Birth to 12 months. Sometimes the simplest toys are the best.
Tummy Time Mirror
STACKING CUPS ($6). Learning to stack and nest these cups develops crucial skills, including fine motor coordination and visual perception. They are also great for sensory play during bath time because each cup has small holes in the base to send water streaming down. We also use them in the sand & water table. Fortunately, they are dishwasher friendly.
Skills: Fine Motor, Sensory Experience, Visual Perception
ACTIVITY GYM & MIRROR ($40). This activity mat is the perfect tummy time spot for even the tiniest babies. It's portable, washable, and the stuffed animals that hang down make it engaging without all of the noise and lights that come on many activity gyms. I also love that it has a mirror because babies love nothing more than to look at faces, including their own. Not only is a mirror a great way to make tummy time less miserable, but it also helps develop tracking and visual attention, which develops rapidly in the first few months. When babies begin to respond to social stimuli (i.e. facial expressions), a mirror helps them learn all the wonderful things a face can do. My girls were so captivated by their own reflections that I purchased a self-standing soft floor mirror to keep by the changing table to make diaper changing a little more pleasant.
SKILLS: Core Strength/Tummy Time, Visual Perception, Social Learning
PICNIC BLANKET ($30). Time spent outside is great for babies (and for parents). Just being outside can help calm a cranky baby and make tummy time more interesting. For baby, this blanket becomes a "home base" of sorts for outdoor sensory exploration - the first feel of wet grass, grainy sand, and so many rocks and leaves. For parents, it is waterproof, machine washable, and it folds into a messenger bag for easy transport to and from the park.
Skills: Sensory Experience, Core Strength/Tummy Time
LEARNING TABLE ($40). As much as I usually avoid toys with bells, whistles, and batteries, this learning table is an important exception. At around 8 months old, babies begin to learn about cause and effect - that one event brings about another. Push a button, and the ABCs are sung. Slide a lever, and lights twinkle to the beat. It encourages little ones to interact and play. I also like this table because it grows with baby. Take off the removable legs, and it's the perfect height for a happier tummy time experience. With legs attached, the table is just right for encouraging cruisers and walkers to explore.
Skills: Cause & Effect, Core Strength/Tummy Time, Gross Motor (Cruising)
SHAPE SORTER ($12). This shape sorter is a classic toy for a reason - babies love it and learn so much from playing with it. While a child is unlikely to "master" the skilled manipulation of a shape into its proper slot until age 2, the underlying fine motor and problem solving skills (through trial and error) begin to develop much earlier. Explore object permanence (knowing an object still exists, even if hidden) by playing hide-and-seek with this toy, and identify shapes and colors for your baby as they reach for each block.
Skills: Fine Motor, Problem Solving, Language Skills
SENSORY RATTLE ($12). For babies, rattles are captivating. A rattle provides sensory stimulation (visual, auditory, and tactile) in a package that's easy to grasp, manipulate, and transfer from hand-to-hand. I like this version because it's soft for the inevitable self-inflicted bonk on the head, and it doubles as a soothing teether when placed in the freezer. The Oball Rattle is another easy-to-grasp rattle that babies love to shake, shake, shake. Plus it can be babies first ball to practice rolling a little later down the road.
Skills: Sensory Experience, Fine Motor (Grasp)
LEARNING WALKER ($60). Soon after babies pull themselves up to stand, cruising follows. To provide "just right" practice during this pre-walking period, a learning walker is a perfect toy. I am especially partial to this version because weighted objects can be added to the front basket, adding resistance to slow down a cruiser or early walker, in the hopes of preventing some (but not all) spills. Once your baby is steadier, they are free to walk and run without being weighted down. This learning walker is another great option. It's durable and washable enough for outside use - on grass, dirt, and bumpy sidewalks around the neighborhood. The front panel that has flashing, singing toys is easily removed if you are maxed out on noise-making toys.
Skills: Gross Motor (Cruising and Walking)