As parents, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make sure our kids grow up to be smart. The word “smart” is subjective, I think, but at the end of the day, we do our best to encourage and foster learning as much as we can for our kids, especially since their little minds are like sponges, soaking up every bit of their surroundings: what they hear, see, and feel. I also know that toys accumulate like crazy when you have kids. That has prompted me to be mindful of what I’m buying and what I gift to my kids. When I can, I try to research and pay attention to what toys and books really encourage mental development, creativity, and education in general. I know not every parent is able to spend time researching in this area, or they get overwhelmed and feel pressure to be the perfect “teacher parent.” That’s OK; you’re not alone! And trust me: I too just figure it out as I go, and there’s a lot of trial and error that goes along with creating an educational environment at home. My toy-cluttered home is proof of that. We have so much stuff but like I said, I’ve paid attention to what has purpose and what is just clutter, what my boys have learned from and what is just taking up space (or being used as a weapon). With that being said, I wanted to share what toys, games, and books have intention in our house, ones that I attribute to both my kids growing intellectually. Again, we’re not perfect around here, but I do feel like we have a good grasp on this at home, and I wanted to share my list of favorites for learning in our house. Here they are!
I have to start with books. Books are obviously a no-brainer to have everywhere in your home, and I could probably do an entire post just on this topic. With countless books out there to choose from, I thought it’d be helpful to share the ones that have been integral to my boys’ learning in our home. Even at just a few months old, babies can learn from books. You’ve probably seen or been invited to parties for Usborne…and let me tell you, it is LEGIT. Sure, you can get books anywhere, but there really is something special about Usborne. They’re quality, they’re unique, they have something for every age, and they go above and beyond to foster learning in so many areas. I absolutely have to share some of our favorites that I highly recommend adding to your library.
Babies / Young Toddlers (birth-2+ years*)
- Little Red Penguin Collection – We got these for Abram when he turned 1, and they are still a favorite (since he’s obsessed with lifting flaps). They’re the perfect size for little hands and have adorable characters, plus they’re bold, bright, and cover the basics: colors, shapes, numbers, letters. It’s never too early for these, I think, since at an early age, even before babies are talking, they can flip up the flaps, interact, and smile at the animals and objects that really stand out on every page. We love this series, and there have been many times I’ve found them on the shelf in Bennett’s room (as he loves them too). Great for all ages, really, and yes, they can be purchased individually or in the collection set.
- Touchy-feely & finger trail books – Littles love love love to touch, scratch, and feel different textures. We have a variety of books that do a great job at this, including Animal Hide-and-Seek (Touchy-Feely Farmyard Tales), which looks like a real-life farm with so many different textures to explore and flaps to lift, and Baby’s Very First Touchy-Feely Animals Playbook, which has bright pictures, few words–perfect for short attention spans and busy babies–and lots of trails to trace with little fingers. They’re indestructible too, which is a major bonus. The best part about these is that they are minimalistic but give a lot of opportunity for the parents to help littles interact with each page (i.e., making sounds to go with animals or helping little fingers find the feelies and trails). Again, there are endless options at Usborne for these types of books.
- Lift-the-Flap Word Book – Some may see this as too advanced for littles, and I do agree to an extent, but I still run through this book with Abram. It still has the flaps he likes but introduces him to words with super eye-catching pages. I definitely wouldn’t get this for kids under 1 quite yet and I don’t give this to my 16-month-old unsupervised, but when we can sit down together, he enjoys it. He can’t always sit still for the whole thing, but a few pages still covers a lot. Plus, it double-dips since Bennett absolutely loves these. I just view these as great teaching tools, so why not start early?
- That’s Not My…Series – This series is definitely a fun one for gifting to little babies and even newborns. Again, it’s about minimalistic, cute photos, and textures throughout. Barely any words, a quick read, and the perfect excuse to start reading right away (and buy the entire collection since littles love to walk around with these adorable books).
- *Ages for both books sections are a very rough guess and just my personal opinion.
Toddlers (ages 1-4+ years*)
- Muddle and Match Series – These adorable books promote creativity and memory. They’re so imaginative. Bennett got these when he was two, and a year later, now he has some of them already memorized. He is constantly laughing while reading these, whether alone or with the help of mom or dad, because he can mix up the heads and the legs of different characters or animals, but the words still make sense all muddled up. There’s also a lot of awesome alliteration in the words used, which not only makes reading fun coming off the tongue but it also helps children remember. Bennett is now reading these to me by memory. We are starting to point out the words as he recites from memory so he can begin recognizing the actual, physical words he is reciting. We already have 3 of these, but there’s a whole big collection to choose from. Get them ALL!
- Very First Book of Things to Spot – This was a potty learning lifesaver for us. In the early stages of using the potty, Bennett would sit forever it seemed, and this book was always on his lap to sort of be a distraction from a bit of fear that sometimes comes along with potty training. That aside, this is one of the first books we bought for him from Usborne, and again, it’s great for memory and also helping kids develop a vocabulary. Plus, I love that it also fosters recognizing what is different, understanding different sizes and shapes, seeking out specific animals and objects, etc. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone through this book, and there are SO many choices in this collection, too.
- Under the Sea Jigsaw Book – This is brand new in our house, and Bennett is already obsessed. I was blown away that he already was able to put the puzzles inside the pages together without my help. I had to explain that the pieces have to match the picture on the page–and repeated that to him a few times–and from there, it just clicked. Don’t get me wrong, this one may take time for a toddler to figure out on his or her own, but puzzles in general are great to have around to keep their wheels turning. Plus, I absolutely love that the book also serves as sort of a hub for all the pieces. So far, that’s kept Bennett from leaving puzzle pieces all over the house. I hope they come out with more of these!
- Lift-the-Flap First Questions & What is Poop? – I’ll admit: potty training started out really rough for us, and I became desperate. I felt as if there was some sort of fear attached to actually doing the doo-doo on the potty, so I figured this book may be a good way to help Bennett realize: Everybody poops! Honestly, timing played a big factor, but this book also helped a ton! It became a staple to read before bedtime, and he loved that this book made going potty seem normal, plus it was totally silly and playful at the same time. He still talks about this book even though we’ve got potty training down! These “very first question” books are seriously amazing from this company, especially once your child reaches that stage where they love to ask a gazillion questions followed by a gazillion “why’s.” One last observation from me: Bennett really responds to explanation and fully understanding how things work and why. Sure, some of it is way over his head, but I was pretty shocked by how well he responded to in-depth descriptions like “where does the poop go after it’s flushed?” Down into the pipes…and then it turns to sludge and sometimes gets sprayed on farmer’s fields. Detailed, I know, but he loved knowing these facts and in general, we talk and explain a lot of concepts to him during the day.
- Wipe-Clean Series – Coloring is great for developing minds and allows the imagination to take over. I love these books because they’re not messy–washable marker–so you can trust your child with them. There are a lot of choices in this series, but we started with Wipe Clean Doodles because it’s not overly complicated, and it gives the groundwork of scenes and pictures but allows the child to choose how to expand on it: add faces to shapes to make monsters, add toppings on cupcakes, make a winter wonderland scene, etc. Awesome for traveling too!
- Shine-a-Light Series – This is like a treat at bedtime for Bennett. Since it has regular paper pages and requires a flashlight or cell phone light, we designate these as bedtime books (since our youngest would destroy it). Plus, it’s the perfect excuse to keep the lights low, or off, when winding down for bed. Super fun, interactive, and educational. There are so many to choose from, but you can’t go wrong!
- Lift-the-Flap Numbers – We ran through this book again just this morning, and though some pages that require adding and subtracting were slightly challenging for Bennett, who is now 3, I could totally see his wheels turning, and he loved every minute of it. Plus, this is one of those books that I know, with consistency and repeated reading, he is going to catch on and learn FAST!
- I could go on and on…these are just a few of our favorite titles, but we have many many more. The catalog can be overwhelming, but I can help you navigate and narrow down a list for your kiddos if you need it. Plus I have a few friends affiliated with Usborne that are amazing resources too!
- Dear Zoo – This is an absolute favorite. Bennett loved when we made animal noises when he would open each flap, and now Abram lights up in the same way every time we read this. It’s an everyday staple: simple, short, sweet.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Bennett has this book basically memorized. What’s not to love about Eric Carle’s books? We have a few, but this is the go-to.
- Any or all Sandra Boynton board books – Silly, simple, and fun for all ages!
- Little, pocket-sized books – They’re perfect for little hands, really jump-start babies and young toddlers wanting to start reading, and of course, kids love to stack them too! We have these, and an added bonus is that they’re made from 98% recycled materials!
Bennett is actually playing with this set as I write this. He showed an interest in numbers early on, so I knew this would be a great gift for him. The eggs each have a number and matching number of pegs in a fun, bold color, and the eggs split into two parts, leaving it up to your child to match the correct colors or numbers together–you pick! I love all the variations you can create from this set.
Besides just matching or counting, you can make it a memory game by flipping over all the eggs and having your child pick one number and challenge them to flip the eggs to find its match. I also love that they’re small for little hands and not only help littles learn numbers, colors, and memorization, but also just problem solving in general: How do I open this? How does it fit back together? What’s inside? Abram is already playing with this set too, so it definitely will be passed down to all our kids.
This is a brand new “game” in our house, and Bennett is already attached to it. You get a little stand for flashcards with a photo and a basic word. A little flap covers the word, and the child has to spell the word with letter dice. I usually help Bennett with this, but it has given us all the tools to work on pronunciation, as well as spelling, and just associating actual words with their pictures. I usually prompt Bennett to recite what letters make which sounds to help him along, but he’s already starting to figure this out without my help. I love hearing him sound out letters while I’m eating breakfast: repetition really works, my friends! That’s all I can say! He listens and repeats all day long.
iPad Apps & Games + TV Shows
I’m not the perfect parent, and I do let my son use the iPad for about 30-60 minutes a day. This is a personal decision, and for me, it just makes things more feasible with two kids just 20 months apart running around. I will say that I researched a lot about what apps are best and make education a priority when picking which ones I download or buy. Bennett’s favorites, as well as mine, are the Endless Reader apps and Eric Carle’s Caterpillar games. I give some major credit to Endless Reader for helping foster Bennett’s love for letters and learning the alphabet. It is so creative with cute little monsters to narrate. It covers the alphabet, spelling, words, and reading. There are many variations and we have all of them. I bought the full version of the original Endless Reader app, and it’s been worth every penny. I really like that it not only gives you a letter and then a word starting with that letter, but it also puts that word in a sentence too and then acts it out with a little story. It’s silly, entertaining, and educational all at once.
We also LOVE the infamous “caterpillar game.” Bennett gets to take care of his very own hungry caterpillar. He gets to feed it, play with it, and put it to sleep, as well as caring for a garden, painting, and learning the basic needs of taking care of his own little pet. He gets to care for it until it gets big enough and becomes a butterfly! Then, you get to start all over again. There are some other apps in this series we like too that have art activities, and they have helped Bennett learn to paint/color in the lines, trace letters, and just be creative.
(SCREEN-TIME TIP: I’ve found that consistency has played a major factor in why screen time has been so positive for us here. By that I mean, I offer the iPad at the same time every day–unless we are busy doing other things or it’s the weekend–and then take it away at the same time every day, and now, after following this routine for quite some time, he actually gets “tired” of the iPad after 30 minutes max. Yes, he actually hands me the iPad and says, “all done,” and has been using it less and less every day. I heard this is actually true and was recently studied–GMA did a story on it this week–so might be worth trying at home if you’re concerned about too much screen time with your kids.)
Also, if you absolutely need to do TV time, we love Super Why and Daniel Tiger. Super Why has been fantastic for spelling and reading already, and as long as I engage in the show with my kids, I feel OK letting them watch some TV. Letting them sit there and gawk at the screen is a different story. Helping them engage, asking them questions, and pointing things out during TV time is crucial and helps them retain information without having sensory overload. Daniel Tiger too is so great because so many everyday situations are addressed, and there’s always a positive solution that kids can take away from each episode. Let’s just say we put the “potty training” episode on repeat for a week or two when we hit a wall in potty training. It did help!
We are big foodies in this house and love to cook, so we felt it was a no-brainer to have play food for the boys. Downside is that we find it all over the house, but especially lately, Bennett has been playing with these constantly since he seems to be entering that stage where “imaginative play” is huge. We got the wooden Melissa & Doug play foods awhile back when we invested in an Ikea Play Kitchen. While the kitchen gets less use than we hoped, the play food has been a hit from the start. I remember when Bennett was first learning how to talk…he would bring me food one by one, and I would say, “pepper,” or “lemon,” and he started to try and repeat them back to me. Now he’s 3, and every morning I come downstairs to find him and Rickie Raccoon eating a plate full of play food. He loves to “cook” for me, assemble dinner and lunch plates, and feed all his furry friends. Also, we have the sets where you can “cut” the food (which is attached via velcro), which obviously helps kids start to learn basic cooking skills without the mess. We like to involve Bennett in cooking and he loves food, so this just made sense. Abram still hasn’t figured out that they aren’t actually edible, but one day he will!
Again, this is a no-brainer to buy for the learning littles: An easel with two sides is awesome since it’s convenient, easy to clean up, and so versatile. We got a really inexpensive one from Ikea, and not only does it have a whiteboard and chalkboard, it also has a place for a huge paper roll if your kids want a more “permanent” piece of art to hang up in the house. This was one of the primary ways I taught Bennett the alphabet and numbers 1-20. You have all the control, which is a huge perk, so you can write the letters, ask them what’s next, spell words, draw pictures with words, write out numbers and recite them back, you name it! And of course, toddlers can practice pen control and express themselves too when you hand over the markers. This has gotten major use, and I know it’s only going to get more action as the boys get older. I still don’t trust my youngest with washable markers, but luckily, a simple swipe with a Norwex Enviro Cloth has taken care of any mishaps for us.
We’ve got many PUZZLES around here. I think they’re great for practicing problem-solving. We especially love alllllll the Melissa & Doug options like the self-correcting wooden alphabet puzzle. We also have the numbers version. Though I don’t love the pieces all over the house, messes don’t deter me from toys that benefit little brains! (If you’ve seen my disastrous house, you know that to be true.) Again, these have kept Bennett very busy as he not only likes matching the words with the letters that they start with, but he also loves to put the whole thing in alphabetical order once the pieces are all matched up. We also like dressing up “Joey” and building cars with our Melissa & Doug magnetic puzzles. They really hit the mark on hand-eye coordination and imaginative play. We have fun with this, even though I have to be careful since Abram tries to eat the smaller pieces, so just keep that in mind.
Don’t underestimate the teaching power of a simple set of blocks. We have a basic wooden set that gets lots of love, but we were also just gifted Tegu magnetic blocks. Magnetic blocks are so cool and just add to the fun; they are a little more complex because the magnets are only on certain parts of the blocks, but I think that just makes these even better with the added “challenge.” They really foster curiosity and creativity, and both boys have been drawn to blocks from the beginning. Tegu blocks are also lead- and plastic-free, non-toxic, with water-based lacquer finish and no super small parts. They’re definitely an investment, but I think it’s worth it. Ask for them as gifts, and the nice thing is that you can add to your stash over time–there are so many sets! Blocks in general just promote open-ended playing, problem-solving, and creativity. What can I build? How high can it go? Will this fall down? There’s a fascination with magnets in our house, so I may also pull the trigger on Magna Tiles at some point; I’ve heard they’re amazing!
This was a surprising hit in our house. It’s a strange but cute little wooden toy, and Abram especially loves it! This pop-up peg toy is great for little hands and little minds to learn hand-eye coordination and color recognition. The little smiley pegs each have a slot in the wooden base. Inside each slot are hidden springs.
Once your child taps on the head of each peg, they will “pop” up in the air. It sounds basic because it is, but boy is it entertaining! It has won multiple awards and is recommended by lots of teachers and therapists, believe it or not. Don’t knock it ’til you try it!
That’s it…for now. I know this list will be ever-evolving, and of course, it doesn’t include everything we do. There’s painting, coloring, cars, train sets, outdoor play, etc., too, but these are some highlights for us. Keep in mind: These toys, books, and games have been integral to our children’s learning experiences, but that does not mean they’ll be impactful for everyone. Also, don’t forget that toys should always play supplemental roles in education. Trust me, I do NOT rely on toys to do the “work” for me in teaching my kids. I use them as tools but also as ways to help kids learn both independently and with me as their “teacher.” It’s wonderful watching kids make discoveries right in front of you, without your help, but always make sure that you are also present in the learning process when it’s appropriate. I talk to my boys a lot and that alone has made a massive difference in their development. Much of what you say, do, and how you interact with your child(ren) is so powerful as they learn. But it’s also important to sometimes take a step back, watch, and let them figure it out. And don’t forget to get them outside, running wild in nature and interacting with other kids. Toys should never take over these crucial parts of child development. I simply wanted to share, though, that there is a lot you can do in your home, and these have been our personal favorites. At the end of the day, there are all different stages of learning, and as parents, we figure it out as we go. The best part is that we get to be there as these little minds grow.