Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Play to Learn Toy Inspiration List 3-5 Years

***Updated November 2020***

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!
  • 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. (I made some free printable cards to go with these).
  • Lalaboom - beads that snap, twist and can be laced
  • Saxoflute
  • Zoo-ominoes - Dominoes with little animals and 
  • 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 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 (although, the ball is still small).  The cards that come with it make for good visual spatial reasoning.
  • Magnetic Tile Ball  Run - a combination of magnetic tiles (see section below) and marble runs.
  • 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.   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.  

  • 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). Now there seem to be more "easy build" Legos that say 4+ on the boxes.  Once again, this is one of the few toys I don't mind having character sets for, since they still get used.    

  • Pretend Play Blocks* - Pretend play is supposed to provide an outlet for kids to learn empathy and problem solving.  Add that to building blocks and you get some adorable toys.   There are blocks with people and cars, as well as farm blocks with barns and animals. Janod also makes adorable story boxes and block figures.

Magnetic Tiles
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.
  • Fences and Doors - Allow for different kinds of buildings and pens for animals.
  • Tunnels and Domes - more fun shapes to extend the play
  • Dome
  • Geometry Shapes - has pentagons and hexagons
  • Magnet Men - These were used to fill our Easter Eggs one year.  They are so much fun and can hook together in lots of ways.
  • Magna-Qubix - These are not tiles, but three dimensional shapes. They are much smaller than the tiles and don't really work with them, so I hesitated to put them here, but Archer LOVES them. He particularly likes the cubes, which actually makes the cheapest set the most cost effective, per piece.
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.  
  • AirFort - a tent that "inflates" with a box fan.


  • 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.  Fairies and 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. This Crazy Face Dress Up is just the head, but also has design cards to match.
  • Play animals - Safari Ltd. has a lot of realistic animals and mythical figures. Schleich and Battat both have realistic animals and play sets.
  • RoadsWaytoplay roads - pricy, but built tough and flexible. They're road pieces that you connect like puzzles or train tracks, but can also go over tunnels or sand, etc. Orchard Toys Roads are cardboard, so not flexible or waterproof, but less expensive.

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*

  • Kitchen - There are so many great kitchens out there! We have a plastic one, that's fine.  Had I to do over again, I would probably select a wood one.  
  • A basic set of plastic food is a good starter, although there are some nice sets that are more realistic too. I tend to gravitate towards more interactive sets.  We have several and my 9 year old still plays with them occasionally.  Whenever we have younger friends over, the food and play kitchen are definitely big draws as well.
  • Super Sorting Pie* - This one is great because it can be used for pretend play, colors and numbers. 
  • Color Sorting Food 
  • Magnetic Ice Cream has been used a ton in our house.  There's even an ice cream counter and an ice cream cart for those with the space for it!
  • Melissa and Doug make a ton of fun wooden sets.
  • Alphabet Soup Sorters

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.


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
  • Boon Jellies

  • Sensory 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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