As a general rule, if the toy you’re considering for your toddler or preschooler has batteries, think twice before buying it. These toys rarely keep kids’ attention for long, and when they do, the grating sounds and flashing lights are enough to drive any parent nuts. Once the batteries do finally die, the toy ends up at the bottom of the toy bin.
Think open-ended. . .
Open-ended toys, where the play isn’t directed by the toy itself, are a much better bet for your money and for your child’s attention span. Here’s a list of the tried and true toys that my kids (a boy and a girl) love as well as recommendations from our contributors.
Kids don’t need a ton of toys, but the ones they do have should help them learn through play.
How to use to our guide. . .
Take our toy recommendations as gift-giving inspiration to help you find the perfect toy for your little one or make your life really easy by simply clicking on your favorites to add them directly to your Amazon cart! Remember to always check the recommended age on the toy to make sure it’s appropriate for your child.
Keep scrolling to check out our full list or click on a link below to jump to a specific toy category.
Magnatiles are my personal number one pick. I bought a large pack of them when my daughter was two. She’s now five, and she and my three-year-old play with them every single day. Keep small figurines and other small toys nearby. Kids love to incorporate them into their building.
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Figurines & Playsets
Little figurines are perfect for stashing in your bag when you need entertainment for your kids on the go. They don’t take up a lot of space and children’s imaginations allow them to create a magical castle or other fun settings in just about any location you put them. Adding playsets to the mix encourages imaginative play and allows kids to test ideas in a safe way. For example, watching cars race down a track and crash teaches children foundational lessons in physical science.
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Simply put, things that “go” are fun. These plastic pull-back cars have a little give to them which makes them fun for little hands to hold. They have a lot of zip to them, so they’ll bounce off walls and keep going. Construction vehicles offer another chance for children to manipulate the toys, lifting a dump truck or crane, and these simple, basic monster trucks are endlessly enjoyable to both of my kids. They’re fun in the sand, in the bathtub, and everywhere else around the house.
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Pretend Play & Dress Up
The adult world is fascinating to little kids. They love to mimic us and doing so helps teach them independence and gives them the chance to explore and learn about the world around them.
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Puzzles & Games
I have to admit that I was very happy when my kids started to get interested in puzzles and board games. Playing in this way was, frankly, more fun for me than playing a game of pretend, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your child’s proud smile after they work through a tricky puzzle or win at a board game. Not all games are created equal though. There are plenty of duds on the toy store shelves. These, however, are winners.
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Creating art gives your child a chance to practice his or her fine motor skills and offers an outlet for them to express themselves (as long as it’s not on your living room wall!). “Invisible” ink pens are especially nice to have when you need to entertain your kids on the go. Colored tape will keep kids busy for hours (remember to set ground rules for where the tape should go), coloring kits make any coloring session feel extra special, and playing with Play-doh gives kids the chance to build strength in their hands and forearms, which is important down the line when they’re learning to write.
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Children benefit in so many ways from being exposed to music. To name a few, music education facilitates language development, encourages coordination of their minds and bodies, and improves spatial-temporal skills which are crucial for math and problem solving later on. Bring music class home with some of these simple instruments.
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Even if you only have a small space outside, you can make the most of it with a few outdoor toys. There’s no need to buy an expensive, semi-permanent play structure. These activities will encourage the development of gross motor skills and bring hours of fun.
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There was a period of time when the only thing my son wanted to play with was a ball. It didn’t matter what kind it was, as long as it was a sphere that he could hold in his tiny hands and throw at inopportune times. This wasn’t always convenient when we had to entertain him on the go, but playing with balls teaches children hand-eye coordination and gives them another chance for them to experiment. “Hmm, what happens if I throw this ball at the cat?” they wonder. And then they find out, “Oh, Mommy gets upset and the cat gets scared.” I love playground balls (we called them jelly balls growing up) for outdoor play. They’re a good size and just a little squishy, making them adaptable to lots of outdoor games. These sensory balls and a good ol’ soccer ball are also winners.
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