Have you ever noticed at Christmas, when all of the toys are unwrapped, your child is having more fun with the cardboard boxes and wrapping paper than the flashy toys? There’s a reason for that. Toys that require little imagination hold children’s attention less than an ordinary object they can use as a prop to fuel their creativity.
These days, the toy aisle at your local Walmart or Target is full of beeps, lights, movement, and songs. Every toy is advertised as “educational” or “stimulating”. What these toys actually are is entertaining. While entertainment can be nice (it gives you as the parent a break for a minute!), entertaining is not the same as stimulating and will not have the same positive effects on your child. Toys toted as educational are often more about memorization than exploration.
An ideal toy puts control in the hands of the child. It isn’t there to entertain them – it’s there to be used by them however they choose.
Here is a list of 10 toys for young children that will actually stimulate their brains.
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One of the most basic toys, blocks engage a child’s imagination and problem solving skills as they work to arrange them in a way that creates what they dream up in their head. Blocks can be used to make anything from castles, to roadways for toy cars to race across, to furniture for stuffed animals and dolls. There are many different types of blocks out there, each with different unique features.
Soft blocks (like these Melissa & Doug K’s Kids Match and Build Blocks) are often best for infants, as a lot of tumbling and throwing will be involved. As toddlers get better control of their building skills, basic wooden blocks (such as these Small World Toys Ryan’s Room Wooden Toys – Bag O’ Blocks, Natural Wood) in various shapes and sizes are great for building tall towers and long roads. Older children may benefit from more complex blocks such as everyone’s favourite LEGO Classic Creative Bricks 10692 or LINCOLN LOGS – Horseshoe Hill Station – 83 Pieces – Ages 3+ Preschool Education Toy.
I wrote an entire post here on 10 Outstanding Classics You Should Read Your Kids, in case you would like some inspiration. I would recommend starting with some sturdy board books for infants and toddlers, then moving on to paper pages once they stop putting everything in their mouth. 🙂
There are so many cognitive benefits to reading that we don’t even have space here to get into them all. Suffice it to say that I would consider books to be the most important product on this list.
The best part is, you don’t even have to spend much (or any!) money on books for children. With a library card, your children have access to all of the best books in one place.
If you would prefer to keep some books at home as well (which I would definitely suggest), you can easily pick up large quantities at thrift stores and yard sales for a very inexpensive price.
3. Magnetic writing board such as this this: Fisher-Price Slim Doodle Pro, Blue
There are two reasons why this is on here instead of old fashioned pen and paper.
One, for young children, this requires no clean up. When children are learning to draw and write, they often miss the paper (on accident or on purpose). A magnetic board means no clean up required and no chance of furniture or walls being drawn on in that minute that you have your head turned.
Secondly, when I taught at a daycare, each child liked to go through four or five pieces of drawing paper at a time. Sadly, I had to put a limit on the drawing paper they were allowed to use. With a magnetic board, they can create and erase as many images as they want.
Granted, nothing beats a good coloring book for those pictures you can put up on the refrigerator, or send to grandma.
4. Stuffed animals
One of the most basic toys, stuffed animals leave everything up to the imagination of the child.
I used to take my stuffed dogs on walks around the neighbourhood, pretending that they were real and that I had to take good care of them. I would group my stuffed animals into families depending on the type of animal they were. I would take a stuffed animal as my trusty sidekick when I was running around the park pretending to be a princess or a soldier (depending on my mood that day…).
Stuffed animals are stimulating to young children because they have interesting textures and are soft and cuddly to hold. They are stimulating to older children because they involve active imagining in order to be played with. A stuffed animal is not entertaining in and of itself – it has to be engaged with in play.
5. Dolls or action figures
Similar to stuffed animals, dolls or action figures require a world of imagination created by the child.
Dolls come in all shapes and sizes. Anything can be a doll. When I was young, I made paper dolls by cutting out whichever person I found most interesting in a magazine, then I would cut out their outfits from other pages, trying to find clothes that fit the best. I would use sticks out in the garden as dolls and clothe them in flowers and leaves, building them little houses out of rocks and grass. Imagination is a powerful thing.
Encourage your child to make their own equipment and accessories for their dolls. Scraps of leftover cloth can be sewed or fastened to make clothes. Cardboard and Styrofoam can be manipulated into a rambling doll house.
Dolls require story-telling, imagination, and social skills. They are powerful tools for stimulating your child’s mind.
Puzzles come in many levels of difficulty for different ages. They are a good source of problem solving practice for young minds. Any basic puzzle teaches children about geometry – sizes and shapes. Puzzles nowadays may also include other concepts like color, animals, or clothing. Some fun ones make noise when the correct piece is put in.
I personally love the look of these classic tricycles from Radio Flyer.
Bicycles are a great way to get kids outside being active and teach them about balance, direction, and speed. There are plenty of park roads and trails where parents and children can ride side-by-side without worrying about cars. Get the whole family out of the house with a pleasant bike ride!
8. Used food bottles/containers
This one costs nothing because you will already have food containers around the house! All you have to do is start saving them. The simplest way to use these are just to wash them out and let your children play pretend with them. Children have vivid imaginations and love to pretend there is still milk in the jug, soap in the bottle, and yogurt in the cup.
If you want to up your game and take on some of these ideas for reusing food containers, more power to you!
We did this milk jug garden at the daycare and it worked great! I still have mint and basil that I took home in the fall. Let kids help plant and care for the plants, and teach them about recycling and nature.
What about these great uses for empty wipe containers? Educational and environmentally conscious.
How cute is this doll cereal box made out of an old tic tac container?
Don’t forget about all the great toys you can create with cardboard!
9. Musical instruments
Get children singing and dancing with their very own musical instruments. There are plenty of toy store options for children’s instruments, as well as some you can make yourself. This list gives 20 ideas for making musical instruments at home for your children.
According to the International Journal of Music Education, the positive effects of music on young children range from literacy acquisition, to spatial reasoning, and to fine motor skills. Developmentally, music plays a significant role in young children. Even infants can benefit from shaking a rattle around and hearing the sounds it makes.
10. Dress-up clothes
Children love props to fuel their imaginative stories they create. Dress-up clothes are an easy prop that doesn’t have to be expensive. Rather than buying pre-made costumes, allow children to invent their own by picking up some thrift store threads, or letting them use some of your old clothes.