How Do Toys Affect A Child’s Cognitive Development?

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When you’re trying to raise your child to be the smartest and most talented tot possible, you’ll need to understand exactly how toys affect your child’s cognitive development.

Your child’s cognitive development has many dimensions, ranging from the specific accumulation of their intellectual abilities to becoming a well-rounded person. Toys influence each of these categories — and others, too — every time your child plays with them.

But what is a wise parent to do when it comes to picking the right toys to foster cognitive development? Are the child psychologists right, or are they selling smoke when they market toys which purportedly increase a child’s intelligence?

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the way that toys impact your child’s cognitive development so that you can become a responsible tutor and nurture your child’s mind without fearing teaching them the wrong lessons.

What Is Cognitive Development?

First and foremost, as a parent, you have to understand what cognitive development is before you can understand how toys influence it.

Cognitive development is the process by which an individual’s mental capabilities mature, interface with their environment, and make use of that person’s natural capabilities. What does this mean in layman’s terms?

In short, it means that the course of a person’s cognitive development is partially hereditary, partially environmental and that it takes place over a long time.

This means that you will need to buckle up and get ready for the long haul — perhaps as long as a couple of decades — when you commit to support your child’s cognitive development.

You might be intimidated by the length of the task at first. But remember, your cognitive development occurred over the same time span, and the responsibility wasn’t entirely on your parents alone.

One of the key features of healthy cognitive development is learning how to further cognitive development independently and in a self-motivated fashion.

If you can find a way to teach your child how to be curious and to have a hungry mind — and it isn’t always possible to do so — they’ll be in great shape to train themselves and release you from some of the burdens.

There are many toys which can teach your child to be curious, and many of those are puzzle-based toys or toys for imaginative play.

We’ll get to those in a bit. Before we talk about the toys which are the most valuable for their ability to teach your child to teach themselves, we should talk a bit about the toys that are useful for developing specific cognitive capabilities.

Toys for Learning Spatial Relationships

Understanding spatial relationships — how things relate to each other in space — is a critical cognitive skill which tends to develop very unevenly in children. Males are usually better at picking up spatial relationships than females owing to their more active nature.

Spatial relationships are important because they help your child to situate themselves in the world physically and also help them to manipulate their environment to fit their ends. This cognitive capability is much more important for younger children to learn.

Older children probably have sufficient command over spatial relationships to navigate the world safely. Later in life, spatial relationship skills will come in handy if your child turns to science, engineering, or art.

Many kinds of toys are helpful for developing spatial relationship ability for your child, but a few stand out:

These toys are intended for drastically different phases of your child’s development, and you’ll need to pick the right toy for the age of your child. The older your child gets the more utility that they’ll derive from puzzles and more complex building toys.

When it comes to building toys, the toys which don’t offer your child any input on how the pieces should connect will be more productive for their development.


Cognitive development is nothing without building imagination. Imagination is your child’s ability to think of radical new solutions and separate themselves from reality to access speculative ideas.

Building imaginative toys into your child’s cognitive development is easier than it may seem. Anything can be an imaginative toy if your child is imaginative enough to begin with, but you should encourage your child to use toys that are proven to drive the development of imagination.

These toys can range from action figures to dolls to play sets or dioramas. The most important thing is that your child finds a way to use the toy in a way that it was not originally intended for.

Encourage your child to make up new storylines to go along with their familiar toys.

Verbal Ability

Verbal abilities are core to your child’s cognitive development and prospects for success in the world. Verbal ability is more than how eloquent your child is.

In fact, verbal ability refers to their internal mind’s voice and its capability of expressing the ideas that your child conceives. People with stronger verbal ability are also typically blessed with superior analytical capability, even if they aren’t very articulate.

Unfortunately, verbal abilities are also some of the hardest abilities to develop with toys. Toys intended for solo play often do not engage your child’s mind enough to force them to explain things, and toys for group play are often dominated by conversation between children.

Mad libs and similar wordplay toys are probably the best way to help your child develop their verbal ability. You’ll probably need to supplement your child’s verbal ability development with other classes or tools, however.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is perhaps the single most important skill in your child’s cognitive development, and, luckily, it’s easy to foster its development using toys.

Critical thinking helps your child with:

  • Evaluating situations
  • Finding solutions to difficult problems
  • Learning principles
  • Trying out new approaches
  • Making plans
  • Implementing plans
  • Testing ideas
  • Adjusting mental models

These facts mean that critical thinking is uniquely poised to be built upon by many different toys.

Building sets are great for aiding critical thinking because they force your child to evaluate the rules of the world — namely, gravity — and test solutions that allow them to accomplish goals of their design.

Other toys like science sets are also great for critical thinking because they encourage systematic thought and careful linking of instructions to theoretical concepts.

In principle, any toy which encourages your child to question the information that is presented to them and manipulate it in new ways is a toy that encourages critical thinking. In particular, toys which help your child to generate and test assumptions are especially useful.

For younger children, basic puzzle toys are great for developing critical thinking. Puzzles help to develop critical thinking by providing your child with a problem that has a unique set of “rules” which need to be mastered before the puzzle can be solved.

These puzzles typically encourage your child to make mental rules, test those mental rules against reality, and then adjust their approach. The secret to solving most puzzle toys is finding the loophole in the rule, which is a great way to build critical thinking.

The more critical thinking ability that your child has, the more successful that they’ll be in their life. Critical thinking takes a very long time to develop, however. There’s no guarantee that your child’s critical thinking capability develops more fully the older they get, either.

You’ll need to put a lot of work into helping your child become a critical thinker.

Emotional Intelligence

Most of the cognitive development skills we’ve discussed so far are oriented around building your child’s quantitative and interrogative skills. If you teach your child to have a powerful systematic mind using their toys, they’ll still be incomplete, however.

Your child needs more than just smarts in their cognitive development regimen. They need to build emotional intelligence and compassion, too.

Emotional intelligence helps your child to navigate the social world. People with higher emotional intelligence understand their own emotions, the motivations of others, and the best way to approach social situations.

Even more than critical thinking, emotional intelligence is a core factor in your child’s future success. It’s also tough to teach, especially if you don’t have high emotional intelligence yourself.

Toys are decent tools for building emotional intelligence, luckily. In fact, even playing with action figures or dolls can be a good way of building emotional intelligence provided that your child is prompted to consider how certain actions or words make other characters feel.

Simply put, if you can get your child to entertain the idea of their toys being people or at least actors which deserve respect, you can help them to develop emotional intelligence. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes is the first step to building compassion.

For girls, the stereotypical emotional intelligence building toy is a baby doll. The baby doll is a good tool for building emotional intelligence because babies have emotions and needs which they cannot necessarily express clearly.

The child has to infer the needs of the baby based on the baby’s behavior, which helps to build emotional intelligence.

Girls are predisposed to having a significantly higher emotional intelligence than boys, however, which means that they often spend time developing a capability they’re already strong in.

For boys, the approach needs to be different. It’s clear that playing with blocks isn’t a good way to build emotional intelligence, and playing with other children may not teach the right lessons even if it generally helps them to build social skills.

The solution is to put your boy in the position of ownership or caretaking of their toys. Toys that are humanoid or that are cute animals will be the most effective.

The gist of the exercise is that your boy will take care of their toy as though it were alive, and you will help them to understand the needs that their toy has which they may not be addressing.

Likewise, they should be encouraged to communicate their emotions to the toy, as this is a good way of building awareness in themselves. It will also get them into the habit of expressing their emotions, which will help to prevent the buildup of undesirable habits like bottling them up.

Making A Playdate

Now that you know how toys can be used to foster your child’s cognitive development, it’s time to go forth and start your child down the route of being an intelligent and well-rounded person.

Your presence and guidance will help your child more than any single toy ever can — but when you do buy your child’s new toys, be mindful of how these toys will address the areas of their cognitive development that they need the most help with.

Brett Gordon

The brains behind The Toy Report. Having clocked tons of time in toys research and online resource development, today, Brett is dedicated to making The Toy Report a trusted space in the world of toy reviews and recommendations.