Essential Toy Guide: 12 to 24 months

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These are essential toys, the high value gender-neutral toys that your kids will enjoy and then later you’ll hand down to friends’ kids. These are not posh. They’re reality toys that you don’t have to mortgage your home to buy. Be sure to weigh in below with your opinion about other essential toys.

12 Months

Photo of Measure Up cups by Discovery Toys.

Measure Up! Cups by Discovery Toys — All stacking cups are not created equal. An unadvertised aspect of these 12 primary color cups is that, for any given cup, the cup size immediately above and below can stack when turned upside down. This is critical for babies who simply don’t know which way is up. Lots of other brand cups do not stack as easily.

The bottom of the cups are imprinted with raised animal drawings for stamping into clay or Play Doh.

The best feature is that the cups are volumetrically correct. The means, for example, that if you fill cup #2 and #3 with water or sand, the contents can be poured into cup #5 for a precise fit. A parent guide is included to make these last well into preschool.

Photo of the Little Tikes Rocking Puppy.

Rocking Puppy by Little Tikes — Toddlers love rocking horses. This one is very low to the ground making tipping (end over end) less likely. It’s also sturdy, probably why it’s a favorite of play centers and daycare facilities. The upper age limit is 3-years-old, a real steal for years of enjoyment at just $21. [review]

Photo of the Shapes Triangle Knob Puzzle.

Shapes Triangle Knob Puzzle by Melissa and Doug — This is the first of many puzzles to come. It’s a mind blower to watch your baby go from “It’s fun to pull the pieces out and toss them” to “Hey, this fits in that hole somehow *bang* *bang* *bang*,” and then finally, “Come on Dad, this puzzle is so last month.” $10. Also consider the 8-shape edition for $12.

For the price, you’re getting a wooden puzzle with surface art that can peel up when it gets very wet, so be diligent about regulating slathering little mouths. Many baby puzzles have this issue.

Photo of a Jester-in-a-box.

Jester-in-a-Box by Schylling — Nothing strikes as much fear and excitement into a toddler as a jack-in-the-box. Admittedly, this falls on the far end of essential toys, but it’s fun. $20.

Photo of two baby walkers.

Brilliant Basics Activity Walker by Fisher Price or the Wide Tracker Activity Walker by Little Tikes — This is a must-have. Every toddler who has visited our home has loved running up and down our hall pushing a walker. We own two to avoid fights. $20-25.

I suggest walkers only for toddlers who have already begun walking (indoors), so they aren’t dependent upon the walker and are less apt to fall. If you have hardwood floors, consider duct tape on the wheels to increase traction and reduce wheel sliding.

Walkers are rated for 6-month-olds because they collapse for floor use. If you’re using the walker only as a walker, the front panel toys are of little importance.

Photo of Playskool Busy Poppin' Pals.

Busy Poppin’ Pals by Playskool — Five buttons, knobs and levers cause animal heads to pop up from underneath doors. Push the doors down and do it again. How long has this toy been around? It’s a classic. $13.

18 Months

Photo of a Sit'n Spin and a Spin Around.

Sit’n Spin by Playskool — It’s cheaper than drugs. Kids love standing up and twirling in place. Do it while seated so no one gets hurt. Playskool doesn’t seem to make a non-musical version anymore; I highly recommend never inserting batteries. Spinning is sensory overload enough. $17.

Spin Around by Blue Box is another option. By design, it doesn’t use batteries. $23.

Photo of a Ramp Race 4 Level by Maxim.

Ramp Race 4 Level by Maxim — This toy is rated for 3-year-olds and does present a choking hazard due to the small cars. I played with it with my daughter much, much sooner, always supervised and then stored out-of-reach.

This track isn’t much for racing because there’s only one track. But toddlers love to keep the three cars going in a continuous procession down again and again, faster and faster. $13.

Maxim makes a two-track version which probably does a better job of entertaining 3-year-olds. $27.

Photo of the Little Tikes EasyScore Basketball Set.

EasyScore Basketball Set by Little Tikes — With a weighted base and adjustable height, this basketball hoop is rated for up to 5-year-olds. It should last that long, as long as you use lightweight plastic balls, not a real basketball. $21.

Photo of a Wagon for Two Plus.

Wagon for Two Plus by Step 2 — There are lots of wagons on the market. I like this one for its toddler door so you don’t have to lift the kids in and out. $55. An optional $27 trailer can be attached for transporting gear.

Photo of Keys and Cell phone Combo.

Keys and Cell Phone Combo by Parents — I’m recommending the phone; I haven’t seen the keys because they weren’t included when we bought this toy a few years ago. (Our phone is still working and will be passed on to my second child.)

The phone has the requisite sound effects and a few prerecorded voices. Its real joy is the ability to record your own brief message as often as you like. The sound quality is poor, but it doesn’t diminish the fun. When you close the clam shell cover, the phone rings a few seconds later, which becomes a source of entertainment in pretending that people are calling you. $19.

Photo of a mailbox sorter toy.

Mailbox Sorter by Schylling — It’s a halfway decent shape sorter (it doesn’t have many shapes and some pieces fit in multiple holes). On the other hand, those flaws make it easier to use and more immediate fun. Really though, I like it because it’s a sturdy play mailbox which is fun as soon as your toddler gets fascinated by mail. $17. [review]

This toy guide is not finished! We need your expertise! Help other parents by posting a comment below with your suggestions for must-have toys that your child(ren) have loved. And if you have strong feelings about toys in this guide, or similar ones, share those thoughts too. Thank you!

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5 Responses to “Essential Toy Guide: 12 to 24 months”

  1. Mary A. says:

    Thanks for the great guide AJ, and I am glad to see that I am on the right track with my 16 month old, as he already has many of these toys.

    For this Christmas, I purchased this rocker toy from Ikea:
    It was super cheap at 9.99, and I like that it doesn’t “look” like an animal. I think it may be higher above ground than your example, but we only plan to use it inside on a carpeted surface for the time being. It also has rubber tracks on the bottom of the rockers so it won’t go sliding accross the carpet with heavy use. Also has hand grips on both ends so you don’t have to worry about your child mounting it correctly.

    One question about the sit and spin. How do you “teach” your child how to use it? We have one (saved from our older child) and the baby can’t figure out how to make it work and falls all over it.

    November 28th, 2008 at 8:18 pm

  2. Tiffany says:

    We had the Little TIkes walker for my son- that was a good one to push around the house, and the mail pieces were compatible with the Little Tikes mailbox- still a favorite. I don’t know what it is about mailboxes, but my son still loves and plays with the Fisher-Price Learning Home. As does every other kid who comes to the house (my son is now 2.5). Other than that- balls, balls, balls- it seems like we have a million…

    November 29th, 2008 at 12:57 pm

  3. Lara says:

    An unusual ball such as the peacaboo balls were animal faces come out when rowlled, or a ball which makes a noise when rowlled. A dolls pram, to put a doll in, fill with ther toys sometimes ontop of the baby, use as a walker, or a charge toy with a battering ram.

    November 29th, 2008 at 7:58 pm

  4. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    My son got the rocking blue puppy for his birthday and loves it. He’s on it at least twice a day, rocking, standing, etc. Patting the nose.

    In fact, one of his earliest words (and one of the few things he has said so far) is “rockin blue puppa” referring to it!

    December 1st, 2008 at 9:38 am

  5. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    PS and the Busy poppin’ pals didn’t work for us. He can’t get the lids to pop up. They are too stiff. It may be something that will be fixed with time though because we’ve got an older one we bought at a garage sale that he loves (the 3 out of 4 he can operate. Even that one has 1 door he can’t operate on his own)

    December 1st, 2008 at 9:40 am

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