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5 tips for choosing the best toddler toys

Five tips for choosing the best toys for toddlers.

Toddlers are often the hardest children to shop for because they still put things in their mouths, they're not always steady on their feet, and they're not ready for complicated toys.

Here's our list of top favorites for this on-the-go stage:

1. Active play
First you want toys for active play.  "On the go!" That's the catch phrase that comes to mind when we think about toddlers. Wheel toys that match their new mobility are ideal. There are several things that we do not recommend for toddlers: They're not ready for pedals or motors. Choose toys that allow them to use their big muscles and develop their coordination.  Our top picks: Radio Flyer Classic Walker Wagon (Radio Flyer $80); Retro Rocket (Radio Flyer $60) and Walker-to-Wagon (Fisher-Price $24.99).

2. Climbing toys
Climbing is another important form of locomotion.  We spend so much of our time telling toddlers not to climb. It's important to give them space where they are encouraged to use their energy productively. Going up and down, under and over are all opportunities to use their big muscles.  For this stage, skip the big, tall climbers. They're really not safe for toddlers. You're better off not having any, than to bring home something to grow into. That said, even low climber slides require adult supervision and cushioning underneath.  New and small in scale is the Naturally Playful Lookout Treehouse (Step 2 $129.99).  We also recommend Step 2's bigger Naturally Playful Clubhouse Climber ($599.99). It's pricey but a perfectly scaled climber/playhouse for this age group that will also be enjoyed by 3s and 4s.

3. Again-and-again toys
To know a toddler is know that they love doing things over and over again. While it may seem silly at times, these repetitive actions are a way of building their confidence and sense of themselves as active doers.  It's important to select toys that build on that ability. There are several great choices in this category: Rollipop Toddler Starter and Advanced Sets (Edushape $19.95 and $24.95)/Roll Around Tower (International Playthings $28.99). 

4. Exploration toys
Toddlers' play is all about exploration. Toddlers learn best through their senses so it's important to provide them with opportunities to make their own discoveries.

  • Sand/water exploration. Experience sand running through fingers, or through a sieve, or pushing a small boat through water. These are all fun ways to explore.  What happens if I spill water through the water wheel?   For exploration, you want toys that do not require a right or wrong way to make things happen.  They are completely open-ended invitations for sensory learning. This kind of play gives meaning to concepts like full and empty, wet and dry. They're  beginnings of basic science and great for language development.  It's a good kind of messy play!  We recommend the Sand & Sea Play Table (Little Tikes $79.99). It holds up to 50 pounds of sand. It comes with a water wheel, boats, an umbrella, and covers for both sides.  Great for small spaces as well.
  • Art Exploration. At this stage it's not about making something, it's again about the exploration of the materials. How does the finger paint feel in my hand? What happens when you add red to yellow? These concrete experiences are the best way to introduce color concepts. This is literally hands-on learning. It's messy, so if that's an issue do it outside. Alex's Super Art Table ($154) is roomy enough for four young artists.  Pair this with their new No Mess Fingerpaint Trays ($12.99) and finger paints that now come in new pump jars ($4.99 per bottle).

5. Pretend play
As language grows with older toddlers, so does the ability to make believe. Toddlers need more realistic props that look like things grownups are using. Familiar objects such as toy kitchens, shopping carts, toy phones, carriages, and huggables are all basic gear for this early stage of pretend. Simple props that allow the child to take charge are best. We'd recommend avoiding bossy toys that direct the play. The technology for these toys may seem appealing at first but they really rob kids of the opportunity to use their own imaginations. New this season, the Grand Walk-In Kitchen (Step 2 $259.99) works both as a kitchen and a playhouse complete with pretend microwave, of course.

Stephanie Oppenheim, a frequent TODAY contributor, is co-founder of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer organization that rates the best, and worst, in children's toys. For other top picks for toddlers, visit .