Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Play to Learn Toy Inspiration List 3-5 Years

***Updated October 2019***

I've always kind of considered myself a toy snob, although not at all based on cost (one of my son's favorite toys is a piece of PVC pipe).  Clutter stresses me out and I don't like waste, so I've always been kind of picky about what I buy my kids.  So many toys are played with for a week or so and then left to collect dust.  I always look for things that have high replay value and will last for years. So much learning happens through play, I want to make sure the things I buy provide ample opportunities.

Recently several people have told me that we always have great toys and have asked for help shopping for their little ones. Since I love shopping for kids and helping out other mamas, I thought I'd create and share list of toy ideas.  It ended up being GIANT to try to accommodate different genders and interests and provide lots of inspiration.  I'm sure I'll add to it as I find new things.

General Tips:

  • I usually look for something open ended.  If it can be used in flexible ways, it is likely to be used more often.
  • I try to avoid things with lots of lights and sounds.  Now there are definitely exceptions to this rule, but if a toy does all the "work," then kids will lose interest quickly. Once they have pressed every button, they have kind of exhausted the toy.  Also, my husband is an audiologist and says a lot of baby toys are loud enough to cause hearing damage.  He recommends putting tape over speakers of loud baby toys.  
  • Materials that will last through a beating are always a plus.  For babies and toddlers I try to avoid too much plastic, since it all feels the same.  Instead, I try to find a variety of textures.
  • Collectibles and stuffed animals really depend on the kid.  While some kids love them and will get a lot of use out of them, that has not been the experience in our house.  Action figures, stuffed animals and other collectibles just end up in a toy bin forgotten (Lego Minifigs being the exception).  Same goes for toys based on characters.  Some kids use them all the time, others outgrow them really quickly and then won't play with the toys because they're "too little kiddie."
  • Not a tip for buying toys, but for extending their use is that any toys with lots of parts and pieces need an easy to use container with a lid.  Toys are no fun if you have to hunt down all their pieces.  I keep all the boxes (mostly cheap plastic shoe boxes) of toys in the basement and then rotate them upstairs.  I don't even mind if multiple boxes of toys being used at the same time, as long as everything finds its way home when it is done.

  • Candy Construction - Like Tinker Toys only way cuter!
  • Zoobs - Zoob Jrs are bigger and better for younger kids, while regular Zoobs are a bit smaller.  I like that the STEM set has challenges for kids to accomplish, in addition to the free building.  Z-Bricks also let you attach Zoobs to Legos to extend the play.
  • Squigz* - The have been used on tables, floors, glass doors and in the bathtub.  Archer likes just chewing on them too.  We have the regular ones, but that have some that stick to tables too.
  • Maze O - pieces you put together to make mazes.  It also comes with cards to follow instructions.
  • Lalaboom - beads that snap, twist and can be laced
  • Marble Run - We started with a baby version for the time of life when everything goes in the mouth.  Slightly older kids love watching the balls go through, but might need help constructing.  Some, like this Hape Marble Run, are wooden and involve more stacking.  Others, like this Meland one are plastic tubes that connect together, which is the kind I got since Xander was pretty young when I purchased it.  The Q-Ba Mazes have smaller pieces that give more options to put together, but are a little more challenging.  The Techno Gears version combines gears and marble runs.
  • Fridge Marble Run - This is a marble run that is magnetic so attaches to a fridge or white board.  It is simpler, so a good introduction to the idea for younger kids.  The cards that come with it make for good visual spacial reasoning.
  • Gears - The basic set has one size of gears and bases for building and turning. The Lights and Action set has different sized gears, a motor and lights. You can also get themed sets like this Build and Bloom Flower Set, Space Explorer Set, Monkey Jungle Set.  We also have some gears for the fridge, which I got from Lakeshore Learning.  The ones from Amazon do not seem to have good reviews.
  • Duplos - These are the introduction to Legos and they fit on regular Lego baseplates.  We started with the little story books with instructions and a few bricks, before branching out to other sets.  There are farm sets and construction sets, a pizzeria just to list a few options.  There are also sets for fans of Mickey, Minnie, SuperheroesPrincesses and Cars.  These types of toys are also nice because you can buy the cute themed sets, but since they all work together, you can still use them when your child moves on to a different favorite show.  I also see myself getting Archer the Santa Duplo to go with Xander's Christmas Legos.
  • Lego Juniors - We started with Lego Juniors, since they're easier to build, but then quickly moved on to regular Legos (mostly because, at the time, there weren't as many junior sets available).  Once again, this is one of the few toys I don't mind having character sets for, since they still get used.  There are lots of Lego Junior sets featuring vehicles, but there are also lots of Disney ones like the Incredibles, Batman, Snow White, Little Mermaid and Jurassic World.  

  • Nesting Rainbow* - Grimm makes a beautiful, but pricy one.  We'll probably be going with a cheaper smaller (less cool) version. I also like the "V" version. Grimm also makes some gorgeous Nature and a Little Flower nesting blocks, but more of "splurg" items.

  • Pretend Play Blocks* - Pretend play is supposed to provide an outlet for kids to learn empathy.  Add that to building blocks and you get some adorable toys.  There's this Blockopolis City that even has puzzle piece roads.  Heroic Knights Castle has little knights and castle pieces.  Farm Blocks have fences, animals and a barn. There's also this cute princess set.

Magnetic Blocks
These end up getting their own category because they have been used pretty much constantly since Xander was 2.  We've slowly added move sets over the years.  Friends always enjoy using them also (as do adults). We've built on the ground, fridge and light table.  There have been geometric designs, skyscrapers, ramps for toy cars, zoos with Toob animals and much more.
  • MagnaTiles - Now these are a bit of an investment, but they're great quality and have good magnets (which allows for better building).  Two years in a row his only real birthday present was a big set of these.  We also have the Glow in the Dark version. 
  • Stardust - these have glitter and mirrors.
  • Big Base Plates - provide a wide base on which to build.
  • Ramps and Stairs - These have been a great addition to our regular tiles.  He builds all kids of buildings and pyramids with them.
  • Fences and Doors - Allow for different kinds of buildings and pens for animals.
  • Tunnels and Domes - more fun shapes to extend the play
  • Domes - Another unique shape to add to buildings
  • Polygons - more shapes from the MagnaTile brand.
  • Polygons - more shapes from the MagnaTile brand.
  • Pretend Play - now there are more and more ways to play with magnetic tiles.  They have little community workers that stick to the tiles, a train set, a school busplanes and more.
  • Magnet Men - These were used to fill our Easter Eggs last year.  They are so much fun and can hook together in lots of ways.
Active Play

  • Hilltops* - These will be in every age category!  Little kids like them, but my 8 year old still uses them multiple times a week.  They are used for climbing, obstacle courses and upside down for ring toss. 
  • River balance beams* - Same company as Hilltops. These are modular balance beams and have other accessories that can be purchased to go with them.
  • Stepping Domes
  • Activity Rings*  - These can be used for obstacle courses, relays and ring toss.  In our house, the baby loves to chew on them!
  • Colored Cones
  • Dancing Ribbon*
  • Pop Up Tunnel*
  • Play Tent* - Some of these are just tents, but you can also get them with tunnels and ball pits.  They can be very complex, like this one that can make a huge square.  This princess one is adorable, and comes with dress up clothes.  So is this space ship one.


  • Walkie Talkies* 
  • Binoculars* - Great for walks and trips to the zoo. 
  • Outdoor Exploration Kit*
  • Nerf Guns* - I never thought I'd be one to have toy weapons in my house, but Nerf Guns and other foam/inflatable weapons get used SO much! I love watching at gatherings when all the male family members have an epic battle.  Also, to make it interesting, I used to write things on a dry erase board and then have him shoot certain words/answers with the suction cup darts.
  • Indoor Snowballs* - These were our stocking stuffers last year.  I love the crinkly feel of them.  I just wish we didn't have so much dog hair for them to pick up!
"Doll" Houses and Dolls
  • Toobs* - We have tons of these.  Because of their wonderful detail, they were initially used for vocabulary development.  They've been added to the bathtub and water table.  Now they get combined with blocks or Magna Tiles to build zoos.  DragonsMythical Realms and Knights can all be used to have battles.  Fairiesand Days of Old could be added to blocks to make castles or enchanted forests. (This year I'm planning on using Toob figures in the Advent Calendar we made)

  • Magnetic Modular Houses, Dolls and Vehicles - This line has several sets with let kids change up the configuration of their buildings. I am so happy they included ones aimed at boys also! There's a houseschoolfarmpet rescuefire station and more. There are also a couple that are dry erase, letting little ones color them however they'd like! I'm toying with the idea of getting Archer some, but not giving him all of the little accessories until he is older.
  • Magnetic Dress Up Dolls - These are the younger version of paper dolls.  There are Disney Princess ones, lots of female sets, a boy dress up, careers sets, etc. I like this set because it has both male and female dolls. 
  • Create a Scene - Magnetic scenes with little magnets, kind of like reusable sticker books.  Lots of different interests available.  Construction, Dinosaurs, Dollhouse, Zoo, Bugs etc. 
  • Wooden Train* - In addition to some of the Thomas trains, we have Hape Musical Train and the Pop Up Monkeys, which are adorable.    For the girly engineers out there, Bigjigs has an adorable pink and purple Fairy Town train set.  If we have a girl, we'll definitely be adding some of the really cool accessories (and maybe even if we don't).  Bigjigs also has a pirate series and a dino series with adorable accessories. 
  • Waytoplay roads - These are pricy, but supposed to be amazing. They're road pieces that you connect like puzzles or train tracks, but can also go over tunnels or sand, etc.

Pretend Play
  • Dress Up - This can encompass so many things!  Old clothes and costumes, things from Goodwill, etc.  If you want to purchase some there are the Disney Princess and Superhero sets for girls, as well as a boys set.  There are also career outfits like a chef, firefighter, police officer and more

Play Food*

  • Osmo - This is an interactive educational game for the iPad.  We started with the Genius Kit and the Pizza Co, but they now have a Genius Kit for Preschool Age kids (or just the individual sets if you already have the Osmo).  The Pizza Co was definitely a huge hit, although Xander plays with all of the sets we have.  I'm excited to get him the Detective Agency Set, too!  There are also several creative games, as well as coding games that I think would be good for more tactile learners.  We use code.org instead, which is a free coding website for kids.

Logic Games

Solo puzzle games.  These have been a big hit in our house.  I actually started randomly leaving one out in the kitchen.  Xander, my husband and my dad all tend to get them out while I'm working in the kitchen.

  • Layer Puzzles - These wooden puzzles have different layers to them to show different science concepts.  The Little Boy and Little Girl Human puzzles show different anatomical layers.  There is also a Butterfly Life Cycle Puzzle and a Frog Life Cycles Puzzle.  There's also this cute one that has the four seasons.

Light Table & Tools
There are lots of light table options.  We built our own using wood, plexiglass and LED strips, but you can also buy them.  There are big table versions that are definitely more of an investment and thinner panel versions like this one and this one.

Bath Toys

  • Cog Water Gears*
  • Building Bath Pipes*
  • Bath Blocks* - These are nice because the water makes them stick together.  This one even has a ball to make float down the channels you build.There's also a floating castle and coast guard set.
  • Fishing Rod
  • Shave Kit

  • Art and Creative

    Check Out My Other Lists

    * - Items with an asterisk appear on multiple lists due to being able to fit a wider range of kids, depending on ability and interest.  I also see this as a good thing, because ideally, toys will last for years.

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