Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Your once tiny baby is now a toddler and that means it starts getting really fun to give them gifts! I know I am so excited to begin new holiday traditions this year and pick out Christmas gifts that I know Zoe will love. I have way too many gift ideas for toddlers, so this is a pretty long list that I have broken down by category. Remember, children don't need a lot of toys and will actually play more creatively if they have fewer toys. It's all about quality over quantity and offering them toys that will support their development and interests the best. Read on for more info about baby play milestones and my favorite gifts to support their development!
I quite possibly am about to go into too much background info, but once I start on this topic I can't stop. Children learn through play, not through rote tasks like writing a word 5 times or practicing times tables. You are your child's first teacher and play partner and you have the opportunity to turn that play into something meaningful every single day, so it is so important you have some background info on play because most parents are not certified teachers or child development grads.
All of the following play milestones have an estimated age range meaning these abilities will likely develop within that range. No need to stress if your baby is on the later end of the estimates, but just knowing more about age-related play milestones will help you choose the most appropriate toys and activities for your toddler.
12-24 Months Play Milestones
Relational play begins. This means means your toddler will participate in "pretend play" directed toward themselves, like pretending to go to sleep or pretending to eat.
Functional play also begins around this age which means they will participate in "pretend play" when they have an immediate model to draw from aka they begin copying how the adults around them play. For example, if you pretend to stir something in a bowl, your toddler may do the same.
Gross Motor Play. Your toddler will engage in play by walking, rolling, crawling, jumping, running and climbing. Engaging in this type of play is so important for their development of spatial awareness and brain development because gross motor movement will help your baby's brain grow. Encourage their curiosity and physicality because your support will give them lifelong self-confidence.
Social Play. Your toddler will start to notice other children when they play and may engage in parallel play, meaning they watch and play next to other children, but it is unlikely they will actually play with other children.
Pretend/Symbolic Play. Your toddler will start pretending to take care of toys, pretending to feed their baby, etc. with no immediate model.
2-3 Years Play Milestones
Symbolic or Imaginary Play. Your toddler will continue to engage in pretend play, but it will become increasingly complex and they will start to act out much longer sequences of events and start pretending to be other people/things.
Constructive Play. Your toddler will begin completing puzzles, art projects, and constructing things out of Legos, blocks, etc.
Gross Motor Play. Your toddler will continue to explore their physicality, but will probably engage in a lot more rough housing and increasingly risky physical challenges. Again, support them in this and don't discourage them from taking risks.
Social Play. Your toddler is still mainly engaging in the parallel play mentioned earlier, but toward 3 years old they may start to take part in more collaborative play with other children.
Open-Ended Versus Close-Ended Toys
When choosing toys for your little one, it's important that they have access to both close and open-ended toys. Open-ended toys are ones that can be used in many ways and because of this, they encourage creativity, problem solving, and will help play last many hours. Some examples are cars, dolls, stuffed animals (all of these encourage pretend play), blocks, instruments, art supplies, climbing gyms, and many more. Close-ended toys are ones where the goal is to complete something, so some examples are books, puzzles, and games. It's great for children to play with toys that involve completing a task, but they also need to be playing with toys that have no specific end goal and allow them to be as creative as possible.
Creating Art: Process versus Product
Your toddler will start to enjoy art during this entire time period, but it is really important to understand what art means to a child. During this age range, children are much more interested in the process of making the art than the end product, and we need to support that exploration of the process and not be concerned about it looking a certain way at the end. When we try to get them to fill in the whole page or ask them questions like, "what is that?" it can unintentionally make a child feel bad about their art because isn't it obvious that it's an an alien giraffe?? Better responses to a child's art are, "tell me about your painting," or "I like the way you used those squiggly lines." The goal when responding to a child's art is to make them feel good about it so they keep creating, keep working on those fine motor skills, and keep improving in their artistic abilities. Toddlers are so interested in the process that, most of the time, they don't even care about whether or not you keep their art piece. Make sure you ask before throwing it away to be respectful of your toddler, but only save the ones you really love. It is also essential that you don't provide your child with a model (an example end product) when it comes to art. The adult or teacher's piece is obviously going to be better than a toddler's, so providing a model can lower your child's self esteem related to art and limit their creativity because they are copying something instead of creating something totally original.
Crafts are Not Art
Crafts are fun activities for children to complete, but they are not examples of your child's artistic expression. What they really are is an opportunity to learn how to follow directions and complete a task. During my undergrad, my child development professors always said unless your child really wants to keep a craft, don't save them because every child's craft will look almost the same. When you are looking back on childhood memories, you will want to see real examples of your child's artistic growth, not unoriginal crafts.
Early Childhood Literacy, Math Skills, Etc. and Play
This is the time when the building blocks of reading, science, and math will be laid. A lot of parents have great intentions and want their child to have a leg up by the time they get to kindergarten, but they are doing activities that are developmentally inappropriate which means they may actually hurt their child in terms of future growth.
Reading: If you want your child to be a great reader, low pressure and fun exposure is key! Have lots of books that are always accessible to your toddler and read to them all the time, even if they're asking for the same book for the tenth time that afternoon. When you read to your toddler, you should no be pressuring them to learn letter sounds and names and it should be a fun experience, so if they don't want to read, don't push it. They should see letters in 2D forms (books or a placemat) and 3D forms (like magnet letters) in both upper and lowercase so they are constantly seeing letters all around them. If they enjoy learning the letter sounds (which is more important than letter names), then do that, but again, don't push it if they aren't into it.
Writing: Your child may try to write letters or words at this age and they will probably not look like any letters you've ever seen. You should never correct them and always encourage those efforts so they have a lot of self esteem related to writing. You also should not work on tracing or writing specifically unless your child is initiating it themselves because that is not developmentally appropriate for most toddlers.
Math: Future success in math is all about good "number sense" as a young child which means a child has an understanding of quantity and how to play with numbers. Have 2D and 3D numbers and count things all day long while you play. Make sure you are modeling one to one correspondence and touching each object as you count it because that understanding of quantity is so important. I have included some great early math toys in this guide to reinforce this skill, but just like reading, it should be fun and low pressure.
Science: Science is all about cause and effect, so expose your child to tons of cause and effect activities like building a tower and knocking it down. Bonus: cause and effect playing also improves toddler behavior because the earlier they can understand cause and effect relationships, the earlier they understand the consequences to their actions.
Let your toddler play by themselves as often as possible because it is so good for them! Research has shown independent play actually changes how a child's brain is wired and increases their attention span, self-confidence, problem solving skills, and creativity. You should definitely play with your child throughout the day and they should play with siblings, too, but they should also be given a significant amount of time to play alone. The ability to play independently is something you need to support and encourage and is not inborn for many children. Whenever your child is playing alone, don't say a word and don't let them see you because that may snap them right out of it. Disappear into the background and let them play independently as long as they are willing and compliment them on playing alone after they're done. If your toddler HATES playing by him or herself, start with an interval of just one minute and keep increasing it over time until your child is comfortable playing alone for long stretches.
Finally...The Gift Guide!
Wooden Instrument Set $38
Zoe got this exact set as a birthday gift and she loves it!
Roll Away Rainbow Keyboard $54
This is on my Christmas list for Zoe because I love encouraging her to play with instruments, but we don't have the space for a keyboard or piano. I love how it rolls away for easy storage or for when you are done with hearing your little one bang on the keys.
Musical Chicken $40 SALE
Zoe has the llama version of this toy and I have given both the chicken and llama as gifts to other kids. She loves playing with it and I like that it has so many instruments included, but it's all on one little animal so there's no mess.
Taf Toys Sensory Tissue Box $25
Your baby will love stuffing the tissues inside the box and pulling them out and will probably play with the scarves in so many ways.
Silicone Rainbow Puzzle $25
Technically, puzzles are close-ended toys, but this is a puzzle that be used to make many different figures and shapes and doesn't have just one end result. In my baby post, I talked about how important bright colors are for their brain development, but now that your little one is a toddler and can see all of the colors we can, neutrals are totally fine, although this puzzle come sin a few color options if you prefer a traditional rainbow.
Fabric Busy Book $37
This is a great car seat safe toy that you can also bring on a plane or really anywhere you need to keep your toddler entertained. The pieces can be used to make lots of different scenes which is what makes it open-ended.
Wooden Block Set $24
This is a classic toy that every toddler needs
Minikane Baby Doll $45
Baby dolls are great gifts for both girls and boys and allow your toddler to engage in pretend play. Any baby doll is fine, but I am linking the cutest one I've found. I especially love that this doll comes in every race/ethnicity. This is another item on my Christmas wishlist for Zoe because she LOVES babies so much.
Wooden Car Set $16
Cars are another great gift for any gender. I always kept little toy cars in the house for kids who came to the house and Zoe is super into them.
Wooden Truck Set $16
Similar to above except trucks instead of cars
Hearth and Hand Farm Animals and Barn $90
Your toddler will love doing pretend play with the adorable wooden farm animals and barn
Hearth and Hand Dollhouse $130
This is a beautiful dollhouse at an amazing price that your child will play with for many years to come. I love the natural wood tone, but you could also paint and customize it for your little one!
Hearth and Hand Toy Cash Register $30
I'm just a little bit obsessed with this beautiful cash register. Your toddler will have so much fun playing store with it!
Play Kitchen ($130-$600)
Play kitchens are a forever favorite for toddlers and are perfect for pretend play, so I rounded up all of my favorite play kitchens and tried to include all price points and styles
Play Food and Kitchen Tools
Your toddler will love playing pretend with play food and kitchen tools for years and they're the perfect compliment to a play kitchen (but the kitchen isn't necessary)
IKEA Duktig 14-Piece Vegetable Set $10
IKEA Duktig 9-Piece Fruit Basket $10
IKEA Duktig Pizza $10
Hearth and Hand Play Mixer $20
Melissa and Doug Pots and Pans $30
Fox Run Kids Cooking/Baking Tools Set $16
Kids Cutlery $18
This is food grade cutlery, so you can use some for eating and some for your child's play kitchen. I always prefer using real items for pretend play instead of fake, plastic items because kids love it when they are using more realistic pretend play items.
Melamine Dish Set $10
Just like the cutlery, these are real melamine dishes that can be used for food, but are unbreakable and BPA free (which shockingly a lot of children's toys are not because they aren't technically made for food). I thought these colorful sets were so cute, but if you don't like them just search "melamine dessert plates" to find kid sized options.
Melamine Cereal Bowls $13
Real Kitchen Helper Items
Mother's Helper Stool $90
Kids' Knife Set $10
Kids' Wooden Knife $13
Kids' Apron $11
This apron is perfect for pretend play or for actual use helping in the kitchen and it comes in several color options
I won't list specific costumes because the ones you buy should be totally dependent on your child's interests, but costumes are amazing for immersive and complex pretend play.
Sensory Table & Art Supplies
IKEA Flisat Children's Table $50
This is quite honestly my favorite kids' table ever. The price is amazing, it's mainly made of natural materials, and BONUS, the center pieces are removable so you can put IKEA bins in there and turn it into a sensory table.
IKEA Flisat Stool $18
Again, you cannot beat the price on this stool and it pairs perfectly with the table
IKEA Trofast Bin $3
This bin is meant to work with the Flisat table and comes in white, yellow, and green
Montessori Sensory Bin Tools $33
Washable Finger Paints $18
These are non-toxic and easy to squeeze
Dot Markers $17
I love using dot markers with toddlers because it's a lot less mess and clean up than paint and their large size makes it easy for them to grip and control.
Artezia Set of 2 Finger Paint Pads $18
Tabletop Easel $21
I love a tabletop easel because it is much easier to store and use in different areas of the house than a traditional easel. This one has fantastic reviews and is magnetic so it's perfect for playing with magnet letters (one of my favorite literacy activities with older toddlers and school-aged kids).
Sumblox Wooden Set $83
This is my favorite math toy, so if you only buy one, this set is worth every penny. Each of the numbers is a size relative to its quantity and it teaches children sums to 10 (which is the basis of our number system) because if they put any numbers together that are the same size as the "10,' they add up to 10. You don't need to push the math element for a toddler, they will probably just use these for building while they're young, but they will soak up an amazing understanding of quantity just by exposure to these blocks and as they get older, you can use them as a teaching tool.
Magnetic Letters $30
Magnetic letters are awesome for exposure to letters in a 3D form and your little one will use them in so many ways. As they get older, you can use them for working on blending, beginning letter sounds, patterns, and for just making silly words and exploring letter sounds.
Wooden Balance Board $70
Amazing for developing gross motor skills, balance, and creativity because it can be used in many ways.
Wooden Play Gym $191
This is the exact play gym Zoe got for her birthday and I absolutely love it! The triangle is a little too tall for her at the moment, so I just have the arch and board out (which has a rock wall on one side and slide on the other), but as she gets older I will use the whole set. I love how it looks in my living room and love that she can move the pieces around to create different setups. I'm also very happy that she can get out her climbing impulses on something relatively low to the ground because before we got this she was climbing on the back of the couch and then onto the banister of the stairs.
Like I said earlier in the blog post, close-ended toys are those that have specific uses and specific end goals. Your child needs both close and open ended toys to support their development, but a lot more time should be dedicated to open-ended ones.
Galt Pop-Up Toy $20
This looks like so much fun, your toddler puts the pegs in and they pop up and go flying.
Montessori Busy Board $20
This is a great quiet toy that allow your child top practice ties, zippers, and buttons
Montessori Coin Box $20
This is a fun object permanence toy for your toddler to play with
Wooden Shape Sorter $20
I just got Zoe this shape sorter and although she doesn't know how to match the shapes yet, she still enjoys filling it up with the shapes and dumping them out
Wooden Peg Stacking Toy $19
Carrot Sorting Game $16
Wooden Screw Board $32
This is a great toy that helps build fine motor skills
Peg Number Board $30
This toy is more appropriate for 3 to 5 year olds, but a young toddler may still enjoy it and it's great for working on number recognition and quantity.
Wooden Number Puzzle $15
Another amazing number recognition/quantity toy
Shape Puzzle $13
I love the colors and size of these shapes, plus the pegs make each shape easy for your little one to hold.
Uppercase and Lowercase Letter Puzzle $14
A lot of parents tend to focus on only uppercase letters at home, but it's important that your little one is exposed to both forms of letters from a young age. This puzzle has a picture behind each letter with an animal or object that goes with the beginning sound.
Name Puzzle $30-$60 when customized
The letters in your child's name will be the first letters they recognize and they will love this name puzzle for years to come. I recently purchased it for Zoe's Christmas present (it came way sooner than the estimate) and I got Zoe's first and middle name because her first name is so short and I also added the pegs to make it easier for her to play with.
Puzzles and Games
I won't list any specific puzzles (other than the letter ones) and games, but you should have quite a few floor puzzles and games in your house.
I won't link specific books because you'd be here for hours, but it is so important that your child has access to lots of books and you read to them all the time (I will probably do separate blog posts in the future with all of my favorites) Have board books around when your little in is a young toddler and can't be trusted with paper pages, and then tons of regular books as they get older. Read to your children all the time and look on Facebook marketplace, local garage sales, and used book stores to find books at great prices. You can never have enough children's books in your home and research has shown that children who see lots of books displayed in their home enjoyed reading more than other children, even if those children were read to just as often.