This year, with the holidays approaching (a little too quickly, I might add) I have been getting tons of questions about toy recommendations. I recently posted my picks for Best Toys for Speech and Language Development, and today I’d love to share a more general guide for my favorite topic- Battery Free Toys for Babies and Toddlers! Those of you who have been anxiously awaiting this list (Facebook friends in particular)- sorry it’s taken me so long, but there are SO many great toys out there that it was extremely hard to choose! Thankfully, I have friends in high places- I recruited Melissa of Little Pnuts, the amazing toy subscription service that I’m always raving about (more on them in a bit) to chime in on the baby toy recommendations- she is a wealth of information on developmentally stimulating toys for little ones and I’m very lucky to have her helping me curate today!
Why Battery Free?
Before we get started, let me fill you in on my feelings about juiced-up (a.k.a. battery-powered) toys for little ones. If you are looking for toys that stimulate development– and, let’s face it, who isn’t- you will most likely be bombarded by folks selling toys that claim to teach all sorts of concepts and vocabulary and social skills by enticing your child with buttons and lights and beeps and shiny plastic. Here’s my advice as a developmental specialist with eight years of specialized education and many more years of therapeutic practice…BACK. AWAY. SLOWLY. AND THEN RUN. If you want to stimulate development, toss out those batteries. Open-ended, low-tech toys are the way to go. It’s just that simple, folks.
Choosing Quality Toys
Now, let’s get down to business. Do you know Kim from Little Stories? She has an AH-MAZING series of posts on toy rotation and choosing quality toys that stimulate all areas of development. I refer to these posts quite frequently when I am purging our toys and we do implement her rotation system (quite successfully at the moment) in our own home. Kim divides toys into three main categories:
- Thinking Toys (target cognitive and often fine motor development; includes puzzles, blocks, art supplies, etc.)
- Moving Toys (target gross motor development; includes ride-ons, instruments, balls, etc.)
- Pretending Toys (target language and social/emotional development, problem solving, motor skills; includes dress-up clothes, kitchen sets, stuffed animals, etc.)
Be sure to visit Little Stories for the full toy rotation series (and tons of speech and language goodies) after you are done here- you’ll love her, I promise!
I am going to follow her system for this guide- I have divided my picks into the three categories above and included some for babies (0-18 months) and some for toddlers (18 months-3+ years). This list is by no means all-inclusive, but hopefully you’ll find a few new things to check out!
*Disclosure: All product links are Amazon affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission (no extra cost to you) if you purchase something via one of these links. However, these are toys I would recommend anyway, the links just keep me supplied with googly eyes ;). If you do choose to use the links, thanks so much for your support!
Thinking Toys: Infants
Babies are busy gathering information about the world around them using their senses. Toys that appeal to multiple sensory modalities include those with bright colors, interesting textures, and sound elements. Through observing and manipulating simple toys, they learn about cause and effect, which is a foundational cognitive skill! You’ll note lots of HABA toys in our infant picks- according to Melissa, they are the bee’s knees when it comes to quality baby toys, and I definitely concur!
1. Grimm’s Large Wooden Stacking Tower (12+ months) Oh, how we covet anything Grimm’s;)
2. P’kolino Fishing Hole Size Sorter (6+ months) Such an adorable take on a shape sorter!
3. HABA Hedgehog Clutching Toy (6+ months) Love the smooth, colorful balls.
4. HABA Discovery Blocks Fun with Sounds (12+ months) A great multisensory toy.
I couldn’t help but mention the Haba Meadow Friends Play Gym (0-12 months)- it’s both a thinking toy and a movement toy because it encourages babies to reach out and grab the colorful creatures. I love its versatility- coil it around your carseat or stroller handles or even crib railing for even the youngest babies!
Thinking Toys: Toddlers
Toddlers are now able to engage in a bit more complex “thinking” type play, so this was a SUPER fun category to put together, especially because my own children are in the older toddler range (almost 3). Puzzles, constructive play, matching- toddlers are still very sensorial in their explorations but have developed some basic cognitive skills to boot, which makes them very curious as they test their hypotheses about how things work and fit together.
1. Janod Robots Magnet Puzzles (18+ months) Another one one our list as Will is obsessed with “wobots” right now. The twins will love mixing up the different pieces to make new creations.
2. Rainbow Whirls Pegging Game (HABA, 2+ years) My kids are going to FLIP for this- we have a plastic pegging game and this one definitely ups the ante!
3. P’Kolino Multi-solution Double Sided Bug Puzzle (18+ months) I am in love with these P’Kolino multi-solution puzzles- there are a ton of different ways that the puzzle pieces fit together so I think this is a toy that will grow with your child for years. Go check out all the different versions- there’s even a robot and a cheeky monkey 😉
4. Boikido Wooden Building Blocks (2+ years) This is one we have actually owned for at least a year now- the blocks are fabulously colorful and great for stimulating imaginative play. They are a bit on the small side so watch if you have a mouther still. The twins love them.
Art supplies are also included in the “thinking” category- we are asking for an easel this year and we really like this one: KidKraft Deluxe Wood Easel (3+ years).
There are so many great construction toys out there for this age group that I wanted to mention- we are still deciding between Tegu Blocks (wooden blocks with magnets inside- so cool), WEDGiTS (I may not be able to resist these considering the rave reviews) and Magna-Tiles (especially awesome if you have a light panel).
Moving Toys: Infants
Toys that encourage reaching, grabbing, rolling, shaking, etc. were chosen for this category. You certainly don’t need specialized toys for this (you can always place interesting objects just outside your baby’s reach), but they are SO fun!
1. Hape Mini Maracas (12+ months) Instruments are an important subcategory of moving toys- great for language stimulation as well!
2. Plan Toys Baby Gym (0+ months) I really wish we had owned this one when the twins were babies!
3. Hape Galloping Zebra Cart (12+ months) OMG. So cute. The little galloping zebras (or “bazeebas” as they are called in my house) are the bomb.
4. Crab Calino Pull Toy (12+ months) We had lots of well-loved pull toys in rotation until just recently- this one is adorable!
This Baby Care Play Mat (0+ months) was hands-down the BEST thing we had in our dining room/playroom for a long, long time. We have hard flooring and this squishy mat was amazing for keeping bumps and bruises at a manageable level (with two wobbly babies, you just can’t prevent spills and collisions). It was so comfortable that my husband and I and even the grandparents could sit on it for long periods of time…and the brightly colored animals (it has a different scene on the other side, too) made it super stimulating for the babies. Oh, how we loved this! Totally worth the investment.
Moving Toys: Toddlers
Lots of options to choose from here- there are tons of cool ride-ons and tricycles out there that I didn’t even attempt to pick. Here are a few things guaranteed to get those gross motor skills developing!
Wrist Bells (3+ years) Ok, I know it says “3+ years,” but we’ve had a set of wrist and ankle bells since before the babies could walk. They are fabulous for stimulating little ones to move their arms and legs, and once they can stand, for walking, dancing, running, stomping, you name it! Just watch them in case the bells were to come off and go into their mouths. Duh.
Rody Inflatable Hopping Horse (3+ years) I don’t know that I have ever worked in a therapy setting that didn’t have a Rody. They were great for helping kids with sensory issues to organize or blow off steam or rev up for therapy, depending on what their particular sensory diet required. We’d certainly love to have a couple sitting around here for a rainy day!
Pure Fun Kids Mini Trampoline (3+ years) Similar to the Rody- fabulous therapy tool. Great energy burner. Check out all the options available, read the reviews, pick the one that suits your kid best.
West Music Scarves I simply cannot write a gift guide without including these in some capacity. They are the perfect toy for movement, pretend play, music time- pretty much everything!
Pretending Toys: Infants
If you are a regular reader of Twodaloo, you know how much emphasis I place on pretend play for early language development. All of the observation and sensorial exploration that infants are doing early on culminates in the emergence of symbolic play, or using one object to represent another, at around 18 months (give or take a few months depending on the individual child). At this stage, you will see just one or two simple actions, such as pretending to drink from a toy cup or using a wooden block for a phone. To lay the foundation for emergence of this skill, adults can provide simple toys that mimic everyday, meaningful experiences and engage in simple play scenarios with their little ones.
1. Green Toys Dish Set (2+ years)** This is another toy that we had way before the manufacturer’s recommended age. Eating and drinking is typically one of the first symbolic acts that surfaces in play because it’s something that babies participate in and observe multiple times a day- it’s super meaningful! A small child only needs a few pieces of a set like this to start- maybe just a cup and a spoon. I like this particular set because it’s 100% recycled, food safe (so no need to worry about mouthing), and dishwasher safe. We’ve used it for everything from everyday pretend play to sensory play to serving little snacks!
2. Kathe Kruse Nicki Baby (0+ months) Oh, how I love Kathe Kruse’s Waldorf style dolls! And your little one will love the Nicki baby- it’s the ideal first doll. Completely soft and huggable and small enough for the tiniest arms, it comes in lots of yummy color combinations to suit any gender preference you may have 😉
3. Lilliputiens Nicky Bath Game (6+ months) A precious way to introduce family role play in the bath. Love, love!
4.HABA Forest Friends Magic Playbook (6+ months) There is so much wrapped up in this little play book. Basic concepts (in/out), role play, sensory exploration…HABA has knocked it out of the park once again!
Pretending Toys: Toddlers
1. Camden Rose Knitted Fruit Set (3+)** Here’s another that could be played with much earlier than the manufacturer’s recommendation, as long as you watch your kiddos. I am completely swooning over this knitted fruit set! The complete set pictured is a bit pricey, but if you look at the other listings you can find sets with less pieces for less of an investment. These pieces are hand knit from handspun and hand dyed wool yarn, so the quality is amazing. Forget the kids- I might have to order some for myself!
2. Camden Rose Childs Broom, Rainbow (3+) I just had to include this for no other reason than it’s the coolest broom EVAAARRR. My kids love to sweep with their little brooms and “help” me clean the house- how fun would it be with a rainbow broom made of real corn? I die.
3. Djeco / Topanimo 12-Piece Nesting Block Set with Animal Friends (18+ months) Animals are a universal pretend play favorite among littles, and my twins love to find “homes” for all their little figures. This nesting block set would serve as an excellent pretend play toy as well as a thinking toy- yay for double whammies!
4. Janod Story Box Circus (3+) I am in love with these Janod story boxes, and I thought this circus version was different and adorable. And my kids apparently think so, too, because they’ve seen the photo and won’t stop babbling about “Dumbo and the little monkey.” If the Big Top isn’t your bag, there are also fire station, farm, wild west, city, and train versions- you’ve gotta see them for yourself.
Toy Subscription Service: Little Pnuts
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to mention our favorite subscription toy service, Little Pnuts. I found out about this company last year and immediately signed up- four times a year you get a box of eco-friendly, developmentally stimulating, BATTERY FREE toys that are expertly curated for your child’s age and developmental milestones. It’s been a great introduction to new (often European) toy brands that are a great alternative to the buzzing, flashing monstrosities that clutter American toy shelves. After being a paid subscriber for a year, I now write for their blog in exchange for their amazing products, but I can’t say enough about how great my experience has been with this company! And a GINORMOUS thanks to Melissa, the Little Pnuts founder, for helping me wade through baby toys for this guide!
Phew! That was a labor of love, I’ll tell ya! If you are interested in more developmentally stimulating toys, check out my guide to the Best Toys for Speech and Language Development!