Pensacola, Fla. — It’s every parent’s nightmare: not being able to cross off the must-have toy from their child’s Christmas list. Fortunately, the toys that kindle creativity and kick-start imagination are often overlooked and sitting on store shelves.

With local leaders such as the Studer Community Institute advocating to make Pensacola “America’s First Early Learning City,” Christmas shopping this year takes on newfound importance. Research has shown that how children spend their time through toys and entertainment can lay the groundwork for language development later in life.

Although toy trends come and go, there are tried and true toys that have stood the test of time, said Hanna Lambe, a pediatric speech therapist at The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart Health System is part of Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system.

“The reason toys like blocks, playdough and dolls are so good for play and learning is that they require a lot more thinking and creativity on the part of the child,” Lambe said. “High-tech gadgets may initially capture kids’ attention. But once they master it, they quickly look for a new challenge.”

Toys are valuable tools for social and cognitive development. All toys can be categorized as closed-ended or open-ended, Lambe said.

“Closed-ended toys have a specific ending product (like a puzzle), or there is only one way to use it (like a remote-controlled car),” she explained. “On the other hand, open-ended ones provide kids with more than one way to play with the toy, such as puppets, playdough or costumes.”

Both types of toys can be beneficial. For example, closed-ended toys are good for building attention and teaching task completion, while open-ended toys promote pretend play, expand language and encourage interaction with others. They also tend to facilitate more social play and spark creativity. During speech therapy sessions, Lambe utilizes closed- and open-ended toys to keep children engaged and encourage participation.