Play is one of the most natural and beneficial ways children learn and develop as they interact with their environments, discovering, experimenting, and learning new skills as they engage with the world around them. Choosing the right toys promotes creativity and innovation, which aids in the development of cognitive, social, and fine and gross motor skills.
Innovations in children’s toys offer new experiences for learning, like building functional circuit boards, and coding robots and apps. There has been a growing focus on educational toys that encourage STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) development. Some of the best options are toys that offer free open-ended play like blocks, Play-Doh, and Legos. Others, like board games, help build important problem-solving and social skills like teamwork and negotiation.
With the holiday season just around the corner, Stacker researched a variety of sources, including parenting blogs, studies, research reports, child experts and psychologists, news stories, and online retail rankings to put together a list of 50 great toys.
Though there will be some crossover among age ranges, Stacker organized this research mainly using information from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Toys are grouped in children’s main developmental stages: the sensorimotor stage (infancy to 2 years old), pre-operational stage (age 3 to 5), and operational stage (age 8 to 12). They’re also organized by toy type: building sets, board games, puzzles, and more. Stacker focused on toys that are more affordable, keeping the list at those under $50.
Read on for some gift ideas that will help the kids in your life learn.
Blocks are perfect for fun and development in children of all ages, recommended in particular for children 3 to 8 years old—offering open-ended free play in a hands-on experience to engineer, build, tear down, and start all over. With Melissa & Doug blocks, children can create a world of their own while learning problem-solving skills, organizational and sequential abilities, and spatial relations.
These are like blocks training wheels for younger children, recommended for ages 1 to 5 years old, before moving up to the smaller-sized LEGOs. The bright, oversized blocks encourage hands-on exploration of motor skills. The Mega Bloks 80-Piece Big Building Bag can keep a group of kids occupied.
Ideal for children ages 4 and up, Gears! Gears! Gears! is as simple as it sounds: a bin of colorful gears that easily snap together, resulting in complex, movable structures. The challenge is in creating alignments and organization so gears turn in unison without resulting in jams.
No list of learning toys is complete without LEGO, especially the Classic Bricks and Gears Building Set, with varying levels of building complexity. LEGO also offers DUPLO sets for younger children between 1 and 5 years old, the Classic and Junior sets for 5 to 7 year olds, and City and Friends sets for 6 to 12 year olds.
MagnaTiles offer a more complex take on the building block, recommended for ages 3 and up. These translucent flat shapes can be transformed with a magnetic snap into any three-dimensional shape your child can imagine.
Another spin on building sets are Zoobs, suited for ages 6 and up: 100 pieces snap to connect, then can be twisted and shaped into anything at all, like walking dinosaurs or musical instruments.
Recommended for kids 7 and up, K’NEX Building Sets encourage STEAMagination: the intersection of science, tech, engineering, arts, math, and imagination. Children can hone their fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and spatial awareness using colorful plastic rods and connectors to create models included in the instruction booklet or anything they can imagine.
Another spin on blocks, Bloxels is a game design kit that uses colorful blocks on a grid to create your own video game. The kit, combined with a smartphone or tablet, can encourage creativity, logic, focus, and strategy.
World-renowned German toy company HABA makes a variety of wooden maze games for children 2 and up. Popular among them are the Town Maze Magnetic Game and the Number Maze Magnetic Game. These brightly colored puzzles feature fun designs that help children develop fine motor dexterity, visual spatial skills, and recognition of numbers and colors.
Great for children as young as 6 months, the Little Senses Lights and Sounds Shape Sorter offers auditory and visual stimulation with sounds and brightly colored lights.
Kanoodle is “a caboodle of brain-teasing puzzles,” a pocket-sized set of connected beads which can be used to “solve” 2D puzzles or twisted 3D pyramids. A top-ranked toy on Amazon, Kanoodle offers hundreds of possible combinations and more than 200 challenging and fun puzzles that help children develop critical thinking skills.
Since its inception in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube has remained popular, encouraging children, to focus on problem-solving skills, hand-eye coordination, and mental reflexes, as well as mathematical and logical development.
Play-Doh, recommended for ages 3 and older, comes in a wide variety of colors and helps children use their hands to create anything they can imagine.
Like Play-Doh, Playfoam can be shaped again and again, but offers a different tactile and visual experience. An added benefit: it never dries out. Children can sculpt and squish, which encourages tactile exploration and play, motor skills development, and visual artistic ability.
Another arts and crafts option ideal for older kids aged 7 to 12 years, the award-winning Rainbow Loom crafting kits give children the tools to make bracelets, lanyards, and more. The looms are easy to use, and promote creativity, inventiveness, and maybe even an entrepreneurial spirit.
Kinetic Sand gives kids more than 20 ways to play with the included molds and tools. They’ll love this magic sand, that only sticks to itself and is virtually mess-free. Kinetic Sand offers a unique tactile experience, which helps develop fine motor skills and artistry.
Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow! Reusable Water-Reveal Activity Pads can be used over and over, with their four reusable pages and a refillable water pen for mess-free fun. Kids learn about animals, colors, numbers, and letters as their creations come to life, then disappear as the page dries. These pads offer open-ended play and creation, and help develop dexterity.
Button Art is a part of the ALEX Discover Skill Builder series designed to help schoolers develop hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and creative reasoning. Complete the pictures, like animals, plants, cars, and other familiar shapes, to nurture creativity and exercise hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
The award-winning ALEX Toys Little Hands Paper Plate Bugs, recommended for children 3 and up, enables children to transform a simple paper plate into a customized bug. The kit includes stickers, googly eyes, pom-poms, paper, buttons, and more, and encourages imagination, creativity, patience, and concentration.
Melissa & Doug Decorate-Your-Own Wooden Craft Kits come with wooden designs to make working vehicles, and everything you need to decorate them. Great for kids 4 and up, these encourage children to tune their hand-eye coordination, and commit to a project with patience and attention.
This portable magnetic drawing board has sound and light effects, and is made for kids as young as 2. The board has a large drawing interface and sturdy handle, making it easy for smaller children to use. Unlike other similar boards, this one has four color options.
The Monilon Aqua Magic Water Doodle Mat is mess-free: All kids need is water, the magic pen, and the reusable drawing mat to bring images to life. This mat is for solo or collaborative doodling, and helps children develop artistic, fine motor, and creative skills.
The Crystal Growing Experiment is for children 10 and up, and includes all the materials needed to perform seven different crystal growth experiments. This kit is suited for budding science enthusiasts, and offers hands-on lessons about geology while encouraging patience and observation.
The Creativity Kids Grow Glow Terrarium is ideal for kids 6 and older, and empowers your child to plant, water, and grow an entire ecosystem. They’ll learn about botany and biology, and the relationship between science and art.
The award-winning ALEX Discover My Busy Town Activity Cube, recommended for infants up to 2 years, is a multi-dimensional wooden cube with five sides to keep your little engaged. This toy taps into visual and tactile stimulation, which helps children’s developing senses and motor skills.
With wheeled baby walkers stirring up much controversy (and lawsuits) over their safety, the Melissa & Doug Chomp and Clack Alligator Push Toy is an alternative. The alligator makes noise while it moves, and offers a sturdy and fun base for babies just learning to walk.
The VTech Write & Learn Creative Center offers writing and drawing activities, and is a great medium for children aged 3 to 6. The board also functions simply as a place to draw.
The LeapFrog Mr. Pencil's Scribble Write is for introducing children aged 3 to 7 to writing, drawing, and spelling with step-by-step interactive help. This unit is a bit more advanced, ideal for the early reader.
The VTech Little Apps Tablet offers a dozen learning activities to strengthen language and math skills using fun phrases and songs. The keyboard encourages kids to create their own melodies, which stimulates creativity and tone recognition.
Designed for children ages 2 and up, the VTech Touch and Learn Activity Desk Deluxe features buttons on its built-in music player that plays 20 tunes. The interactive toy phone helps teach number and letter strokes, as well as shapes. The activity desk also converts into a chalkboard and easel for drawing.
These interactive posters come in different themes for different age groups, and feature lights and sound effects to help learn everything from math and spelling to anatomy, geography, and much more. The My World Interactive Map, for ages 5 through 12, contains more than 1,000 facts and questions about the world. These posters help children with concentration, problem-solving, and memory.
A 2018 Family Choice Award Winner, the Best Learning Connectrix Matching Game is an interactive matching game recommended for kids age 6 and up. The game includes more than 1,000 questions on topics like dinosaurs, geography, history, human body, animals, and earth science to sharpen problem-solving, concentration, and memory skills.
The Simple First Words series features audio buttons for babies and toddlers to match sounds to pictures, helping them on their way to learn their first words.
The LeapFrog Learning Friends 100 Words Book offers toddlers an engaging interface: The words they touch on the page are played aloud with fun sounds and educational facts in English and Spanish.
The VTech Musical Rhymes Book is for children from 6 months to 3 years. It helps toddlers build fine motor skills as they engage with colorful piano buttons that introduce sound and color through more than 40 songs, sounds, and phrases.
Like bingo with a language twist, Pictolingua is a board game that offers your older child—7 and up—a fun, interactive way to learn new words in five languages. This visual vocabulary game includes 50 flashcards and 10 boards to help your child develop spelling and literacy skills.
Bananagrams is like a more portable, less complex Scrabble, giving players more freedom to build words in a less-restrained manner. Bananagrams is recommended for children 7 and up, and can help them develop vocabulary and time-management skills.
Rory’s Story Cubes, for kids 8 years and up, is a pocket-sized story generator that helps your child develop language and storytelling skills. The game comes with nine cubes with different images on each side, which players roll to determine a story that’s narrated out loud. The cubes are also used by speech therapists to enhance children’s listening skills and expressive language development.
This award-winning science game takes a lighthearted approach to learning about biology, geology, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, astronomy, and physics. Totally Gross is ideal for two to four players, and recommended for ages 8 and up.
Award-winning card game Sleeping Queens offers a simple, fun way for children to practice critical thinking and decision-making. This card game, designed for 8 to 12 year olds, will keep your kids laughing and engaged while strengthening their memory and math skills.
Uno is a long-beloved card game for two or more players, great for preschoolers all the way up through adulthood. Uno offers many developmental benefits, teaching skills like logic and planning, and reinforcing number, color, and pattern recognition.
Box & Balls is a rolling, bouncing, stacking, nesting game with a myriad of play options for all ages. Young children who are just starting to test their hand-eye coordination will enjoy it as much as high schoolers. Box & Balls strengthens hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, and encourages strategy-planning and game rule creation.
I Got This! is a game of proving your skills through a variety of challenges that encourage gross motor skills, critical thinking skills, and cooperative play for children 8 years and older. The game also teaches confidence and motivation.
Glow-in-the-Dark Hover Shot 2.0 is a target-practice adventure for children 6 years and older. Take aim at hovering foam balls while working on motor skills, visual-spatial skills, hand-eye coordination, and concentration.
Run, jump, and stomp to launch stunt planes designed by aeronautical engineers to perform a variety of fun stunts. The award-winning Stomp Rocket is a perfect toy to help support STEM development by encouraging kids to learn physics concepts like trajectory, gravity, force, and aerodynamics.
The iPlay, iLearn Kids Bowling Play Set encourages active physical play and number recognition. It’s for helping to develop hand-eye coordination and spatial cognition. Children gain confidence as they knock over pins, and can engage in team play as well.
One of the most highly recommended toys of 2018 is Snapcircuits, which guides your child through building more than 300 electronics circuit projects, from burglar alarms to radios. A toy that encourages creativity, inventiveness, and STEM learning, Snapcircuits help kids hone their fine motor, problem-solving, planning and concentration skills. The kit is recommended for children 8 years and older.
The Meccano Micronoid Code Interactive Robot-Building Kit enables your child to construct a robot companion while learning the fundamentals of coding and engineering. They’ll develop skills like sequencing, following instructions and spatial awareness. Kids can also customize the robot’s personality, and enjoy built-in games and activities, fun sound effects, and of course, dancing. Meccano Micronoids are available in several styles, and can interact with other models.
The award-winning 3Doodler Start Essentials Pen Set, suited for kids 6 to 13 years old, is a perfect combination of arts and STEM learning, encouraging creativity, design, planning, building, and spatial understanding. Your child can bring any creation in their imagination to life with this simple handheld 3D printer.