Fun can be good for you: That’s the enduring message of the very best educational toys, which deliver enjoyment at the same time they help kids build everything from counting skills to their ability to reason. Take a commonsense approach to toy selection, and you’ll provide your youngsters with hours of entertainment—on toys that may become treasured memories as well as learning opportunities.
Before you flip through merchant websites or wander the aisles in a retail store, ground yourself with some simple considerations to help you choose the right toy for any child.
Pay attention to the package and select age-appropriate products. Hand a child a too-simple toy, and they’re more than likely to roll their eyes at you and say, “That’s for little kids.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, a toy designed for a 10-year-old isn’t likely to appeal to a child half that age. Of course, you’ll find exceptions, but most of the time, age ranges predict interest, at least in developmental terms.
As an adult, you may look back on your own childhood and wish that you had learned some specific skill through toys that would point you in that direction. Don’t forget, however, that your child isn’t you, and unless the two of you truly share similar interests, or you see compelling evidence that a specific type of educational toy will appeal to your child, base your selection on what your child really wants.
Especially as year-end holidays draw near, resist the temptation to throw money at the problem of finding the ideal toy. Yes, some expensive toys may provide enduring entertainment, and may be the ideal selection. But the price of a toy and its value to your child need not be equal—and just because you spent a lot of money on a present doesn’t mean that it has to be a hit.
In this alphabet activity matching game, children match up acorns with their caps. Each acorn displays a letter in one of a range of colors, and cap colors match the letters. As children snap the acorns apart and back together, they reinforce alphabet knowledge. In addition, the game set includes letter-shaped playing pieces that fit inside the acorns, cards, a storage jar, and an activity guide to multiple games you can play using two it’s-my-turn spinners.
Toddlers learn to count to 10 while they build their fine motor skills with this electronic toy. Each cookie carries a number, which the cookie jar speaks aloud as the child drops the cookie into the jar. To double as a counting game, each cookie’s chips match its number.
Ages 18 months+
This inexpensive, ruggedly built toy can survive the chewing and thumping that little ones typically dish out. On its own, it helps children build hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills while they match the shapes of play pieces to the box openings through which they fit. Join in the fun to turn this into a name-the-colors game. Even the box teaches problem solving, as children decipher how to open its lid’s latch.
Geared toward older kids, this logic game also functions as a marble run and STEM toy, with 60 challenges that work their way up in difficulty. As children build a path through the game’s towers to reach the target, they’re applying spatial reasoning and planning to think like engineers. (Caution: This one has small parts.)
This word game for older kids is ideal for children to play together or for family fun with all ages. The clever banana-shaped storage pouch contains 288 water-resistant letter tiles that snap together to form crossword-style fun. Whoever plays all their tiles first wins, and you can spell and compete without a game board. (Caution: This one has small parts)
Here’s a puzzle game that fits together to form the words that match the illustrations on its sturdy cardboard pieces. Each three- or four-letter word puzzle connects to brightly colored images, which snap together to add visual reinforcement to the letters and words themselves. Completing the puzzles also helps with motor skills. The set includes 20 puzzles.
Preschoolers will love looking through the microscope at full-color slides or their own finds, to introduce them to the wonders of the world around them, including plants, animals, and items around the house. The voice of Australia Zoo’s Bindi Irwin narrates facts and quiz questions. Multilingual options include English, Spanish, French, and German. (Caution: This one has small parts, and requires three AAA batteries, which aren’t included.)
Teach kids the joy of using tools to design and construct. This set includes a screwdriver, wrench, and child-safe, slow-speed power tool that kids operate to build patterns and practice motor skills. Ten included design cards provide a starter set of designs to follow, and kids can create their own as they practice using tools. Here’s a great way to make STEM skills part of any girl or boy’s playtime. (Caution: This one has small parts and requires two AA batteries, which aren’t included.)
The Classics: Enduring Fun
Some toys entertain across generations. You’ll get a kick out of watching your kids play with toys that enchanted you as a youngster.
In Mr. Potato Head’s early days, you supplied the potato and the toy only included his facial features. Today’s version includes the complete spud—and now, you can choose a green version that’s made with plant-based plastic, enclosed in forest-friendly packaging. This Toy Story star of books and software still charms kids today.
A Japanese math teacher invented Magna-Tiles to offer a better way to teach geometric concepts. This beautiful building-tiles educational set of 42 three-dimensional, translucent magnetic tiles includes squares and triangles to build just about any shape. It’s not cheap, but it’s built to last for years of STEM-related fun and motor-skills development. (Caution: This one has small parts.)