This story was produced in partnership with Lovevery.
It’s true that babies spend most of their time eating and napping, but don’t let the simple baby lifestyle fool you — there’s actually a ton of neurological activity going on behind the scenes that has lifelong implications, and a lot of how they develop comes down to the way they play (when they’re not sleeping and eating).
Seriously, at birth, the 100 billion nerve cells in the brain are mostly unlinked. And in the first three years of life, babies develop a network connecting them that establishes the baseline for their intelligence throughout life. Child development experts have found that the more you expose babies to how the world works in those early years, the richer their neural networks become.
Not that you needed more stress in your life, but it seems that baby toys aren’t just cute stuff for parents (or a way to distract the kid so you can make yourself a sandwich). Which poses the question: Which toys will actually help your baby get the learning they need in that first year? Here’s our list of the top 10 things to buy for that “play to learn” lifestyle (and some happy neural networks).
1. Black and White Cards
For the first few months, your child has a lot in common with a mole. They don’t see too well and enjoy confined spaces. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since they spent the first few months in the womb, a dark subterranean home if ever there was one. In other words, it’s time to start training those eyes. Babies are super nearsighted in the first three months (seeing best at 8 to 10 inches from their faces) and have a hard time processing anything that isn’t a very high contrast image (think black, white, or red). Black and white cards are a handy way to give newborns the right kind of stimulation, and you’ll want to increase the complexity of the images as they become two- and three-month-olds.
2. A Really Good Rattle
What your baby lacks in sight, they make up for with their rather well-developed hearing. Babies are primed pretty early on to learn about cause and effect by associating sounds with the things that make them. By four months, your baby will start to look for and track the sources of sounds they hear. How do you help them develop this understanding? That’s what a rattle is for. Understanding that objects (and people) can make sounds is an early lesson in cause and effect. A baby can recognize the sound of a rattle even when there’s background noise. Shake the rattle in front of them and watch your baby follow it with their eyes. Babies can even start to recognize patterns in the sounds you make, which is a building block for future math skills. This classic rattle is made with sustainably harvested wood and safe non-toxic water based paint.
3. A Hand-to-Hand Transfer Disc
Passing an object between two hands is a step babies work toward for months. Something’s got to come first before your budding NBA star develops a wicked crossover on the basketball court, right? Honestly, hand-to-hand transfer is a foundational skill that is the basis for later motions such as dressing, eating with utensils, holding crayons, and running. Truly skilled hand-to-hand transfer won’t happen until sometime between months five and seven. So how can you help develop this skill? There’s a toy for that. Joined discs are designed to help babies manipulate and pass an object from hand to hand, across the body. At first, your baby may grasp other things (like rings or rattles) while struggling with the discs, since holding them requires building up new fine motor skills. You’ll be delighted when you see the pride on their face when they master the discs.
4. A Ball
A graspable ball or something else that rolls like a rolling bell is one of the most useful toys for learning in the first year. During tummy time, your baby reach for, grasp, grip, squeeze, and mouth a ball. Rolling something back and forth in front of your baby can teach the concepts of circles and spheres. You can use a favorite rolling toy to entice your baby to reach, scoot, roll over, and otherwise move their body in order to get closer to the object of their desire. They can practice raking, then (later) throwing, and eventually catching it.
Before you get into a crazy jigsaw puzzle (definitely not baby-appropriate), there is something simpler that babies love. A first circle puzzle helps your baby develop fine motor and problem solving skills. Their hands and eyes work together when they remove the puzzle piece. And they’re also working on shape recognition at the same time. This puzzle is made with sustainably harvested wood and has a baby friend inside.
6. The Object Permanence Box
Between months six and nine, everyone is a magician to your baby. Take away an object and as far as they’re concerned, it’s gone forever. They are just beginning to learn “object permanence,” or the idea when objects can’t be seen, they’re not gone forever. A tool for practicing this is called, aptly, an object permanence box. A ball dropped inside the box is only gone for a moment before your baby sees it again, and mastering the manipulation of the ball into the box gives them good motor skill practice as well. With the box, baby is practicing grasping and releasing on purpose as they try to drop the ball in the box (a skill they will continue to develop throughout his first year).
7. The Magic Tissue Box
Containment is the close cousin to object permanence. The concept they’re learning here: Things can hold other things. Amazing, isn’t it? Help your baby explore this heady idea with this magic tissue box, a containment-teaching wooden cube that holds linkable, brightly-colored fabric tissues babies love to pull out of the box. Bonus: The tissues are pretty great for peekaboo (there’s that object permanence again).
8. An Activity Gym
There’s nothing like an activity gym or play mat for creating a space where your baby can play to learn. Activity gyms are the most registered for baby toy out there, but they’re not all equal. A good activity gym shouldn’t look like they’re front row at an EDM festival — a newborn’s nervous system can’t screen out anything that their eyes see, their ears hear, or their skin feels. So a crazy colorful activity gym with flashing lights is simply overwhelming. The Play Gym, an award-winning activity gym designed by Lovevery, evolves over the 12 months of your baby’s life. The mat has five concealable sensory zones that can be customized to your baby’s needs. Just follow the guide to hang components that are timed to help them learn when they’re ready. It looks nice, too.
9. First Book
There is nothing like a book for helping your baby learn (and also maybe giving them something to slobber all over). Reading aloud to your baby is something you can do together and (especially when they use simple, realistic photos) is a way to teach your baby all different sorts of concepts and vocabulary. It is one of the easiest ways to make sure that you talk to your baby and expose them to all the words that will help build those neural networks.
10. A Simple Doll
As your baby approaches the end of their first year, they will begin exploring more and more. A simple doll with a basic, gender-neutral appearance allows the child playing with it to develop their own imagination and creativity. Soft and flexible arms and legs are important, too, as is a doll made with natural materials since you know that new friend is going to be going in your baby’s mouth as soon as they get their hands on it. The right doll can be a plaything that lasts a long time for all babies as their imaginative and expressive ability grows.
Lovevery makes it all much easier.
All the products above can now be bought through Lovevery, a new company that is all about baby learning. They have made it their mission to take everything the experts know about early childhood development and design toys and tools that give babies meaningful learning experiences appropriate for each age and stage. “We obsess over every single product,” says Lovevery cofounder and dad of two, Roderick Morris. “Distilling all the child development research into toys that babies actually enjoy is a way for us to help make parenting a little simpler.”
Check out this video of Fatherly’s very own Evan Kaufman discussing his experience unboxing The Play Kits. And then head on over to Loveverybaby.com to learn more about the Play Kits, activity gym, and all their incredibly well-designed toys that will have your baby building that precious neural network. What better way to get them ready for a long, healthy, adventurous life.
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