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9 best gifts for 1-year-olds 2020: Best toys and best gift ideas

Child experts say the best gifts for 1-year-olds are safe (first) and allow for open-ended play and exploration.
Image: Toys for 1 year-olds
We asked experts where to find the best toys and gifts of the season for 1-year-olds — and which are the best options.Fisher Price; TOMY; Lego; IKEA

While 1-year-olds are full of wonder about the world around them, it can sometimes be difficult for adults to know what they’re thinking — shopping for a 1-year-old can therefore get rather challenging. “1-year-olds are curious about the world,” said pediatrician Laura Jana, MD, who wrote the highly-rated “The Toddler Brain.” “They are just starting to master fine motor skills that let them start to explore the world intentionally.”

SKIP AHEAD Expert guidance on gifting 1-year-olds

The key to keeping 1-year-olds engaged are toys like sorting boxes, stacking cups or bead mazes, all designed for open-ended play that do away with restrictions and adult-made constructs, Jana noted. To get a more specific idea of the best approach to gifting toddlers, we consulted child experts, pediatricians and authors — Jana among them — and found some of the best gift options that encourage exploration without frustration. Gifts or not, if you’re shopping right now, keep in mind that you should consider doing so sooner than later to avoid expected holiday shipping delays.

Best gifts for 1-Year-Olds

1. LEGO DUPLO My First Number Train

Big chunky blocks, like the kind featured in LEGO’s DUPLO sets, are great for small hands. Christia Spears Brown, PhD, a professor of development psychology at the University of Kentucky, recommended DUPLO blocks because they are “manipulative toys that help define motor skills.” This train, which lets kids learn numbers and colors when they’re ready, also has simple play features.

“It feels good to pull a train behind you just when you’ve learned to be mobile on your own,” added Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” A boy, girl and a cat can ride on the toy train with rolling wheels or can be toys in their own right. If you’re also buying a gift for an older brother or sister, check out the Shopping guide on buying the best LEGO sets for every age.

2. Mushie Stacking Cups

Mushie brings modern flair to kids’ toys. Bring home some hygge — a feeling of coziness — with the Danish stacking cups. The plastic cups can be made into a tower or knocked down after they’ve been stacked. Each cup has a different pattern on the bottom to help reinforce the shapes. Some have holes and some don’t, making them perfect for pouring or storing water during bathtime, as well.

3. TOMY Toomies Hide & Squeak Eggs

Six plastic eggs can be sorted and taken apart in this discovery toy from TOMY. “There's matching, sorting, colors, shapes and lots of learning in this unexpectedly wonderful little toy,” said Busy Toddler founder Susie Allison. “Plus it's great for a kitchen play area or pretend picnics.”

The eggs each have a different shape at the base, which aligns with a spot in the plastic egg carton. They also can be opened and, when a child presses down on the toy chick’s head inside, they make a “cheep” sound. Best of all, no batteries are needed.

4. Fisher Price Rock-A-Stack

Fisher Price has been making toys for nearly 90 years and there’s a reason the Rock-A-Stack this become a daycare staple. The inexpensive, plastic tower lets babies and toddlers stack five hollow plastic rings around a dayglow yellow column.

“The fun of putting them on and taking them off is exciting to the child,” explained Klein. The top ring is translucent and filled with colored beads that rattle if the ring is shaken back and forth.

5. Button Size-Sorting Box

This soft vinyl box from Lakeshore Learning is all about taking items in and out of it. A collection of 24 buttons in the shape of squares, triangles and circles can be dropped through four cutouts in the removable top.

Allison likes that this toy helps with cognitive development and might stick around for a few years because it can still be used “by toddlers and preschoolers as they develop math skills.”

6. The Original Toy Company Pop-Up School Bus

The bright yellow wooden bus from The Original Toy Company rolls on wooden wheels. “This incredibly basic toy has years of play potential despite its simple look,” Allison explained. “The little pegs bounce as it drives for a really sweet effect. It doesn't look like a show-stopping toy, but it is.”

A hidden spring lets each of the four peg people pop up when pushed on their head, which has the potential to entertain adults and children alike. Taking the people in and out of the bus also encourages fine motor skill development.

7. Melissa & Doug First Bead Maze

A brand built on wooden toys, Melissa & Doug’s First Bead Maze helps develop hand-eye-coordination and motor skills. “It is open-ended,” Klein pointed out. “Children can play however they want and, at the same time, are introduced through play to colors, size and shapes.”

One-year-olds can spin, slide or maneuver three yellow plastic rings and 18 wooden beads around a pair of twisting wires connected to a pair of wooden blocks.

8. The Pigeon Needs a Bath Book With Pigeon Bath Toy

Mo Willems’ joyful book is designed for bath time. Kids turn or grab the waterproof pages of the flexible book to meet the interactivity experts advised above. The book also comes with a rubber pigeon — ducks no longer have a monopoly on bath time.

9. GUND Baby Tinkle Crinkle & Friends Arch Activity Gym Playmat

Checking off the interaction box, this fairly new activity-heavy playmat includes eight distinct activities for toddlers, including five sensory-centric toys, a fluffy and huggable cloud and a baby-safe mirror. The vibrant playmat can be set up in about two minutes, too, the brand boasts.

Where to buy gifts for 1-year-olds

Aligning with the guidance experts gave us and sorting through options at major retailers, here are some of the most wide-ranging options for gifting 1-year-olds:

How to shop for a 1-year-old

“Exploring things at this age can mean putting things in your mouth,” Jana cautioned, noting that finding the right gift for a 1-year-old is about balancing discovery and safety.

Safety first: stacking and sorting toys

She recommended avoiding toys that could be potential choking hazards and focusing on toys like stacking blocks that are designed to be held by small hands. “Take age recommendations on packaging seriously and make sure something doesn’t have small parts.”

And while safety is the first consideration, Allison, who wrote the “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting,” believes you should also try and find toys that will still be entertaining as a child grows older.

“Remember, they won’t be this age for long,” she explained. “A bag of blocks or set of buckets is going to have a long lifespan and won’t be obsolete three months or even three years from now.”

Avoid gendered toy stereotypes

If you don’t know where to start, it can be easy to get caught up in gender stereotypes, too, warned the University of Kentucky’s Brown.

“People rely on gender norms or stereotypes more because you can’t ask a 1-year-old what they want,” she explained. “People buy pink dolls for girls and big chunky trucks for boys.” Instead of focusing on gender, Brown encouraged gift givers to think about the skills that a toy might help teach.

“Dolls are good for every kid because we want our kids to be empathetic and the early building blocks of empathy are dolls,” she said.

Leave the playing to the players

For the Barnard College’s Klein, the key is to encourage discovery with “hands-on toys.” “Toys and materials that are open-ended are best at this age,” Klein said, echoing Jana. “They allow the child to decide what they want to do and there is no right or wrong way.” She recommended looking for toys that let 1-year-olds push-and-pull a vehicle, take objects in and out of a container, or stack and knock blocks down.

“The world is becoming more interactive for them,” Klein explained. “So hands-on toys with no set way to play encourages their curiosity and development.”

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