As a pediatrician, parents often ask me what toys are ‘best’ for their kids. As a mom, I have looked through many review lists, tried many toys with my kids, and learned that there are SO MANY toys to choose from these days. It’s all a bit overwhelming. I don’t have some magic, perfect-for-every-child recommendation list. But I do have a few basic rules of thumb when deciding what toys are best for my little ones.
My basic approach:
Of course, safety comes first. Will your kids put small parts in their mouths, ears, or nose? If you have small children, are there any extra concerning parts like button batteries or small magnets? Your child’s age, developmental level, and temperament will play a large role in what toys are best for their safety. Medical societies like the American Academy of Pediatrics have more toy safety information.
Pediatrician mom confession: my kids get screen time. Probably too much sometimes. But I do try to keep them actively playing as much as possible. Electronic toys give me sensory overload, so I avoid them for my sake as much as for my kids. Toys without automation and electronics are important to help kids with open-ended, imaginative play – skills some preschool teachers tell me are now often lacking!
Sensory and Messy Play
I know, I know. The last thing any parent wants is another mess to clean up. It’s easy to cringe when our kids grab sand, play dough, paint, slime, etc. I don’t love cleaning up messes, either. But I learned early on from my mother, a longtime preschool teacher, that messy play is super important for kids’ development. There are ways to make it easier and less of a hassle, such as having a plastic tablecloth and apron/smocks ready to go. And I encourage outside messy play whenever possible – much easier to leave the mess outside!
A mix of toy types
Many types of toys help develop various skills and interests. I try to offer a mix of these types, especially when my kids are younger and exploring everything the world offers. Building toys, pretend play, cooperative games, dolls, arts and crafts, logic, and problem-solving games. I love them all. I encourage my kids to mix their toys and play with them in whatever way they dream up. It has undoubtedly led to some interesting playtime. Drive through the restaurant, adventures around the house looking for treasure, and the one time they built a magnetic tile mausoleum for their matchbox cars – yeah, it gets weird sometimes. But always fun.
There are some great kits out there focused on various developmental stages and interests. Admittedly, I’m too low-key and frugal for many of them. So I tend to collect secondhand toys whenever possible – you generally don’t need a big budget to get a lot of great open-ended, age-appropriate toys.
No list of what toys are best is complete without mentioning the all-important cardboard box. No matter what other toys we buy, my kids LOVE to play with the box they came in. All shapes and sizes of boxes are great, but bigger is generally better in their eyes. I keep a bin of random ‘trash’ items – empty yogurt cups, cardboard tubes from used paper towels, fabric scraps, etc. Watching them combine these things to make all sorts of treasures and ‘inventions’ is so much fun.
I know, not something I usually call a ‘toy.’ But I think no playroom is complete without a good selection of books. The library is always a good source for saving money and getting more books as well! Nothing sparks imagination quite like reading together.
Overall, that’s how I approach picking toys for my kids. Yes, we have too many. Yes, I buy ones I like to play with – it makes it more likely I will get involved in the play with them. Though I have some personal favorites in each toy ‘category’ above, I love having a mix of creative and open-ended toys to inspire my kids. Watching their imaginations grow has been one of my favorite parts of parenting so far. Happy toy hunting! I hope my tips help you feel less overwhelmed in picking toys for your family.