A version of this story originally appeared on KERA News.
Toys can do more than entertain. A University of Texas at Arlington professor, Priscila Caçola, has published research showing how specific toys and furniture in the home can help children develop motor skills like crawling, grabbing or walking. She says when it comes to a baby’s development, which toy you buy might matter less than where you put it.
“So I see lots of people who have wonderful toys but if you put them in their rooms, in shelves that they’re never going to reach, it’s not going to be good for them,” Caçola says. “They need to be able to reach it.”
Toys on the floor are approved, says Caçola. She’s researched how different types of toys affect an infant’s motor skills, as well as how to best arrange the house for a baby to play in. She says if you think about it, the home is a baby’s playground, and whether there’s space to move and walk is crucial.
“We don’t develop motor skills as a birthday presents. Babies don’t walk because they turn one. They walk because they’ve pulled themselves up on the coffee table and they have tried to do a few steps,” she says. “They have fallen many times, so they’re ready to do that. So the home is what offers all these opportunities for learning.”
In addition to some simple rearranging of furniture – say putting a gap between the coffee table and the couch, Caçola says you can encourage babies to crawl and walk with toys.
I brought three different toys that are for different ages, and I’ve never had so much fun with investigative journalism.
The first toy, called the SnugaMonkey, is for 3- to 36-month-olds. Caçola says the small musical toy with wheels its good for babies who are still on “tummy time” – there’s a mirror and monkey to stare at – as well as for kids learning to crawl.
“And babies are crazy about noises and they want to go get it,” Caçola says.
The second toy is an $8 stacking toy, a basic ring toss for babies at least 6 months old. This one, Caçola says, allows kids to learn different grips and use both hands at the same time.
“For us it’s very easy to do this but for a little baby their brain is figuring out how to transfer information from one side to the other,” she says.
The last item is a classic pull toy, introduced back in 1962 as the Chatter Phone, it was originally designed to teach kids how to dial.
“Nowadays babies are only learning how to swipe,” she says. “This [toy] is a little more complex.”
Actually spinning the rotary, Caçola says, helps infants develop finger dexterity and it teaches them a lesson about how difficult it used to be to make a phone call.