The Joys of Toys – Cheltenham Science Festival 2017

The Cheltenham Science Festival asked Dr Nathalia Gjersoe and I to put on a science show for an audience of babies. We gave each baby their own small toybox and explained what they learn from toys. It was delightful chaos

Yummy Toys

Every parent knows that anything that babies get their hands on goes in their mouths. This keeps you on your toes but from baby’s point of view it makes perfect sense. Not everything is a nipple and they aren’t always teething or trying to eat things, usually they just want a better look. Babies lips and tongues have many nerve endings and are much better for discovering shape and texture than tiny hands and untrained eyes. As their manual dexterity develops, babies’ mouthing of objects decreases.

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Why does my baby put everything in her mouth? Dorothy Einon, The BabyCentre August 2014  

Boys toys, girls toys?

Baby psychologists find very few cognitive differences between girls and boys. So it is a bit of a mystery why there such reliable preferences for gendered toys. From 12 months old boys prefer cars and balls while girls prefer dolls and soft toys. Baby boys have slightly better spatial awareness and gross motor skills. Baby girls have slightly better social abilities and fine motor skills. But these differences are small. It seems likely that a lot of toys preferences come from social reinforcement of stereotypes.

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Let Toys Be Toys campaign  

Building Blocks

Babies may be born with expectations about how the physical world should behave. For instance, from just 2 months of age they are surprised if objects hover rather than fall to the ground. But they also seek out experiences to learn more about the physical world. This is why babies love to drop things and knock things things over.

Find out more:
Babies are born with a grasp of physics. The Independent, April, 2015:

Playing Together

Babies are extraordinarily interested in other people. From 1 hour old they prefer to look at faces than anything else. Shared attention is an important skill that underpins babies ability to learn new words and ideas. For instance, if you look at a toy and point to it, babies from 6 months will usually look at it too. At around 12 months, babies start pointing to direct your attention. At around 12-14 months they will look between you and the object to make sure you are both attending to the same thing. 

Find out more:
Joint Attention short video:


Dr Caspar Addyman is Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He researches learning and laughter in babies. His research can be found at .

Dr Nathalia Gjersoe is Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bath. She researches children’s magical beliefs.