Years 1 to 3. Growing strong & independent.
PLAY TUNNEL ($25). Kids begin building core strength as babies - it's why tummy time and crawling are emphasized so much. But strengthening these muscles shouldn't stop when kids begin to toddle. This tunnel is a fun way to keep kids crawling - and strengthening their core - long after they start walking. I am especially partial to this tunnel because it has see-through mesh in the middle, and it folds up for easy storage. Our tunnel makes regular trips to the park with us, hung on the handle of the stroller.
Skills: Gross Motor, Core Strength, Bilateral Coordination
BUILDING BLOCKS ($15). The coordinated use of small muscles (a.k.a. fine motor skills) are crucial for toddlers to develop. Building with these interlocking blocks are a great way to get there. Plus, the thrill of dumping out the bag provides an opportunity to clean the blocks back up, and that also takes fine motor skills. Zipping and unzipping the reusable bag packaging is an added challenge for older tots to practice as well.
Skills: Fine Motor
SMALL SLIDE ($35). This slide lets little ones practice two essential playground skills: sliding and stairs. Sliding provides vestibular input while promoting balance and coordination. Plus, it's so much fun! I like this slide because it's sturdy enough to avoid tipping - even when climbing UP the slide - but also light weight. Our slide has done well both inside and out in the backyard.
Skills: Vestibular Experience, Balance, Gross Motor, Bilateral Coordination (stairs)
SIDEWALK CHALK ($3). Big, fat pieces of chalk are a great to introduce writing and the fine motor skills that go with it. Expect young children to use a full fist or palmar grasp with their entire hand wrapped around the chalk, and don’t be surprised if you see your toddler switching between grasps. Another great thing about chalk is the varied surfaces it's used on - like sidewalks and chalkboards. Drawing on a vertical surface, like this easel promotes shoulder stability, posture, core strength, and more. When coloring on the sidewalk, lying in prone (think "tummy time"), is a great way to build core strength long after kiddos start walking. Importantly, the sensation of writing with chalk is unique, and dusty, colorful hands are an added sensory bonus.
Skills: Fine Motor, Sensory Experience, Core Strength
SAND & WATER TABLE ($60). For me, the "sand" part of the title is a little limiting. Some days it's a "Shaving Cream and Water Table" or a "Rice and Water Table" or "Things-We-Found-Outside Table." It's also been filled with dried beans, dirt, corn kernels, and mulch. Fortunately, this table is also incredibly easy to clean. In fact, cleaning is part of the learning: I keep this dust pan and brush set handy because its use promotes bilateral coordination (using both sides of your body together to complete a task). To build hand strength and coordination during play, I have funnels, sponges, and even a turkey baster (squeezing for hand strength). The table is also great because it's a just-right height for kids who are cruising, but not quite walking. It encourages cruisers and walkers to move around the table because its two sides are divided, so we go back and forth between two different "feels" which also encourages sensory exploration.
Skills: Sensory Experience, Hand Strength, Bilateral Coordination
VELCRO CATCH ($10). Playing games that require ball skills (a.k.a. throwing and catching) are a big part of being a kid at play. With young toddlers, start with rolling the ball toward the paddle while seated on the ground with legs wide apart. Once it's time for throwing and catching, the wide paddle helps build confidence through success. Any way the game is played, pealing the tennis ball off the Velcro paddle involves bilateral coordination and quite a bit of hand strength (so please don't to it for your child!)
Skills: Ball Skills, Hand Strength, Bilateral Coordination
TOYS THAT PROMOTE INDEPENDENCE
Helping kids engage in daily self-care activities (washing hands, getting dressed, packing lunch, brushing teeth) is a big part of my job as an OT. That's why I'm including some items that help them do just that. They may seem less like traditional toys, but toddlers - including my own - love being able to "Do it self!"
For starters, step stools are crucial because they safely provide extra height. This low step stool lives by our bathroom sink. Coupled with a faucet extender, hands can now be washed independently. This slightly higher two-step stool is great for reaching higher surfaces, like the kitchen counter. I also use it to practice climbing up and down stairs. Both stools are light enough that kids can easily move them from place to place as needed. It's great to watch problem solving skills at work, when a child realizes s/he can get or do something on their own for the first time. Of course, for big cooking projects, a learning tower is ideal for young toddlers who need the extra height and the fall-proof structure. This foldable version is great too, because, well, it folds. On the other hand, if you really want the child to do a cooking task alongside you, consider moving it to their level. We have happily shucked corn, mashed potatoes, and mixed mixes at this kid-sized table with stools. Ikea has this version with chairs, but I encourage swapping out chairs with backless stools because it's an added challenge for sitting balance.