The ultimate list of toys that will help your kids learn.
He sat on the floor and stared at the shaking truck with glazed eyes. It rumbled and lurched forward for a moment, only to stop and blast out a few shouted phrases and some rock music before taking off again. Flashing lights followed it forward and backward until the timer stopped and the truck halted. It left the room in gaping silence.
He just sat there and waited for it to do something else. His eyes darted away, then back. Away, then back. He leaned forward and pushed the button again. It restarted the cycle and he settled back to watch it again.
He’s not playing.
He is using a toy, but he is not playing.
Way too many toys are competing for your kids’ attention, so producers try to give toys “more.” More sound, more movement. They make them more impressive. Brighter, faster, crazier.
Toys are doing more and more on their own, and free play is becoming less and less engaged. Less free.
And this is a problem.
Kids learn through play. Play is their job, the main avenue they use to grow. So the way our kids play is important.
Those little brains need play even more than they need school. They need to play now to build the foundation for academic learning in the future.
So you try to let them play. You look for “educational” toys, but almost everything has that label. Your kids ask for electronics, but you try to avoid screen time. So you look for a flashy, exciting toy instead.
But let me tell you a sad truth
Toys don’t physically need to have a screen to act like “screen time.”
There’s a movement against screen time for kids because of the negative effects. The kids aren’t engaged. They zone out and separate themselves from their play.
When they’re watching a screen, they become outsiders. They can’t learn through their own experience. Through trial and error. Action and reaction.
This has nothing to do with the actual screen, and everything to do with the way kids are engaged. Sound familiar? Those brighter, faster, crazier toys are “screen time” toys. The child sits there and watches the toy. No interaction. No learning.
How to fix it
So what toys actually help your kids learn? How do you pick good toys?
Simplify. Buy only toys that engage your child. Not necessarily “educational” labeled toys, but toys that allow your child to be creative, to imagine, to build, and to learn.
Your kids will get the best and healthies playtime from toys in these six categories.
1. Role playing
When Eric pulls on his red firefighter boots, he steps into a whole new world where the couch is transformed into his fire engine and every painting on the wall is a flaming window. In role playing, kids insert themselves into a story and then learn social and emotional skills from their experiences.
Kids use their imaginations to fill in the blanks, so they don’t need every single accessory. A healthy choice of “game starter” options will encourage them to enter into many different situations.
Here are some ideas to add to your role-playing toy chest:
- Costumes and dress-up
- Fake food, kitchen, or restaurant
- Tools and cleaning supplies (They love to be like Mom, and it encourages helping!)
- Cash register, money, or store
- Explorer set to encourage engagement and exploration
- Fort, tent, or teepee
2. Imaginative play
Caelyn spends hours lying on the floor, changing Barbie’s outfits. To me, it doesn’t look like much is going on, but I know that later I’ll hear all about Barbie’s adventure to Fairy Island in Mermaid Lake.
When your child steps back and creates an entire story for other characters, she controls both the action and the reaction. She is developing social skills and understanding.
Try some of these imaginative play figures I love for my kids:
- Schleich or Safari Ltd figures (Schleich is higher quality but more expensive)
- Cars, planes and trains
- Stuffed animals
- Barbie (because sometimes they really love tiny accessories)
3. STEM toys
I walk into the room and see my son lounging on the floor, surrounded by piles of Legos. There are small creations scattered between towering masterpieces. Even with our shelves stocked full of toys, he gravitates toward the creativity of building an entire world.
There’s a big push on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) toys right now. Not all STEM toys are created equal!
It’s still best to lean toward open ended and creative toys with more than one use.
Like Legos. They’re my favorite toy ever! They’re fun and teach kids in many different areas. They teach following directions, spatial awareness, social and mathematical skills, and more. They’re creative, open ended, and can be used for both role play and imaginative play.
Check out these great STEM toys:
- Legos (of course) and Lego Junior
- Duplo for younger kids
- Marble Run
- Vex IQ for older kids (next step up from Lego, with building, but also robotics)
- Snap circuits
4. Creative/Artistic toys
The paper shreds covering my entire dining room floor are totally worth it when my daughter beams at me as she points out every detail of the elaborate family portrait she spent forty five minutes and a roll of tape making.
Not all artistic toys allow for imagination (weird, right?). Step-by-step toys with only one method and one end don’t foster creativity.
Aim for toys that can be used a million different ways to exercise your child’s imagination
- Googly eyes (they can turn even fruit and vegetables into friends!)
- Pipe cleaners and stickers
- Crayons, markers, colored pencils, paint
- Construction paper and scissors
- Clay (Playdoh for little guys)
- Instruments (not toys that make music for you, but ones that you can use to make music)
5. Motor Skills toys
Motor skills are important for development. Whole body games and activities target gross motor skills. Toys tend to focus on fine motor skills, especially for younger kids. Here are a few faves you should check out:
- Squigz (babies can chew on them, older kids can build with them)
- Water toys
- This awesome balance stacking toy
- Duplo or Lego
“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Seuss was a smart man. And he wrote some fantastic books!
Before kids know what books and genres they like, start them off with a variety to find something that interests them. Try books in these categories:
- Interactive and board books for early learners
- Pop-up books. Robert Sabuda has some seriously awesome books. He’s the best in the biz.
- Funny, goofy, fun picture books
- Early readers
Simplify your Shopping
Don’t get sucked in by the brighter, faster, crazier toys. The screen-free screen-time toys. Don’t buy toys that your kids will use but not play with.
Simplify. Buy toys that encourage your kids to be creative. Toys that help them imagine, build, and learn.
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