Forget the iPad and all those other expensive toys for your young children. The best toys are the simplest,  according to a developmental neurologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

   Dr. Jonathan Ponesse helps parents understand why playing is important work for kids in developing a variety of gross motor skills, mathematical skills and interpersonal relationships.

   Five month old Megan Hebert is a little young to be learning math skills, as her mother Cindy Tremblay plays with her in a hospital bed at CHEO.   But she is soaking in the sounds of play, the colors and, of course, the interaction with her mom.

   “Simple toys, like those stacking cups,” says Cindy Tremblay, “the color attracts her, she tries to grab things.  You have to show her how to play, too, with those toys.”

    "Simple" is key according to Dr. Ponesse.  The CHEO neurologist and father of five uses toys we've all seen and probably even owned, to assess a child's development.

   “It helps me understand what a child's skill level is in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Ponesse.  The doctor is a big believer in the importance of child’s play and says that play is actually their work. Research bears that out.  The benefits derived from playing with good, simple toys hone a variety of skills -- from dexterity to rudimentary math. Take stacking cups for instance.

   “It looks at quantity and volume and how do you create order from that,” adds Dr. Ponesse.

      More expensive toys like ones with lights, sounds and buttons push pre -academic skills: French, perhaps or numbers and songs but Dr. Ponesse says they don't stimulate a child's creative imagination. 

   “The simpler the toy the more likely it can be used in imaginative way.”

     So what kind of toys are we talking about for baby's first year?  Dr. Ponesse recommends balls, stacking cups, rattles, rings and even a cardboard box.

   “A cardboard box becomes a variety of things,” says Dr. Ponesse, “a spaceship, a house. Yet it's among the simplest forms a child will see.”

      Dr. Ponesse says babies benefit from a sustained period of play -- more than 5 minutes here and there.  But he says parents need to recognize when their baby has had enough play time and just needs to cuddle.