Early childhood is a critical period for your child’s development into an adult. We want to make the best choices for them, including the types of toys we buy for our kids.
And of course, every company who sells toys has an agenda: Make more money! How do you filter out the marketing noise and know which toys are actually best for your kids?
Toys billed as educational, like those that teach letters and numbers by speaking, initially seem to be a great choice. After all, they’re teaching your kids to read!
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. You can read my full policy here.
But would you believe that you’re actually helping your kids learn better by not choosing “educational” electronic toys? Research backs this up!
Learn how free play, and toys that encourage free play, are the best choice for your child developmentally. Want to know which open-ended toys I recommend for your kids? You can jump to the list here!
The role of play in growing up
“If the rise in anxiety and depression are linked to a decline in sense of personal control, then play would seem to be the perfect remedy.”
– Peter Gray, The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents
Play is essential for children’s emotional health. According to Dr. Gray, free play, in which a child does whatever he wants, has several other roles for young children.
Play develops intrinsic motivation
You know how great it feels when you do a task just for the joy of doing it? Think about the last time you sat down and colored in a coloring book, or when you created a wreath, or played catch just for fun. Wasn’t it wonderful?
Play does this for our children! When they decide on their own what to do, it allows them to learn the satisfaction of accomplishing something.
Free play allows for decision-making and problem-solving
When children have to decide whether their teddy bear is going to go into the woods or stay in his cave, they’re making decisions. When a group chooses whether to play tag or hide-and-seek, that’s another decision. Play gives these opportunities all the time.
And there’s lots of problem-solving in open-ended play! Just the other day, my daughter was building a house for her stuffed animals out of blankets and clothes pins. When part of the house kept coming apart, she had to think of how to modify her structure. So she made a better house and used her brain, all at the same time!
Play, alone and with others, develops emotional regulation
Sometimes when a child is playing, he pretends to be afraid of something silly. This pretend play gives a less-threatening opportunity for the child to process real-life fears.
And when kids play games with each other, there are all sorts of opportunities for them to learn social graces! Taking turns, standing up for themselves, following rules (even just the ones they’ve made up themselves)… these are all opportunities for growth!
Finally, play is just plain fun! Without play, human beings simply can’t develop optimally.
RELATED: Teach your kids to take turns
The only three family rules you need
Why do kids need toys?
Toys are the tools of play. While we can play without toys, they certainly help.
Toys help children process feelings
Have you ever seen a child playing with two dolls or stuffed animals, with one doll trouncing the other? This is actually emotional processing! Children imagine into their toys, so their stuffed animals can take the actions they know they’re not allowed to take. Playing like this allows children to deal with issues that are scary or upsetting in a “safe” way.
And when children have open-ended toys, like generic dolls, stuffed animals, and blocks, they aren’t set with preconceived notions of what “should” happen. These toys allow for greater imagination and more open processing of emotions.
Toys help children make sense of the world
When a child builds with blocks and her tower falls, she learns about center of gravity, balance, and other concepts from her physical world, without having to crack open a single textbook!
And just think how much you can learn from playing with a ball! Gross motor control from throwing, spatial orientation, motion… There are so many concepts related to this simple object.
Again, open-ended toys are the key here. If a toy is set to only work a certain way, it takes the exploration out of play. Children are less able to learn and imagine with toys like this.
Toys help children decompress
Whether it’s a favorite lovey a child holds onto as soon as he gets home from school, or a game they like to play whenever they seem a little stressed, toys can help children relax after a stressful event.
But some toys have a negative impact on kids
But just like the wrong tool for a job can get less effective results, the wrong types of toys can diminish the quality of your child’s play. After all, you can’t hammer in a nail with a screwdriver, so you can’t expect to develop all the skills listed above with the wrong toys.
So what kinds of toys are best for promoting imaginative play? Maybe you’re interested in doing a toy declutter, but how do you know which ones to get rid of and which are keepers?
As you might expect, the toy companies aren’t really the best people to ask about which toys are best for your kids. Go to the toy aisles at your local store and you’ll be bombarded with choices. The boxes practically scream at you, as if to say, Pick me! Pick me!, with ads such as:
Teaches the alphabet!
Seventy five phrases!
Teaches five shapes!
It’s overwhelming! Plus, we’re told by the packaging that our kids need these toys to prepare them for their schooling.
Why are electronic toys dangerous for our kids?
Let’s be completely honest: Most electronic toys are really obnoxious! In fact, some are even a little creepy.
Have you ever noticed that singing and talking toys work really hard to get your attention? There have been so many times that I’ve accidentally bumped into a toy and it started singing at me.
I move on, and right about the time I notice that it’s quiet, the toy talks again. I think the toy is finally done, and then it sings a little song one more time. All this takes place in about thirty seconds.
When you notice the little toy every time it makes a noise, it’s because of a function called the orienting reflex.
Back in more dangerous times, like when a rustle in a bush might have meant that a tiger was about to eat you for lunch, the orienting reflex could save your life. But now your orienting reflex is being high-jacked by little race car!
If a toy short-circuits your attention like this, think of what it does to your toddler’s!
This is not good for your little one’s brain. Over time, he gets used to these noisy toys trying to grab at his attention, so more low-key toys like blocks will seem boring. What do you think will happen in a few years when he’s asked to read on his own?
What about the toys that teach my kid letter and number recognition?
Believe it or not, those electronic toys that “teach” letters and numbers may actually be hurting your child’s future reading abilities. One study put out in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics showed that parents and children 10-16 months old interact less when those kids play with electronic toys.
The problem with that? Parent/child interaction impacts language development.
Another study noted that babies 9-12 months old pointed at things less and got their parents’ attention less often when playing with “feedback” toys such as the electronic ones we’ve been discussing. Traditional toys like blocks or dolls didn’t cause this reaction.
I mean, think about it. Your kid is so engrossed with his singing toy that he has no need to talk to you! On top of that, you couldn’t get his attention if you wanted to!
This decreased parent-child interaction impacts language development. Remember how we said electronic toys decreased gesturing behaviors? Studies have shown that language ability at three and a half is correlated to how much gesturing babies do at this age.
How do electronic toys affect imagination?
And beyond concern about my child’s future reading and language ability, I just feel like toys like this stifle imagination. We’ve all seen the videos (heck, we’ve all made the videos) of our baby pushing a button on a toy and bobbing up and down happily with some music. When the music shuts off, the baby goes and hits the button again and begins dancing again. It’s cute, but is it really engaging for your baby?
It would be much better for your child to either have a soundtrack to dance to, or even better, sing his own little song! Once again, open-ended play is better for your child.
Should we just get rid of every single electronic toy we own?
I don’t believe in being really strict about rules like this. I do suggest, though, that electronic toys have more functions than “push a button for a song.” As discussed in yet another article asking if we should be concerned about electronic toys:
No one toy determines the course of a child’s play history. But when children become used to toys that channel them into acting in a certain way, they begin to expect all toys to tell them what to do and toys that are open- ended can seem boring and uninteresting. This can have a long-term effect on how children play and the kind of learners they become. And while any toy can be used for quality, individualized play, more open-ended and generic toys are more conducive in promoting this kind of play than highly structured and programmed toys.
So for example, my 1.5 year old son has a little four wheel “motorbike” that he can scoot around on. He loves it, and he spends most of his time with it just scooting around all over our house. I try to just switch it off so that the buttons don’t make noise, but he’s clever enough to just turn the switch back on (removing the batteries would be a good option too).
My children also have little cars that go on a racetrack. The cars can sing songs and say short phrases, but the real fun is driving them around, not making them talk. So they stay.
Toys for free play
The good thing is, there are lots of open-ended toys out there that are great for your kids to play with! Check these toys out for free play and imaginary play options.
You can never go wrong with blocks! Blocks are perfect for free play. Plus, there are many styles, great for kids from toddlers to tweens. Here are some of my favorites:
If you’ve never seen Magna-Tiles, they’re really cool toys! Each edge has little magnets (sealed away very well) that allow you to put the tiles together edge-to-edge. My daughters love to build little houses or towers with Magna-tiles and then use the structures as homes for small stuffed animals. (Note: You can find cheaper alternatives to Magna-Tiles at big-box stores, but they don’t work as well. The magnets aren’t as strong, so structures don’t hold.) Magnatiles are best for kids 3 and up.
Want an option for young toddlers? Mega-bloks are a great start.
I just sat down and played with Mega-Bloks with my little guy the other day, and we had a wonderful time. He enjoyed stacking the blocks as high as he could and then knocking them down.
And of course, simple wooden blocks are always a good option.
We enjoy these colorful blocks at our home.
And if you’re looking for something more unique for your kids to play with, check out Grimm’s rainbow!
This beautiful set of nesting arcs can be arranged all sorts of ways to make roads for cars, homes for small stuffed animals or peg people, towers, and more.
I’ll be honest, this is a toy you’ll want to catch on sale, but it is really soothing and enjoyable to play with.
Dolls and stuffed animals
Dolls and stuffed animals (yes, for girls and boys) allow kids to imagine into other characters. They are able to work out feelings and concerns from the day through play. Not to mention, they’re just fun.
While my kids have some toys representing Disney characters (because I’m not pedantic about the whole thing), I prefer to choose more generic toys for them. That way, they’re less locked into particular roles by a toy.
Soft dolls for young children
I love this little guy. He’s super cute, super soft, and perfect for even one-year olds.
And my own little guy loves this doll too. He likes to use a doll stroller to push his baby around.
Looking for a little girl doll? Manhattan Toy Company makes those too, in all different skin tones!
If you want small people to go with your block sets, peg people are a great choice!
While the set from Grimm’s (in the picture above) is beautiful, it feels really pricey for me. So I bought a set of unfinished peg people and some acrylic paint and made my own. I’m really happy with them, and so are my kids!
Pretend play toys
Anything that allows your children to play pretend and to become someone else is a great choice.
Dress up and adult imitation
Dress up clothes often don’t require a special purchase; you can just give up some of your old dresses or use old Halloween costumes. But there are some toys that can add a little extra imagination!
If your child sees you carrying a younger sibling in a baby carrier, he or she may love having a carrier of their own for baby dolls!
A small cleaning set is a another great choice for imaginary play. This set doesn’t even have to be pretend play; you can get a set that’s well-made and actually can be used by your kids to help you do chores!
Kids love to play in their own kitchen, too.
A kitchen playset like this is a great choice from 2 and up. My kids all enjoy making “cakes” and “soup” for me to try.
And for doing real work, your older child (at least 5 years) will love this tool kit, weighted and sized for small hands.
Like I said, this tool set isn’t just a toy! These are real tools of good quality, just small enough for your kids to use easily.
Many kids enjoy having a doctor’s kit or a veterinary kit too. After our kids have had a few kits over the years, I recommend getting one that has a bag that won’t immediately fall apart.
Cars and other pretend play toys
All children, whether boy or girl, need cars and trucks to play with. They come in so many sizes and shapes, great for a variety of ages.
The Oball car is a perfect first car for babies. It doubles as a rattle and is easy for little hands to grip.
This little car set is great for toddlers from 1-3. I love the course that comes with it!
For slightly older kids, this set of seven cars will serve well for pretending to have a farm, a construction site, or more.
And of course, a road playmat is a fun place for driving little cars around. I like this one because the backing doesn’t allow the mat to slide around on hard floors.
Conclusions on the best toys for free play
I mentioned a lot of toys in this article (and I’m sure I missed a lot of great ones too!).
If you’re overwhelmed because your kid’s toy collection doesn’t look like this at all, it’s okay! Start with curating your current toys and then slowly work on adding the items that will resonate with your children.
RELATED: Toy minimalism and how it helps kids be less bored
Your child doesn’t have to have everything on this list to have an enriching childhood; that’s not the point. But think about which of these free-play toys will best serve your family, and maybe choose a couple of them for the next birthday or holiday. Happy parenting!