certain procedures and experiences.

We also purchased a toy hair dryer with a real working hair dryer to help him with his fears of dryers and haircuts.

The play food and shopping cart mentioned above can be used to rehearse going to grocery stores.

4. Musical instruments

We love our music toys! We have a drum set, trumpet, guitar, and a keyboard which only comes out occasionally, but is a great distraction toy! A lot of these items are cheap ones I bought at the dollar store. Now that my boys are 3, we are starting to purchase more realistic items, but if your children are like mine, you’ll want to wait until about 3 before giving them anything breakable.

5. Building sets

I had a lot of debate about if these toys should be here or in the preschool section, but since we started playing with them without a problem when my sons were 2, I decided to put them here. There are other sets we do love, but I found a bit frustrating at the under 3 age level. If your child is very delayed in fine motor, then you may want to hold off on these for now (or they might really help!).

Squigz

These are actually used by my son’s physical therapist as well. She puts them on a mirror and encourages him to cross the midline to reach them or walk up a little set of steps to pull them off the mirror.

Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears! Super Set

OK, I admit at the beginning I was having a lot of fun building the structures and my boys were mostly just requesting certain structures and pushing the completed structures around, but at around 2.5, they started building their own structures! Now, they do sometimes request me to make their favorites, but they spend a lot of time creating their own items without my assistance.

Junior Pegboard Set

This is another toy that we learned about from our son’s Occupational Therapist. These thick pegs are much easier to use at this age than a traditional peg set.

Communication/Speech Toys

As I explain in this series, as long as you are picking toys that encourage open ended play, it’s not the toys that increase communication, but how you play with toys. Any one of the toys I’ve suggested on this page has built in communication opportunities. That being said, there are special toys and book that have really helped me communicate more with my sons.

If you are looking for suggestions for toys and books that help you work on emotional communication, then check out my Tools To Teach Emotions To Toddlers.

Our five favorites:
1. Bubbles

This is one of the first items our therapists bring out when attempting to build rapport and the vast majority of infants and toddlers love seeing bubbles. In addition to the bubble mowers suggested above, I also love this bubble machine

It held up remarkably well through two summers with lots of abuse. My boys did manage to break the cord, but the batteries still work in it. We’ve been very impressed with the duration considering how many times it’s been knocked about.

Bubbles taught my son to point and really opened the door to communication for him. There are a lot you can do with bubbles beyond just chasing them down. You can blow them in different sizes, in different directions, and towards body parts. You can count them with your child as you pop them and send you child jumping for them to work on gross motor.

2. Fridge magnets

Also good for fine motor skills, fridge magnets in letters, numbers, or animals/people are great tools for building communication.

When my boys were pre-verbal, we sorted them by shape, color, and matched the letters together. Once they started speaking, then we would play various games together and sing songs based on the magnets. My one son loved me to spell out EIEIO on the fridge and sing Old MacDonald.

3. Play dollhouse/farm/zoo with characters

Fisher Price Little People has some great sets. My boys really love both the zoo

and the farm,

although we did take the batteries out of both.

4. Felt board with felt items

I made mine, but busy parents can purchase various felt play sets. To make mine, I took a large poster board and covered both sides in felt to create two different background scenes.

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I turned one of the panels in so you can see both sides of the board.

Then, I cut out various shapes, numbers, and faces so that we could use the felt board to talk about our emotions.

The felt pieces can also be stuck against contact paper facing out on windows to make interesting scenes.

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Not only great for fine motor skills, you can use the various items, shapes, and faces to discuss all sorts of things and work on various sounds!

5. Use whatever your child loves as a point of focus in play

One thing that’s mentioned a lot in the Early Start Denver Model and Joint Attention Mediated Learning is that your children learns best from you when you enter into their sphere of interest rather trying to bring them into yours. This is true for both autistic children and neurotypical children. We’ve learned to embrace our sons’ interests, even if they are unusual. Since my autistic son loves vacuums, we find ways to incorporate vacuums into our social games.

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Playing house with his vacuum tucked snuggly in bed.

Since they both love cars, we practiced colors by sorting cars.

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Dive into your children’s interest to build good communication. There are always ways to build shared interest, even with the most unusual obsessions!

 

Books

Here are my favorite books for building fine motor skills and communication/speech.

1. Peek-A Who?

Peek-A Who? is a book that my boys still enjoy at 3, but were absolutely obsessed with when younger. It’s repetitive and simplistic, but I think that’s what they like most about it. As I explain in my speech series, for children with speech delays, it’s best if you speak to them about their level. So, if they only say 1 word at a time, then you try to keep your speech at 1 or 2 words to really help them. This book has Peek-A on every page with a different last word, so it’s absolutely perfect for the pre-speech crowd. Once they grew older and started talking more, then we explored the pages in more details, but in the beginning, it was just this book with me making silly voices.

2. My Big Board Books Series

There are a whole series of these books that are full of bright, large pictures of the items. You can get ones on the farm, dinosaursgeneral wordsfirst 100 wordstrucksanimalsrescue vehicles/peopletrains, and lots of other subjects. My boys still enjoy reading the truck books. You can’t go wrong if you find a book of you child’s biggest fascination. My autistic son enjoys reading the vacuum cleaner manual.

3. That’s Not My… Series

Another great simplistic series, the That’s Not My… has a mouse trying to find a specific object or animal. As he looks around, the pages state “That’s not my… It’s [X] is too [Y]!” until he finds what he’s looking for. You can find ones featuring dinosaurs, trainskittens, lions and other animals and items. Lots of touch and feel pages for your children to explore with their fingers.

4. Salina Yoon’s books

While I haven’t read all of them, my boys love One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Do Cows Meow?, and Where’s Boo? (great for Halloween) among others. Her pictures are colorful, the books engaging with flaps for children to explore, and the subjects are ones my boys enjoy. Along with Sandra Boynton, Salina Yoon is the most common author I see recommended by speech therapists.

5. Pat the Bunny

Pat the Bunny has lots of different textures to explore as well as encourages children to use their fine motor skills.

 

Apps

At first, I planned to be one of those zero screen time before 2 parents, especially since that was the recommendation at the time. Then we had to travel out of town for the holidays and then our occupational therapist recommended some apps for helping my son learn to point. Since then, I’ve learned to embrace screen time used appropriately. It’s perfect for long plane or car rides and there actually are a lot of great apps out there with good educational value. If you have android phones and want to earn some money for your apps, you can use Google Opinion Rewards to earn play store credit. That’s how I’ve bought all of our apps.

1. Ready to Print

You can get the itunes and android versions here. Kindle Tablet Edition here.

I’ve only tried the android version of this because I don’t have credit on itunes, but it was recommended by my son’s occupational therapist. She suggested using it with a stylus, especially a mini stylus.

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A great way to learn on sick days when they are too tired to move.

The app centers around teaching your child how to trace letters, practice horizontal and vertical strokes, and practice accuracy when using a stylus. It also has a free drawing section that you can use as a mess free drawing pad when out and about.

Using a mini stylus is a great way to practice handwriting skills with any of these apps.

2. Professor Tomato Counts

In the interest of full disclosure, this is my brother’s app, but it’s free! Android version and itunes version. It’s a great app for isolating that pointer finger for children who need help learning how to point.

3. Daniel Tiger’s Day and Night


Children with developmental delays often struggle with remembering what to do next in a sequences. When it takes a lot of concentration to do something like put on pajamas, it can be easy to forget what comes next after putting on the pajamas. That’s why I like Daniel Tiger’s Day & Night app. It helps children remember the sequences for getting ready in the morning and at night with songs and easy to follow steps.

4. Endless Alphabet and Endless Numbers

These apps are pretty simple, but engaging.

With Endless Alphabet, you drag letters around to make words. With Endless Numbers, you drag the numbers and press on them to add up digits. Not only do they help teach letters and numbers, but when used with a stylus, it makes great fine motor practice.

5. Kids ABC Trains

I’ve only played the Kids ABC Trains Lite version as I haven’t saved up enough credit to purchase the full version, but my boys don’t seem to mind. Like ready to print, you trace various letters, although you drive trains along to trace the letters, which my boys really enjoyed. If your child loves vehicles and trains, this app can be highly motivating.

Preschool, gross motor, fine motor, imagination, and communication/speech lists coming soon!

 

 

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