How to choose developmental toys

Little boy playing with wooden toys

Morgan Russo

Morgan Russo is a writer, researcher, and learning designer with a Master's in Child Development. She has a passion for creating engaging and educational experiences through play for all children. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and not-so-mini dog, Mini.


Lost in Toy Land


Buying toys is tough. Tougher than it should be. It's toys, after all!


If you are like me, you search and scroll for the 'right' toy, asking yourself a dozen questions. Will my child use it? Will they prefer the box it came in? How does the parent in that ad look so well-rested? As your child wakes up from their nap, you impulse buy five rather than the one you set out for.


In my house, the toy basket became a toy corner, which became the toy room, and suddenly it was every room. Puzzle pieces, blocks, and musical instruments were crammed into couch cushions, buried in baskets, and toppled on tables. The house felt like a rejected toy graveyard with only a few prized toys. I knew it wasn't working from an environmental, organizational, or developmental perspective. And I should know better!


My training has taught me that when it comes to toys, 'more isn't merrier.' Instead of overloading your children with options, help them focus their energy on a few toys at a time.


I’ve spent my entire professional life around children, first as a teacher and then in content creation and product design to support children's learning and development. Before having children and certainly after, I've thought a lot about how to support development through play. But like so many parents, I found navigating the Land of Toys challenging. So I came up with a T.O.Y.S checklist. 

The T.O.Y.S Checklist


Toys should be:

  1. Tailored to the child's developmental needs.
  2. Open-ended for richer play patterns.
  3. Evoke the Yay-factor with choice to spark joy and engagement.
  4. Sustainable - given that toys have a lifespan of around 6 months (and often shorter in my household!). 


Toys should be tailored to the child’s developmental needs. A wonderful toy at the wrong age could be rendered useless or, worse, unsafe. Just like relationships, timing is critical. And no two children are the same! My child may need toys that support their language development or problem-solving skills, while another child may need toys that support their physical development.


My training has taught me that open-ended toys are best - they promote imagination and problem-solving. These are toys that can be played with in multiple ways. Not all toys need to be open-ended, but having a few in the rotation is important. They are often simpler in design. In the industry, we say that toys should be baby-powered, not battery-powered. The more lights, sounds, and buttons the toy has, the more likely it is to limit a child's creativity (and drive you insane!). 


Third is the yay factor. If my child doesn't enjoy playing with the toy, then all of the educational benefits don't matter. I want my child to have toys that they gravitate towards and excite them. 


Finally, sustainability became increasingly important as our pile of stuff grew. Nearly 80% of toys end up in a landfill after little use, and 90% of toys are made of plastic. These staggering statistics make me want to be more thoughtful about finding high-quality, environmentally friendly toys. 


Putting T.O.Y.S into Action


I now had my tenets for toys. The checklist helped me solidify what I was looking for, but finding toys was still challenging and time-consuming. I decided to try out a subscription toy service. I knew it would be curated by experts and developmentally appropriate - I joined Lovevery.


But I quickly realized that two of my four tenets were missing: tailored and the ‘yay factor.’ Because you can’t choose what is in your kit, it wasn’t customized to my son’s developmental needs or interests. Instead of following my child's natural curiosity and interest, I was forcing him to play with a toy because it was, well … expensive. My stack of Lovevery toys grew, along with my fear that I was accumulating stuff and not accumulating meaningful play moments. So I donated my pile of Lovevery toys, ditched the service, and continued my search. 


Then I found Tiny Earth Toys - where I choose what goes into each order (with helpful recommendations through their Toy Tailor!). And just like that: check, check, check, check. My T.O.Y.S. checklist was accounted for - all in one place. Parents know the power of a one-stop shop!


Joining Tiny Earth Toys was one of the easiest and best parenting decisions I've made. My house is back to 2 toy baskets, and I no longer step on small toys when trying to get to the kitchen! Their site allows me to choose from a curated library of high-quality, developmentally appropriate, open-ended toys that are well-suited to my child.


Parenting is tough. Toys shouldn't be. 


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