Pick toys that stimulate senses and help build little minds.

Toys entertain little minds and build baby brains. A child’s brain grows fastest in the first two years, when it triples in volume. Here are my top toy tips to help spark that growth.

Use teaching toys

Toys that hold the child’s attention and employ the most senses — touch, visual stimulation and pleasant noises — are the best. Babies are born builders, which is why blocks always top lists of best educational toys. They can pile blocks on top of each other, see how high they can build, have fun knocking the tower down and start over again.

Enjoy container play

Reserve a lower shelf in your kitchen cabinet just for exploring toddlers. Watch your toddler open, close and reopen the cabinet doors and then haul out all the plastic containers and lids. Then watch them sit there on the floor trying to fit pieces together while their skills coach — mom, dad or other caregivers — cheer them on: “Put it in; take it out.” Add graduating cylinders, such as measuring-cup sets, to help your toddler develop the concept of how little containers fit into big ones.

Play together

If your toddler has taken toys you put in a drawer and spread them out on the floor, join them in putting the contents back in the container. Remember, you are the best “toy” your toddler will ever have, and these play memories will last a lifetime.

Enjoy matching shapes

Form boards and interlocking blocks are favorites. Between one and two years, babies can selectively look at the round block and the round hole and aim for a hit, although initially the misses may outnumber the hits. The toddler may bang around the hole until they eventually recognize the association between block and space, gradually perfecting fine-motor coordination and the attentive patience to fit the round block into the round hole.

Enjoy household toys

You’ll be amazed how many “toys” you naturally have around the house: toilet paper rolls, roller pins, cups and plastic plates. Imagine all the fun things your toddler can do with a simple cup: bang it; toss it; pick it up; roll it across the floor; and fill it with water in the bathtub, watching it submerge, reappear and float

Play ball

Beginning walkers love a game of pitch-the-ball and go-fetch-it. Toddlers enjoy one-step requests: “Get the ball for daddy!” By the end of the second year, baby is likely to progress to two-step commands: “Get the ball and throw it to daddy.”

Ball-buying tips

Babies like small, lightweight, plastic balls. Small enough to grip, but too big to fit into baby’s mouth, balls are a great toy. They make an interesting noise when bouncing on the floor, move quickly, and baby can grab hold and control them easily. Babies also like large foam balls or soft lightweight rubber balls that they can hold with two hands and throw or roll it to you. For large balls, the softer, the safer.

Play Peek-a-Boo

Babies love Peek-a-Boo. Place a card in front of your face or a handkerchief over your head, maintaining voice contact as you disappear, saying, “Where’s mommy?” As you “reappear,” notice the delight and laughter on baby’s face.

Bring out the push toys

Toddlers have the skills to push and pull. Our toddlers spent hours pushing a toy lawnmower to imitate daddy cutting the grass. Pull toys and push toys, such as baby buggies, are fun.

Enjoy young art

Crayon marks on your wall are a telltale sign of a scribbling toddler on the loose. For their first art lesson, give baby an easily-held, nontoxic crayon and a large white piece of paper. After baby messes around with her own art, share your artistic skills by drawing funny faces. Eventually, your child will learn to copy. Between one and three years, you will spend a lot of time playing with your toddler and their toys. Ask yourself, “Will I enjoy playing with this?” when choosing baby’s next toy.

Toy Safety Checklist

  • Avoid toys with dangling strings longer than eight inches
  • Check to make sure it has no small parts that baby could choke on such as doll shoes, buttons and beads. Blocks, balls and other small toys should be no less than 1 ½ inches in diameter.
  • Make sure the toys have no sharp edges or splinters, especially pre-used toys that may become unsafe through wear and tear.
  • Tell older children not to use loud toys, such as cap guns, around your baby. They may damage baby’s sensitive hearing.
  • Avoid letting toddlers play with uninflated or popped balloons as they pose a choking hazard. Always supervise play with an inflated balloon.
  • Throw away wrapping as quickly as possible when unpacking toys as the wrapping may pose a suffocation hazard.

Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP). More about baby brain development is in many of Dr. Sears’ books, such as The Baby Book and The Omega-3 Effect.