3 infant toys that build surprising skills

The Champ just celebrated his first birthday with a weeklong, multi-city tour de force that netted him a pile of new big-boy toys. Before we get too fired up about the new hotness, I’d like to pay tribute to the classics.

Here’s a look at some of the best toys for infant development from 6 months to 1 year of age.

Fisher-Price Lil’ Zoomers Spinnin’ Sounds Speedway, $20.
Skill: Free Standing.

You may have noticed that every little boy has this toy. Convincing babies to watch cars go around in a circle is fundamental to NASCAR’s infant indoctrination conspiracy. That’s why Babies “R” Us can sell it for $10 below MSRP.

Before he could walk, the Champ never was much of a cruiser. He’d pull up on the couch and lean against it with little interest in letting go. But somehow — amid the whir of this thing’s spinning bowl, the glow of its flashing lights and the clatter of its wrecking cars — Champy found inspiration to push up and stand on his own. Maybe the ramp was just the perfect height.

Beach Ball, $3.
Skills: Pincer Grasp, Walking.

Nothing special about this beach ball. It’s the same one you can buy for cheap at every grocery store in the world, and it has safety warnings in 80 languages to prove it. I must qualify as “competent adult supervision” because the Champ has survived hours of playtime with this partially deflated asphyxiation hazard.

And the playtime payed off! Almost immediately, Champ learned he could pick up the ball by pinching it. For most babies, mastering pincer grasp is the gateway to self-feeding. Champy and I are still working on the food thing, but he learned he could stand up with the ball and throw it a few feet. That inspired him to take a few steps and flop forward on the ball:

It took more than a month for him to go from those steps to walking all over the house, but beach ball was a big confidence builder.

Baden Bat & Ball Set, $15.
Skills: Throwing, Catching, Love of the Game.

I grew up in the St. Louis area. The year I was born, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. Just over five weeks after Champ was born, the Cardinals repeated the feat. I think that’s a pretty special connection.

When he was very small, I thought I heard Champ making “ba” sounds, so I would say B words to encourage him. The word “baseball” always seemed to make him happy. So I bought him the first all-ages bat and ball I came across — a vinyl Sun Devils set from the Arizona State University bookstore. We’re also big ASU fans. He loved it immediately, chomping on the bat the whole drive home.

Champ was seven months old when we bought the bat and ball. Day 1, he did this:

For months, he loved to sit a few feet away from me and play catch with the baseball. As an infant, the kid initiated more games of catch with me that I did my whole life with my dad. “Field of Dreams” fans, feel free to shed a tear.

The Champ outgrew our games of catch when he got too big to sit in one place for long. Standing and trying to balance took priority over making the catch, and eventually he would walk the ball back to me instead of throwing it.

Now we’ve got bouncing balls of all shapes and sizes, including a deluxe Fisher-Price basketball hoop. But Champ still digs out the old baseball bat, and his control gets better every day. Maybe soon he’ll be taking swings.

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