While recently cleaning-up my son’s toys, I realized that we only own a few types of items. There is a wide variety of vehicles, a bunch of puzzles, some stuffed animals, and a big bin of building blocks. This stuff was taking up a lot of space already, but was it the right stuff? How many toys should a child have? I have been cleaning-up and minimizing my possessions for a while and loving the results. Now I wanted to know how to clean-up the toys. Minimize the number of things we have while leaving the ones that will benefit my son the most.
The pragmatic mom in me figured that eliminating stuff wasn’t a big deal. After all, my son played with lots of different toys at daycare. The researcher in me, however, wanted to know if there was a ‘must-have’ list of toys that we should have that will encourage his creativity and skill development. In essence, I wanted a shortcut to a minimal yet engaging toy collection. One that inspired him to learn, didn’t drive me nuts, and didn’t take over our space.
An internet search revealed that yes, there are fundamental toy categories every child should have. From there you can choose specific items that interest your kids, fit your budget, and align with your philosophy on the kind of things you like to have in your home. I read a few different resources and created a shortlist for you to use in your home. Why? Because what mom doesn’t need a shortcut to Christmas and Birthday present lists!
All of the toys on the shortlist fall into the open-ended toy category. Open-ended toys are ones that your kids will have to use their imagination and creativity to play. In other words, no ‘one-trick-ponies’’ that entertain children for a short while with buttons, lights, and sounds, but don’t encourage skill development. Think of them as props to creative play.
One caveat. All kinds of materials are used to make good toys. Toys made from natural or organic sources are not necessarily good toys. If your preference is to avoid synthetics, by all means, choose toys that fit this criterion. But don’t use material alone as the deciding factor for what you buy.
Here are some ideas for toys that will be fun at different developmental stage (i.e., will grow with your child), encourage exploration, and teach them valuable skills.
A busy mom’s shortcut to all the toys your child needs.
1. Building Toys and Blocks
From the simplest wooden blocks to programmable robots from Lego, there is a vast range of building sets suitable for all ages. Building toys are excellent at helping your kids hone their spatial and motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving ability. The best first blocks will be large and easy to connect. For more details read best building and construction toys for toddlers. As your children develop their skills they will be ready for more challenging and complex construction toys like Keva planks and the sets from Lego.
2. Dolls, Teddy Bears and Animals
Fantastic companions for young children who are just developing a sense of being separate from their parents. Often a familiar ‘lovie’ will make them feel better when mom or dad isn’t there. Older children also enjoy role-playing with them and practice nurturing and empathy.
Figures are essentially miniature versions of people and animals that your kids will play time either alone or as part of more elaborate set-ups that include other toys like dollhouses, farms, garages, etc. They are amazing because kids of various ages will play with them – i.e., they grow with your kids – encourage imaginative play, and provide an opportunity to act out real-world scenarios. You can guide your kids, for example, to a set-up a scene where they are encouraged to develop empathy for others’ emotions or even talk about their feelings in a situation. Schleich figures and Playmobil play worlds both make quality, but also the dollar store sells basic animal figures that will do just fine.
4. A ball
A ball is a type of active toy that will encourage kids to learn first to roll, then catch and throw. Many sports kids will play involve a ball so consider it early sports practice. For indoor play consider first soft fabric balls that will be a safer alternative to a traditional soccer or hard plastic ball. For older kids, a soccer ball, football, or baseball will be great for ‘take anywhere’ outdoor play.
5. Arts & Crafts and Sensory Toys
Ever wonder what to do on a rainy weekend afternoon? Crafting is a fun activity that challenges your kids’ creative and fine-motor skills. Materials can be as simple as balls of play dough, crayons, paper, and recycled boxes. As your kids’ abilities develop, consider adding more variety such as glue, construction paper, paints, and stamps. For younger kids, use sensory playthings such as rice, beans, noodles, and kinetic sand. Invest in a few plastic containers to store them neatly when not in use and add a few measuring cups, spoons, or small toys in the bin to make playtime more fun.
6. Dress-up and Role-playing
Kids love the idea of dressing up as imaginary characters or pretending to become a grown-up. It’s a way for kids to use their imagination and experiment using life-skills, such as problem-solving and negotiating, they will need later in life. Simple materials that encourage creativity, such as these ‘silks’ that can become veils, capes, and curtains, are a fantastic option. Child-sized versions of everyday household items make amazing accessories to the role-playing as well.
7. Active Toys
When your kids reach the toddler years, the living room is likely to become a play gym, and the couch will be a makeshift trampoline. Essentially your kids want to move their bodies and experiment with what they can do. Of course, you want to provide them with a safe way to do that at home. There are a few toys that make for fun playtime and keep your furniture intact. Anything they can push/pull or crawl through, like a walker or tunnel, are great first active toys. A foldable mat, balance toy, like the Moluk Bilibo, or a swing are great for older toddlers and preschoolers. They are small enough that you can quickly put them away when not in use.
One of the most significant learning outcomes of playing with cars for all kids is cause and effect! Everyone has at least once sent a car down a hallway or staircase just to see what will happen when they crash into a wall. Kids also like to use cars and trucks to recreate real jobs they observe when watching the world from their car seat like a garbage truck collecting bins. German toymaker Bruder makes impressive scaled models of actual vehicles including emergency vehicles and various construction equipment. They are amazingly sturdy considering all the parts and mechanics involved in each one, plus the company has a fantastic warranty. However, one of our favourite first cars for a toddler has been a soft and washable set from Melissa and Doug.
From first words to elaborate stories, kids should spend some time with a book every day. Classics like Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, or any of the Dr. Seuss stories, make for the best books that kids revisit many times. There are also excellent contemporary books to help prepare kids for life events like the arrival of a sibling, or aid in potty training.
For preschooler consider adding ‘getting ready to read’ toys such as a See & Spell or the Kid O Magnatab board.
Puzzles aid kids in developing fine-motor and problem-solving skills as well as spatial awareness. The first ones will have large pieces such as geometric shapes or animals. Then add puzzles with simple pictures of things your kids might already know and be interested in. Eventually graduate to smaller pieces and more complex images. Even before puzzles, older babies will be interested in shape sorters, which you can start introducing around 12 months of age.
11. Musical Instruments
Singing and music are part of our everyday surroundings, and kids definitely like to experiment with making noise! Music not only brings joy to our lives, but also helps kids learn first words, express themselves, and develop their social and emotional skills. Rattles and drums are easy first instrument options, followed by a xylophone or a small piano. Playing children’s songs or child-appropriate music in your home is also something you should consider. If you’re searching for ideas, many popular children’s movies – such as Moana or The Polar Express – have beautiful sound tracks.
So that’s it – can you imagine only having about 11-15 toys in your space at any one time? Count how many you have now and sort them by kind. Do you like me, need to purge a bunch and diversify?