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Finally, I Found the Perfect Toys for My Toddler’s Brain

When you buy games and toys for your toddler, you need to think like a neuroscientist.

This story was produced in partnership with Lovevery

A toy is so much more than just a plaything when you’re a 20-month-old. It’s an object packed with mysterious forces — shape, size, texture, color, gravity — that teaches you about the very nature of your world. This became apparent to me as my son took a seat in front of the wooden stacking pegboard, a simple and rather brilliant stacking toy from Lovevery, the company best known for play kits designed for infants. Witnessing the depth of his concentration as he stacked the blocks, the despair he felt when he knocked it over, and the jaw-dropping elation he had when his tower finally held firm felt like watching a brain grow in real time. At one point, blocks stacked, he looked deep into my eyes, as if to say, “I get it now.”

Community Garden Puzzle — with its big, oddly shaped pieces, tiny knobs, and gorgeous drawings — is clear proof. When my little guy got over the frustration of trying to put in everything upside-down (it took a while, but it clicked), he celebrated by saying, “Ca-wot! Yay!” And gave a round of applause. Let’s hear it for root vegetables and cerebral cortexes!

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Which is why we buy toys. Lots of toys. Too many toddler toys. The most reliable way to reignite that spark in your child is to hand them a new object. In reality, it’s a bit of a reckless endeavor: Buying things that beep and boop simply annoys everyone; gag gifts might make parents laugh but can leave toddlers befuddled; and so many puzzles never come together for them. Still, who can blame parents? We’re looking to re-create those moments that thrilled us so in our sleep-deprived state not quite a year ago, and the toy store doesn’t come with a handy neurological road map. 

But it should.

Quilted Critter Pocket make it a standout among toddler matching games. It’s built to last, which is good for my little guy, who was a bit slow on the draw with this puzzle. At first, he understood the pictures (and was impressively able to name most of them), but didn’t understand how the pockets functioned. He figured out pockets, but then was all over the place with matching. By the time he could pair the fish to fish and frog to frog, he had lost his ability to work the pockets and kept flubbing the names. Fortunately, there were smiles and laughs throughout the entirety of this long learning process

The data is there, right in front of every parent; it’s just that most toy companies haven’t gone to the lengths to put it all together. Lovevery is the happy exception. Their award-winning Play Gym and Play Kits subscription programs are designed by child development experts and meet your kid at their specific brain stage. In other words, you get a toy, puzzle, or book that your child is entirely ready to dive into. 

This isn’t to say every product in the kit is a hit right away. That’s not how your kid’s brain works. My son, for example, received “The Realist Kit” (designed for 19- to 21-month-olds) and picked up their “Really Real Flashlight.” He flicked it on and toddled around the house yelling and shedding light on our apartment. He got it immediately. Then he opened the Community Garden Puzzle and became a frustrated mess — struggling to grasp the pieces, putting them on upside-down over and over again, and looking to me for help. I offered it and we practiced, put it away, and came back to the puzzle the next day. One day, it clicked (and really, it happened just like that), and he did it a few times in a row, gave himself a round of applause, and soon graduated to the kit’s Quilted Critter Pockets, which he is still figuring out.

wooden stacking pegboard continues to be my son’s favorite Lovevery toy — one that takes him from zero to rapt in an instant. Part of this comes from its versatility: The small peg placement helps work the fine motor skills; the colors are identifiable to him and help him with organizing (although not yet naming) colors; and the stacking is a skill he’s just now mastering. The best part of these peg stacks, at least for my son, is that when they topple, they don’t quite tumble. Instead, the blocks lock in such a way that the whole stack leans like a tower in Pisa — a trick that even a toddler can right before he keeps on building.

In other words, the Lovevery box effectively generates the spark. The toys in these boxes are positioned to reach kids wherever they are cognitively, from 0 to 24 months. In our time with the Realist box, from the Being Silly book to the Grooved Pitcher and Glass, this rule played out. Without exception, my son dug these toys. The stuff inside brought smiles and laughter, but more importantly to this parent, it provoked recognition and insight. That’s a lot to ask of a toy, puzzle, or book — and something Lovevery has happily delivered, without one beep or boop.