7 Awesome Toys for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Activities, Autism, Communication, Special Needs Parenting

*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post contains affiliate links.  If you click on the links and buy something, I may earn a commission.  Thanks!


Thinking about the best toys to get your child with autism and other developmental delays can be tricky!  You aren’t sure what types of toys your child should be playing with.  You’ve bought a bunch of toys in the past and they are either broken or forgotten.  Also, pieces are scattered all around your home.


So, what are the best toys to buy for your child?


One of the most common things I see when I go into a family’s home is that their child isn’t playing with toys much at all.  Maybe they carry them around.  Some toys are lined up.  Other toys are thrown or kicked down the stairs.


But the kiddo isn’t really playing with the toys!


This week I’m going to cover several topics to help you pick the type of toy your child is ready for:

  • Skills kids learn during play
  • Common issues
  • Some of my favorite toys for kids that aren’t playing appropriately with toys yet, as well as
  • Tricks to help them learn how to play.


Play to Learn


It’s a big deal if your toddler, two-year old, or preschooler isn’t playing with toys!  Playing is a critical skill that helps our kids learn a whole bunch of other important skills.


Attending to Objects and People


During play, kids learn to pay attention to objects and people.  In order to learn more complex skills like problem solving and communication and interacting with others, kids have to be able to stick with an activity or toy long enough to learn what it is and what it can do.


By choosing the right type of toy, you can improve your child’s attention which will lead to learning new skills.


Problem Solving


Play is a great way to learn problem solving!  If this puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit, what do I do?  I can’t get these two blocks to come apart — how can I get help?


Problem solving teaches kids to be persistent and to find new ways to do something.  It’s no good if your child makes one attempt to put the puzzle piece in and then gives up or throws it the first time it doesn’t fit.  If the toy doesn’t work or your child needs help, they need to learn how to try to figure it out on their own or ask someone for help.


Understanding and Using Language

Playing teaches a lot of language!  Your child learns how to follow simple directions such as “get the ball.”  They learn the names of toys — block, book, bubbles, doll, cars, etc.  Simple action words and descriptive words can also be taught during play — go, eat, sleep, run, hot, cold, yucky, little, big.


Your child also learns to communicate when playing.  They can make choices about what they want to do first — book or bubbles?  They can request more pieces of a toy — puzzles pieces, rings, shapes, cars, etc.  Kids also definitely learn to let you know what they don’t want during play time —  “NO!” comes to mind!  (“MINE” as well if they have siblings!)




Self-regulation is defined as the ability to control your actions and emotions depending on the situation.  This is a skill we are still learning as adults!  We definitely can’t yell at the people in Costco who are in your way.  You can’t shout out “BORING!” during a work training and run out of the room.  We have learned to keep our emotions and behaviors in check depending on the situation.


I’m turning 40 in few days and it’s still something that is really, really hard some days.


However, regulating our behavior begins early.  As toddlers and preschoolers, kids learn to wait their turn, ask for help, and find another toy if the one they want is occupied.  They also have to learn how to deal with limits and expectations.


Playing with toys and people develops self-regulation.  Kids learn to try again when a toy doesn’t work.  They learn to give a toy to mom when they need help.  They learn how to wait for their turn on the swing.


Interacting with Others


Our toddlers and two-year old’s typically aren’t playing WITH other kids yet, but they are learning how to tolerate being near them and playing with the same toys.  They are also learning how to wait for their turn.  They are learning how to roll a ball back and forth with dad.  They are learning to ask for what they want.


Some early social skills are learned through play time and playing with toys!  Social skills (along with communication) are almost always delayed in our kids with developmental delays and autism so it’s really important we have a lot of interactions with our kids during play and with toys.


3 Common Play Issues


If your child isn’t playing with toys yet, there’s a very good chance you’re seeing one of the following behaviors!


  • “Dump and Go” — No matter what toy your child has (blocks, books, cars, puzzles, shape sorters, farm animals), they dump them out of the container they came in and then go to the next thing.
  • Line ‘Em Up — If you know, you know.  There are lines of cars, trains, blocks, characters, etc. all over your house.  And don’t mess up the lines!  Lining up toys can happen when kids don’t know how to play and can also occur because it’s calming.  We need to teach our kids new ways to play with toys so they don’t get stuck!
  • Throwing, Kicking, Piles, and Hoarding — Your child might throw or kick blocks instead of building.  Maybe they put all of their trains in one pile next to them — and then move them to a new pile on their other side.  Or maybe your kiddo just likes to carry around all of their cars, but won’t play with them.


The Solution to Your Play Problems Is…


Use close-ended toys!


Close-ended toys have an end.  You know when you’re done.


Close-ended toys help your child stay focused and attend for longer amounts of time.  You can help them finish the toy or activity before moving onto the next one.


Generally with close-ended toys, there’s only one thing to do with them.


  • Board books — They’re sturdy, have simple pictures, and you know when you’ve reached the end of the book.  You can start with one or two pages and then build up to finishing the book.  They’re also great for language.


  • Puzzles — Start with simple puzzles that have large knobs and only 3-5 pieces.  Then you can graduate to puzzles that have smaller pegs and more pieces.  Avoid interlocking puzzles and those with too many pieces.


  • Shape sorters — There are so many options out there!  As with puzzles, start with simpler versions that don’t have too many pieces and then move up to harder options.


  • Ring stackers — These are great for kids that aren’t quite ready for shape sorters or puzzles.  There are lots of different options  available.


  • Piggy banks and peg boards — I love these because there’s only one shape and are easy for kids to handle.  You can make the piggy banks more difficult by moving the toy slightly so now your child has to rotate their wrist to make the coin fit.


  • Potato Head characters — Once again, there are a ton of options.  Find one that your child would love!  If your child puts things in their mouth, make sure you are watching them while they play with this toy.


  • Lacing toys — This one can be tricky for younger kids but can be great for kids who have better attention and hand-eye coordination.  They really have to focus to get the piece on the string.


Additional Tips and Tricks


Most of the time we can make small changes to help our kids learn how to attend to their toys and play with them appropriately!


  1. Make sure you have chosen toys and activities that are at their developmental level — this might be different than their age.  If your child has autism or a language delay or delays in several areas of their development, make sure to choose toys that they are ready for now.  Often I see kids throw and dump and scatter when the toys they have don’t match their ability.
  2. Reduce and rotate toys.  It is MUCH easier for kids to attend to a toy if there aren’t 50 other options within arm’s reach.  Choose a handful of toys and box up the rest.  This allows your child to learn how to use the toys that are available.  Those toys can be their option for the next week or two (or three).  Then, when you want to, rotate their toys.  Make sure to keep their options limited!
  3. Model how to play.  It is very common for kids to line up, throw, dump, and kick toys when they don’t know what else to do with them (and when there are a zillion pieces).  Spend some time sitting with your child and show them different ways to play with their cars, barn, puzzles, shape sorters, etc.
  4. Help your child complete one activity before moving onto something else.  Teach your child to finish a toy (puzzle, shape sorter, book) and then move onto the next one.  We want to see our child stick with something long enough to complete it and then find something else they’d like to do.
  5. Build on your child’s interests.  If your child loves cars, you might look at books about cars or do a car puzzle.
  6. Stay organized.  Keep puzzle pieces, shapes, etc in baggies.  This way you can keep all pieces together.  You can also create communication opportunities — do you want the blue car or red car?  Do you want the circle or square?
  7. Don’t give up!  If you introduce a toy and your child doesn’t seem interested, model how to use it a few times over several days.  Your child might come around after seeing the toy several times.


My Favorites and Additional Resources

Here are some of my favorite examples of close-ended toys!



(This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you some ideas!)


I’m also by no means the first person to put out a toy list!


Here are some other lists and resources that I really like!


Mama OT (great website by a pediatric occupational therapist)


Zero To Three


Very Well Family


Additional Gift Guides


Do you have some other great close-ended toys you love????  Let me know and I can add them to my list!




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