|This article is
intended to serve as a handy reference guide and starting point for
understanding and distinguishing children's basic abilities and
preferences as they grow. These abilities and preferences play an
important role in attracting and motivating children to interact
Developing physically, for example, changes
the ways in which children are able to coordinate their gross-motor
skills. Increased mobility opens up new ways to use toys. A higher
level of fine-motor skill permits greater manipulation of objects.
Ultimately, such knowledge helps to identify and distinguish the
characteristics of toys that are appealing to children at a given
Although information of this sort is noted
throughout the guidelines in relation to a specific subcategory of
toys, this section summarizes typical play behaviors regardless of
the toy used, and identifies appropriate and appealing toy
characteristics that are generally consistent among all
subcategories of toys. With this information, the reader will be
better able to make an age determination for a given toy, even if
that toy is not specifically addressed within the guidelines.
Birth Through 3 Months
Object play is limited during this period
since learning occurs mostly through the reflexive actions of the
child, such as spontaneous kicking or arm movements. Initially, they
explore with their eyes and ears only. Newborns can focus best at
about eight inches from their faces, but this increases over time
and they may be able to see objects several feet away by the end of
this period. Play objects should fit within their visual field at
these distances. They are attracted to bright and vibrant colors,
especially yellows and reds, and to objects with high-contrast
patterns like black and white spirals. These children prefer the
human face to all other patterns, and will watch faces intently.
They will turn their heads in the direction of a sound, and are more
attracted to objects that emit a gentle, soothing sound and that
move slowly than to those that remain still or are too loud, too
sudden, or otherwise extreme. Much of these infants' play involves
watching and exploring their own body. They have a reflexive grasp,
which only allows them to explore objects briefly, and at 3 months
they begin to swipe or reach towards a dangling object to grasp it.
Any object grasped is likely to be mouthed and to be handled with
jerky, unpredictable motions. Therefore, soft, lightweight,
washable, easy-to-grip objects with rounded corners are best. They
start to learn and enjoy toys for which simple actions produce a
clear, direct effect; for example, toys that light up, move, or
create sound as a result of simple kicking or shaking.
Brightly colored and patterned toys that make
gentle sounds are both appealing and appropriate for these children.
Mobiles or images with bright, highly contrasting colors and
patterns are appealing, as are mirrors.
4 Through 7 Months
Children now actively engage with their
environments in systematic ways. Distance vision is more mature, and
these children can track moving objects with smooth, efficient eye
Bright colors, high contrasts, and complex
patterns continue to be appealing. These children learn to
differentiate among objects, as evidenced by their ability to group
visual stimuli into categories. By 5 months of age, children can
roll onto their backs and push up onto their hands and knees, so
mobiles and suspended gyms are no longer appropriate at this age.
They have mastered the ability to grasp and manipulate a dangling
object by 6 months, and begin to engage in more active play by
reaching, grasping, tugging, pushing, patting, shaking, and
squeezing objects. At 6 to 7 months, children are sitting
independently, which provides them with greater visual capacities
for grasping objects or bringing objects to midline for exploration.
They can manipulate objects more readily, though their fine-motor
coordination is still rudimentary.
Objects are grasped using a claw-like grip or
raking motion rather than a pincer grasp (i.e., using the thumb and
index finger). They can transfer an object from hand to hand, and
begin to use both hands independently; for example, one hand may
hold an object while the other hand manipulates it. These children
continue to mouth objects, so suitable toys are washable.
Near the end of this period, infants develop
the ability to recognize oft-repeated words, and some are beginning
to crawl and stand with support. At this time, they are also
beginning to understand object permanence - that an object that is
hidden or partially hidden did not actually disappear, but still
exists somewhere. Soft, lightweight, rounded, and textured toys that
make gentle sounds are appropriate. Hand-held objects, like simple
musical toys, should be sized so these children can easily grasp and
manipulate them. Books and images with bright pictures and
high-contrast images are appealing, as are mirrors.
8 Through 11 Months
Much of the play during this period focuses on
developing gross-motor skills as these children exhibit more
outwardly oriented movements and become increasingly mobile. They
can crawl forward and backward, pull themselves into a standing
position, walk with support (for example, along furniture), stand
momentarily without support, and complete a couple of unassisted
They also begin to climb. These children
explore objects in many different ways such as through grasping,
shaking, squeezing, throwing, dropping, passing from hand to hand,
Although they can hold two objects and bang
them together, they cannot coordinate the movements of both to use
them together. They begin to develop a pincer grasp, which is used
to pick up small objects between the thumb and fingers. Patterns of
exploratory play begin that suggest older infants can make
inferences about novel objects. For example, these children may
infer what functions may operate beneath the surface of an object.
They explore objects from every angle, and this often involves
mouthing. Therefore, suitable toys are washable.
Many of these infants begin to use items in
typical relational patterns; for example, dumping items out of a
container, putting them back in, and then repeating the process.
They repeat pleasurable actions often, and start to show an interest
in marking on paper. Basic memory skills are developing and object
permanence becomes more entrenched. When a toy is hidden or not
within view, these children know the toy still exists and did not
simply disappear. Infants of this age can understand simple words
related to their immediate context, and need repetition and
reinforcement of the words they hear. At the end of this period,
these children begin to imitate gestures and the use of products.
Sensory toys are highly appealing because these children are
beginning to understand simple cause-and-effect relationships.
Bright colors, especially yellows and reds, continue their appeal
for this age group, as do high contrasts and complex patterns.
Pictures that represent familiar objects are
also highly appealing. Suitable toys are soft, sturdy, have rounded
edges, and are easily grasped or manipulated by the child.
12 Through 18 Months
Increasingly, these children can walk without
support. However, they are still unsteady on their feet and their
walking resembles toddling more than mature heel-to-toe walking. Now
they want to explore everything; though their curiosity far
outweighs their judgment for predicting outcomes or foreseeing
dangers. They are trying out a variety of basic gross- and
fine-motor skills, and are gaining confidence as climbers. They can
sing to themselves and will move their bodies to music. Since they
are more mobile, they can self-select toys that were once outside
their reach. They find basic grasping easier, and can manipulate
toys that require simple twisting, turning, sliding, and cranking.
Through trial and error, they continue to explore cause-and-effect
relationships like dumping and filling activities, and now they
enjoy a variety of actions with objects, such as pressing, pushing,
pulling, rolling, pounding, beating, clanging, fitting (for example,
fitting a round peg into a round hole), stacking, marking,
scribbling, carrying, and poking their fingers into objects. They
delight in the many effects their actions cause, and enjoy toys that
take advantage of this by the use of, for example, various sounds,
blinking lights, and spinning wheels.
Children of this age can recognize the names
of familiar people, objects, pictures, and body parts. Long-term
memory and the development of simple vocabulary using one-word
utterances now provide the foundation for make-believe or pretend
play, however these children do not make clear symbolic connections
until about 18 months of age. These children often imitate common
actions they see - such as talking on the phone,
"drinking" from a bottle or cup, or putting on a hat - but
only in brief, sporadic episodes. They can defer imitating something
for up to a week, and can also do so across a change in context (for
example, away from home).
Simple toys that encourage pretend play, such
as dress-up materials, dolls, stuffed animals, and small vehicle
toys, are appropriate.
19 Through 23 Months
These children are more confident and stable
at walking, and are exploring other skills such as balancing,
jumping, and running. They can pull a toy behind them while walking,
climb on and off furniture without assistance, walk up and down
stairs with assistance, and - by the end of this period - may be
able to kick a ball. They can now pick up and manipulate much
smaller objects due to their more developed pincer grasp. They like
to sort objects, often grouping them into two categories, and can
now fit together simple objects. These children can match angles,
which allows them to fit a square peg into a square hole. They can
also start to use very simple coupling mechanisms like magnets,
large hooks, and hook-and-loop or touch fasteners.
Representational and symbolic thinking emerges
during this time frame, and children understand that some toys
represent other objects. Representational art, however, is still in
its infancy and may seem nonrepresentational to adults. Most of
their artistic forays take the form of gestures, or a series of dots
may represent, for example, a rabbit hopping. They can use simple
phrases, a few active verbs, and directional words, such as
"up," "down," and "in." Social play
also emerges because children of this age can now communicate with
and play alongside each other.
Rudimentary pretend and role-play emerge;
these toddlers can pretend to be asleep and can role play a variety
of commonly observed actions. As they approach 2 years of age, they
may make dolls or stuffed animals assume roles, expecting them to
eat pretend food. Though they still use trial and error, these
toddlers can mentally consider solutions to problems before taking
any action. This means they can remember and work with mental
representations of familiar objects, pictures, letters, and numbers
as they ponder appropriate actions. They are more goal-oriented and
object permanence is more advanced. These children can help dress or
Toys with low to moderate cause-and-effect
features - such as those with push buttons or pull cords that cause
actions or sounds - are appealing to these children. Simple remote
controls are also usable.
Now that pretend play is established,
2-year-olds can perform social roles like mommy, daddy, or baby.
Role taking becomes a bigger part of social pretend play, and their
pretend play becomes more elaborate as they use a variety of objects
to carry out longer episodes. These children need the object to
resemble the real item to some degree, so they might use a cloth
rather than a shoe to represent a pillow. Two-year-olds can now
engage in true construction play.
They understand that pictures can depict
pretend objects, and scribbles gradually become more
representational pictures during this period, though they are still
more interested in the process than the product. They become
increasingly interested in color variations and using simple art
materials. Children at this age begin to show an interest in
television and television characters.
They are drawn to familiar cartoon characters
from shows that they can incorporate into their play themes. They
often want to know "why," and can start to use simple
learning or educational toys. They understand the purpose of numbers
in counting objects.
Toddlers have increasing control over basic
gross- and fine-motor skills. Interest in gross-motor activity
increases with newly found physical strength and basic coordination,
and they especially enjoy balancing, climbing, running, jumping,
throwing, catching, playing with sand, or pushing and pulling
wheeled objects. They learn these skills separately during this
period, and with each passing year they gradually combine them with
other skills as coordinated movement. They can perform somersaults,
and like to dance, twirl, and gallop to music. Although their
control is still uncertain, they can kick and throw a ball. They can
manage simple screwing actions, and can use simple one- or two-turn
wind-up mechanisms provided they are of low tension. Smaller buttons
or snaps may be difficult for these children to manipulate, but they
can use large hooks, buttons, and buckles. They prefer more
realistic toys, so colors other than bright primary colors (for
example, pastels) become attractive. However, these toys do not need
to be elaborately detailed.
These children are entering the time of peak
pretend play, and like to use replica objects as the actors in
themes they sequence. A doll, for example, might be prepared to
attend a birthday party with her doll friends, and they will drive
in a car, eat food, and play chase or dance at the party.
Realistic props, like a realistic toy
telephone, enhance pretend play at this age, but these children also
start to use objects that are unlike the real item, so they might
use a shoe to represent a pillow. They show greater interest in
structured games. Gender preferences also become more evident. Girls
typically choose dolls, household props, dress-up activities, and
art materials, while boys tend to play more with blocks and small
vehicle toys, and will engage in more aggressive or rough-and-tumble
These children progress considerably in their
gross-motor skills. They can tiptoe and balance on one foot, hop,
climb and slide on play structures with ease, kick or catch a large
ball thrown from a short distance, and throw and aim at short
distances. For example, they can now put a ball in a basket or
target from 4 to 5 feet away. They now have the fine-motor skills to
take on the challenge of more complex construction play, piecing
together smaller puzzle pieces, cutting, pasting, and other art
activities. Children at this age are still interested in different
ways of manipulating a given art medium and learning about its
properties, rather than creating a finished product. They start
using lines to represent boundaries; this fosters the ability to
4 Through 5 Years
Drama and pretend play are at their zenith.
These children like to invent complex and dramatic make-believe
scenarios. They can build upon each other's play themes, create and
coordinate several roles in an elaborate scenario, and better
understand story lines. Many of these children still have difficulty
understanding the differences between fantasy and reality. For
example, children of this age may believe that monsters are real.
They enjoy stepping into roles of power, like a parent, doctor,
policeman, lion, or superhero, which helps them to better understand
these roles, to make them less scary, or to fulfill wishes and
express a broad range of emotions. As their cognitive and fine-motor
skills improve, they begin to desire objects with more realistic
detail, yet they still are not very concerned about mirroring
These children further master gross- and
fine-motor skills. They enjoy frequent trips outside to run, climb,
hop, skip, and chase. They are learning to ride small bicycles,
first with and then without training wheels. They are much more able
to cut with scissors, paste, trace, draw, color, and string beads
than 3-year-olds. They also have enough dexterity and coordination
to start using a computer keyboard.
6 Through 8 Years
These children continue their interest in
physical play outdoors, seeking to master more specialized physical
skills. They are much stronger, have greater endurance, and are
ready for more challenges. Their play includes more rough-and-tumble
or risk-taking behaviors. They focus more on playing their games and
activities by spontaneous or set rules, either of which can be
complex. Common games outside include hide and seek, tag, and sports
of all kinds. They often want to focus on and develop specific
skills, and are adept at a variety of activities requiring great
dexterity, such as complex hand games, jacks, snapping fingers,
tying a bow, constructing models, operating hand puppets,
needlepoint, sewing, weaving, and braiding. They can make small,
controlled marks or movements while drawing or writing. They pay
much more attention to detail, which facilitates a desire for
collecting. At this stage they start using logic more often to solve
problems, organize, or choose from a variety of alternatives. Their
appreciation for simple jokes and riddles grows during this period.
Licensed characters based on action superhero themes or friendship
themes are very popular early on with this age group.
9 Through 12 Years
Children during this period continue to
develop their skills at many of the sports, games, and activities
from their early elementary years, however, some games become
predictable and boring. Therefore, they are looking for a new range
of activities to challenge their more advanced motor skills and
thinking. Instead of finished products, they often prefer raw
materials for creating their own unique products. These children
enjoy a variety of activities at a more complex, exacting level of
performance, such as woodworking, manipulating marionettes, making
pottery, staging plays, advanced science projects, and generating
They are beginning a stage where they seek to
clarify and express more complex concepts, moving from the concrete
to the abstract and applying general principles to the particular.