By six months old, babies are already seasoned explorers. They have eyeballed, grabbed, fingered, mouthed and dropped many objects, and they are beginning to get an idea, albeit a sensory one, of what their world is like. After six months their explorations become more sophisticated. Their fine motor skills have improved, so that, by nine months, they can manipulate objects more carefully, turning them over and passing them easily from hand to hand. By one year old, they will also be able to use thumb and index finger in the pincer grip. These bigger babies are likely to hold on to things for longer, unlike the younger ones, who will drop an item and demand another immediately.
At nine months, babies will also have begun to understand that things still exist after they have gone out of sight (object permanence). This opens up exciting new avenues of play. Children of this age love games that involve disappearance and reappearance - peek-a-boo, for instance. If you hide a toy, they will derive enormous pleasure from finding it again. They'll also enjoy simple pop-up toys and baby books with interesting things hidden under flaps.
Along with their new understanding that objects are solid entities with separate existences comes a growing interest in, and understanding of, images. Most one-year-olds enjoy looking at pictures, not just in books, but in catalogues, on toys or on the computer screen.
There is now a surprisingly large number of computer programmes designed for children of this age. The idea of baby software sounds alarming at first, but used sensibly, for short periods of time and in the company of an adult, the best programmes offer a fun alternative to picture books. It's an alternative, moreover, which gives the child the delight of producing effects (programmes for babies usually respond when any key is hit).
By eight months old, most children develop a passion for imitating their carers and so demonstrate another aspect of their burgeoning understanding - objects, as well as being solid and separate, have uses. Where a six-month-old would grab a spoon, wave it, bang it on the table, drop it and lose interest, a one-year-old will remember what you did and put the spoon deliberately in her mouth, as if feeding herself, or maybe put it in a cup and try to stir. The mouthing and banging will still go on, but gradually, purposeful use will take over.
This, then, is the time when role-play toys start making sense to children, although they don't have to be too realistic at this stage. Indeed, they'll go down particularly well if they still incorporate lots of sensory stimuli -brightly coloured toy phones with lots of bells and buttons tend to remain popular.
But the greatest revolution of all in children's relationship to their environment happens when they become mobile. By nine months, most children can get about by rolling, wriggling or crawling. By 12 months, many are walking. Being free to move around under your own steam is a fascination in itself. The whole world looks different from this new and ever-changing perspective. It also allows you to explore the things you choose, rather than having to make do with what your carers put in front of you.
Wheeled vehicles or toys that roll balls become popular once the mobile child can push them and then chase after them. The wheeled toys should be fairly large, so that the baby's aim doesn't have to be too precise, and they should be free from sharp corners or protruberances.
Some one-year-olds will be able to manage push-along toys such as a babywalker trolley or an animal on wheels. Some will already be happy on the type of small ride-on toy that rocks or is pushed along by their feet. All children who are mobile will enjoy big bright soft toy dolls or animals that they can see from the other side of the room, go for and sit on. It's a good idea to keep some of these things around so that you can swiftly substitute them for less appropriate goals such as handbags and tissue boxes.
As for safety considerations, these are much the same as those discussed in our May article (see Nursery World, 24 May) on toys for younger babies. The only thing that has changed is the level of vigilance required to keep that baby safe now that she no longer stays put.