Building or construction toys are a great developmental toy for your toddler’s simple toy box. The best ones promote not only creative play and skill development, but are also fun to play with. They help your toddler develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and spacial skills. In addition, kids learn to problem solve, work cooperatively with others and often include the structures they build into imaginary or pretend play scenarios.
Where to start?
Just before, or at about, age one, babies develop interest in stacking toys. These are the first in what will likely become a long line of building toys your kids will play with. One of the first things they learn about is the idea of cause and effect. This is why they love stacking things then knocking them down. Young children are fascinated by the loud crashing noise when the blocks hit the ground. It means nothing to them that the beautiful tower you helped them build is destroyed.
If you are looking for something a bit more interesting than the typical stacking cups, try the Tobbles Neo from Fat Brain Toys. These colourful sphere-like shapes are a bit more challenging to stack since you have to balance them on an angle to build the tower. Each shape has a grippier surface on the darker-coloured bottom to make it easier for little hands to grasp and balance the balls.
Another great stacking toy to try out with very young kids are these large cardboard building bricks from Melissa and Doug. They are easy to assemble and super strong. Wipe them clean with a damp cloth and they last a long time. Plus, with the super-sized yet lightweight blocks, together with your child you build structures as tall as them, or even taller, while keeping everyone safe.
Large Block Connecting Sets
Around age two, children develop better fine motor skills and gain interest in building something more than a tower out of those blocks. This is a good time to introduce construction toys with pieces that easily connect together and come apart. It is super important that little hands easily connect and take apart the pieces. A toddler will give up or get frustrated if they have to use a lot of precision to put the blocks together. This is a good stage to introduce Mega bloks, Bristle blocks, or Duplo, which are all intended for little hands.
Mega Bloks have pieces that are bigger than Duplo blocks and for this reason are better as a first building set. Toddlers build larger structures quicker so they stay interested longer. The blocks are colourful, easy to put together, and the set includes idea cards for what to build. Most children under three years old will be too young to follow the cards on their own, but you can use the them as a guide when building together.
Bristle Blocks are made of plastic and look like little brushes. They are also easy for little hands to put together since the surfaces of the blocks don’t have to line up precisely to stick together. Like Mega Bloks they come in colourful sets.
First Magnetic Building Sets
Magnetic blocks are a cool new option among the many building sets available these days. They can be a little trickier to work with because of the ‘invisible’ nature of opposite pole attraction that makes the magnets work. Most kids quickly figure-out which way to put the blocks so they stick together and are excited to play with these around age 2, or even earlier. People Blocks and Tegu blocks are the most interesting and fun options to introduce first since they both have larger parts and innovative design suitable for tiny hands.
People Blocks have large and sturdy pieces similar to Mega Blocs and Duplo, however, the pieces stick together using magnets. Many of the pieces have faces or other details printed on the surface of each block and come in different shapes and sizes. One of cool things about People Blocks is the range of ages they are suitable for. While an 18-month old might only be capable of stacking shapes together into a tower, a 2-3 year old will expand their building to copying items from their every day surroundings (like cars, animals, etc.), and eventually start building their own unique creations. In other words, these are a great investment that will grow with your child.
Next up are Tegu magnetic wood blocks. Tegu blocks combine the simple elegance of wood with the power of magnets. Simply put, the creative folks at Tegu supercharged the classic wood toy for the 21-century. In addition to the classic sets that include blocks in various sizes and colours, Tegu makes a range of small and specialty sets. Some have accessory elements that turn creations into vehicles, while others become friendly-faced monsters. Also new this year, the classic sets come in a pastel-hued colour scheme.
The Prism Pocket Pouch and Beans and Tumtum are just two examples of good introductory sets for younger kids. The felt carry pouch makes it ideal for travel, or for mom’s purse, and comes in a variety of colour options. Beans and Tumtum is a set of lovable twin monsters that are reconfigurable into whatever design your child desires.
Tegu also sells large sets, which are great for playing at home. They have larger pieces suitable for older kids and provide lots of opportunity for creative free-form structures.
Tegu’s responsible business practices are similarly noteworthy. The Honduran-based factory sources all the wood used for their blocks from within the country and ensures whatever is harvested is replanted. They also pay their employees a living-wage and prioritize long-range career growth, both of which are not typical for factories in developing countries.
Building Blocks and Pretend Play
Also around age two, kids start to enjoy pretend play. What might start out as a construction toy, becomes a fort, house, or vehicle for people and animal figurines. Duplo’s mini sets are a great option at this stage. While the child is probably too young to build the ‘building’ element of the set according to its intended design, they will enjoy using the various elements together with the figures and/or vehicles included in the sets to engage in simple storylines for playtime.
Duplo block sets are a good multi-skill development toy for toddlers. For example, the My First Number Train Building Set has both people and animal figures as well as simple blocks your child can connect together. In addition, the blocks encourage early learning about numbers.
The Duplo Town Airport is another fun set we play with. The airport set was a good fit for my son since he likes planes and has seen the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of an airport a few times. However, he likes to pretend that the fuelling vehicle that came with this set – which has a detachable fuelling hose – is a fire truck and he is spraying water out of the hose. Kids will use the various pieces in flexible ways. They engage in storylines that are familiar to them from every day life, which can sometimes be completely outside of the set’s theme.
Next Level Magnetic 3D Building Set
Magna tiles are a very popular brand of a magnetic building toy. The plastic tiles have a triangular shape, which makes them different than most other building sets. They are excellent for a wide range of ages since the magnetic joining mechanism allows for structures of all sizes. From simple ones built by younger children to very elaborate castles, doll houses, marble runs, garages, etc., built by older kids. Most importantly, the magnets stick together very well, which equals less frustrated children.
The tiles come in transparent, solid, and even glow in the dark option. The see-through nature of the tiles teaches kids about material characteristics, namely transparency. Encourage your kids to play in front of the window, or purchase an inexpensive light box, to add this fun and educational element to the building activity.
As you can see there are lots of building toy options for your toddler. The best ones offer lots of opportunity for creative play and stretch to fit a wide age range. Whether you choose to go with wood or plastic is up to you and your personal philosophy around toys. Most importantly, make sure your little one has at least one set by the time they turn 2.