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Developmental toys and gift ideas, 0 – 3 years

By Cozette Laubser |

‘Tis the season! Celebrating Christmas with your baby for the very first time is such a memorable day, it is therefore no wonder parents get swept up in the moment, swipe their cards left and right, and sourly regret it all the moment they realise baby couldn’t be bothered with the present, but instead excitedly reaches for the wrapping paper and box the present came in.

This article comes a few short days before Black Friday too – ensure you get the most bang for your buck. Learn more about age-appropriate developmental toys and gift ideas for babies and toddlers, 0 – 3 years, here.


Magda Gerber, author and early childhood educator, says, I’d rather see a busy child manipulating a simple toy in a variety of creative ways to see how it works than see a passive child playing with a busy toy that encourages her passivity. Carla Hannaford, a biologist and author, says, learning, thought, creativity, and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body.



Open-ended toys are toys that can be played with in multiple and varied ways. They are often described as toys that are 90% child and 10% toy as they leave plenty of room for a child’s input.

Ten children could be given the same toy and all ten of them would find different ways to play with it on different occasions based on their interests, developmental stage, natural abilities and imagination. By this definition, the same toy can usually be played with by a baby, a toddler, a pre-schooler and even beyond.


  • There is no definite ending point.
  • Can be played in many different ways.
  • Children play freely without expectations or objectives.
  • Great for fostering creativity, imagination and pretend play.
  • Language opportunities are limitless and can be expanded upon.
  • Encourages problem solving.
  • Open-ended toys can grow with the child through ages.
  • Examples of open-ended toys include balls, stacking cups, building blocks, toys on wheels, dolls, animal figurines, push and pull containers etc.

Balls, blocks and containers on wheels


  • Have a specific objective and clear ending.
  • Usually only one way to play.
  • Can help with cause and effect.
  • Great for teaching functional play.
  • Can help with building attention span and task completion.
  • Great for teaching simple directions like in, out, push, etc.
  • Limited ability to get creative and expand language.
  • Examples of close-ended toys include ball poppers, shape sorters, ring stackers, puzzles, etc.

Pounding bench, shape sorter and ring stacker


Sometimes the best gift is not something that comes wrapped in a box, but is a play space you prepare for your little one.

Play spaces are not limited to, but can include:

  • A sandbox
  • An outdoor mud kitchen
  • A tree house etc.

Before we ever put a pencil in a child’s hands, those hands should dig, climb, press, pull, squish, twist, and pinch in a wide array of environments and with a variety of materials. Amanda Morgan

Sandbox, mud kitchen and tree house

In her book, Play Learn Know, author Dr Melode de Jager says:

The best toys for a baby are not toys at all; they are the real, everyday objects that mom, dad and caregiver touch and use. 

Dr de Jager goes on to say the following day-to-day household items can add hours of developmental play in the sandbox. Sand and water play offers so many experiences of math’s and science principles! Be sure to include these items over time:

  • Spatulas
  • rolling pins
  • sand wheels
  • funnels
  • sieves
  • colanders
  • stones
  • shells
  • scoops
  • measuring spoons and cups
  • sprinkling cans
  • wooden spoons
  • buckets
  • shakers
  • pipes, tubes, cylinders
  • potato mashers
  • sand combs
  • balance scales
  • baking bowls and pans
  • mixing bowls.


  •  Offer a few toys at a time – do not tip the box or they will lose interest!
  • When you buy a new toy, show the baby or toddler how to use it and then let them explore freely as well.
  • Tidying up is part of playing. And it should not be your responsibility to tidy up. Teach this early!
  • Just as your child enjoys playing with toys, so too will she enjoy reading books with you. All children need the opportunity to explore books with their hands and mouths. Young children should have a few vinyl or fabric books for this purpose as these can easily be washed, and because these books are not too delicate, they also teach your child how to turn pages carefully. Turning pages with care is a coordination skill still to be learnt.

Lastly, if shopping really isn’t your thing, welcome, you are in good company! Take heart:

Children don’t need more things. The best toys a child can have is a parent who gets down on the floor and plays with them. Unknown

De Jager, M. 2017. Play Learn Grow. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Publishing.

De Jager, M. 2014. Play Learn Know. Welgemoed: Metz Press.

Play Learn Know {3-6 years}

Play Learn Grow {Birth to 3}

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