Top types of brain-boosting toys for toddlers

by | Nov 19, 2020

There’s a dizzying array of toys out there for your children. Occupational therapist and mom Tasha-Leigh Williams gives advice on what toys will help to boost your toddler’s brain development.

Play is a massive and important part of our children’s lives, which is why finding the right kinds of toys will not only help to reduce toy clutter, but provide an exciting way for them to learn so much! Our little ones’ brains grow at an exponential rate within the first 100 days and these first years are some of the most important for laying that learning foundation.

I have compiled a few top toy categories that will encourage learning through play and boost brain-development. They can either be DIY or worth investing in. There are many toys that can fall within each category, but remember to keep your child’s unique play interests and developmental age in mind when picking out some of these.

It’s amazing to see how these toys can shape development and it has been so much fun and rewarding watching my son discover his unique potential at his own pace, all the while having him teach me just as much.

These toys require more initiative from the child, which in essence develops some awesome character-building skills too, as opposed to being entertained by a one-functional, pre-scripted toy. While those toys might be great to have around for the odd occasion, consistently providing play opportunities to instil the skills below, is not only fun for the kids, but essential building blocks that may shape their approach to adolescence.

Open-ended Toys

These are toys that don’t have just one purpose, but can be used in a variety of different ways. They activate and boost the creative part of the brain as your child decides which function the toy will have.

Since these toys spark imagination and pretend play, they build executive functioning (higher-functioning skills), including planning and sequencing through play scenarios. Kids love to add their own bits to play scenarios, which develops their sense of empathy and responsibility.

They’re also great for encouraging self-expression and learning to self-regulate, as their emotional development is moulded through pretend-play. These are all important skills needed to navigate childhood and adolescence. When we facilitate and build healthy creative minds, we are building an appreciation for their own design, and thus the design of others.

Toys in this category include loose toy parts, with no particular one-play function, such as blocks or wooden peg people, which makes play versatile.

Push/Pull toys

With our toddlers learning to navigate their first steps independently, push/pull toys make for great gifts! They’re awesome for helping our toddlers strengthen core muscles, and improve balance and co-ordination as they learn to walk independently.

As these physical skills are encouraged, their confidence to explore and take on tasks independently is boosted too, which creates a sense of positive self-esteem.

They also learn a great deal of spatial awareness by navigating their environments and pushing or pulling toys in the desired direction. Spatial awareness is a great building block for mathematics. My son still loves his push-walker at 20 months old, which has a shape-sorter with sound in the front and builds his thinking and problem-solving skills.

Push/pull toys with multipurpose functionality that grows with your child are all the better to invest in.


This is one of our favourite ways to boost brain development and sensory processing.  We can get through lots of basic concepts just by using sensory bins with popcorn seeds, coloured rice or lentils. (Don’t forget to monitor, especially when the contents are not taste-safe.)

Sensory toys can range from musical toys to various sensory bins and have endless benefits for boosting brain functioning. The stimulation is a great way to feed into the natural built-in inclination our kids have to explore and master the world around them. They become aware, learn to problem-solve and nerve connections in the brain’s neural pathways are built to master motor and processing skills needed within the environment.

Sensory toys are also an effective way to start building the self-regulation skills and emotional intelligence that are usually only mastered in adulthood, as they can have a great calming effect on the brain’s sensory processors. What makes this such a win is the ability to build memory skills – what appeals to the senses is bound to cause an emotional response, and thus memory is built.

It’s important to observe your child’s unique sensory tolerance – as some children may have a low threshold and are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, while others have a high threshold and require a lot more input to be stimulated at all.


Activity boards can be filled with sensory items or fine-motor lock-and-key items. It’s an awesome way to learn about cause and effect as they pull, clip, tug and open/close items on the activity board, which lays the foundation for developing curious minds and intentional play.

Activty boards are also amazing concentration and attention boosters and the right type of activity board can really keep toddlers busy for quite a while, giving them a chance to develop those problem-solving connections and fine-motor skills.


Books are a brilliant way to feed imagination, develop communication connections and increase vocabulary. From textured books to pop-up books, reading these aloud together facilitates a sense of co-operation and builds socio-emotional awareness, a component to adolescent emotional-intelligence.

There are endless opportunities to expand on life-themes and create category connections from 2D to the real world.

The gift shop list

Here are a few favourite local/small business selections that provide a variety of brain-boosting toys, with a first customer discount included.

  • ThorneWood Treasures provides handmade wooden educational toys that can be used in a variety of hands-on ways.

Discount code: yayforwood

  • Little Amber Rabbit is a Cape Town based online store selling quality educational toys, activities and books.

Discount Code: hop

  • Stumped Wooden Toys is based in Knysna, selling handcrafted open-ended wooden toys