November 29, 2011

Our Favorite Blocks / Building Sets

 *This post was originally published in 2011, and recently updated for 2013.

 

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Mike and I have always lived in small spaces.  Now that we have kids, this means we have to be very careful about the kind of toys we buy.  In order to fit in our severely space-challenged pad, they better be good.  Any toy we keep needs to be well-loved, well-used, multi-purpose and open-ended.  

Hello, blocks.

According to the educators behind Childhood 101 (one of my fav blogs), blocks and other types of construction/building materials can help promote problem solving skills, basic science concepts (form a hypothesis/guess and then test the concept), perseverance, and good collaboration skills – all key lifelong skills any little boy (or girl!!) will need.  Read Childhood 101's full article on the topic of Constructing here.  

You certainly don't need any fancy toys to promote constructive play (Childhood 101 has a wealth of low-cost construction activities on their website – here's a few examples)…but it is the holiday season, and sometimes it's just fun to buy toys.  So if you are looking for some gift ideas, ones that will last for years and years (really!!) here are our well-tested favorites. 

 

Blocks for Baby

1. Edushape Wood Like Soft Blocks, 80 Piece Set, $37

These are my favorite soft blocks, hands down.  Despite the wood-block look, they are soft, they stack and they can even stick nicely to tub walls.  Totally wipeable, too.  But best of all?  Teething proof.

 

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Edushape is now selling a giant set of these blocks, as well as the Soft World Block Set – City, which consists of little block buildings, people, cars, etc.

 

2.  Melissa & Doug Deluxe 50-piece Wooden ABC/123 Blocks Set, $15

This blocks set looks like a traditional ABC block set, but smaller.  Each block is tiny enough for baby hands to hold and throw stack.  

Each block has a letter and a picture on it – we've had endless baby fun with both baby R (pictured) and now P where they show me the picture and I say, "Pineapple!" and they giggle.  So adorable.  

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One word of caution:  The packaging states that this set is for ages 24 months and up.  No idea why – both boys used these in their infancy.  

 

Blocks For Toddlers

Below are the block sets that we first used when my little guys were toddlers.  However, all of these sets are STILL in heavy rotation, even with my six year old.  Good blocks have no age limit, and these, we've found, are the best.

 

3. Uncle Goose Blocks, $25 and up (and Made in Michigan!)

Both R and P were fascinated with these Uncle Goose Ant Blocks, $25.  (Frankly, they kind of gross me out – the detail is superb.)

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The size of the blocks is standard size, 1.75" cubes, and the wood is fairly lightweight.  The size of the set is small – only 16 blocks, which is perfect for tiny ones.

Not only are Uncle Goose blocks made in the USA (yay Michigan!), but they are known for making gorgeous, unique sets.  Here are a few of my favorites:

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Top: 

Classic ABC Blocks

Chinese Character Blocks (32 pcs)

Middle:

Periodic Table Blocks

Embossed Groovie Blocks (28 pcs)

Bottom: 

Sign Language Blocks (With Braille!)

Chinese Character Blocks (32 pcs)

 

 

4. Beka Wooden Unit Blocks – Deluxe Set, $150

Almost two years ago, Mike and I hired Laura Barr, a dear friend and educational consultant in Denver for a parent education consultation (check out her guest post on letting kids dress themselves).  Top on her list of must-have items were unit blocks.  At the time, I didn't question the value of unit blocks, we just set out to find some.  Whoa – they are pricey.  

So what is the big deal with unit blocks? Are they worth the cost?  Early Childhood News thinks they are:

Although there are numerous types of blocks on the market, unit blocks offer the most learning value. What is it about unit blocks that make them such an important part of any early childhood classroom? To begin with, unit blocks are proportional in size to develop mathematical concepts. Unit blocks are made of hardwood with a natural finish and can therefore be expected to last many years.

I finally found a set of unit blocks that were made in the USA, have a non-toxic, all-natural finish, and didn't skimp on the larger pieces.  Hello, Beka Unit Blocks – 68 piece set.

The non-skimping of larger pieces is key – so many block sets will include only one or two of the big, fun pieces, with the rest of the set being made up of smaller blocks.

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Even better, this set includes pieces that are half the length of each other (standard to all unit block sets)…and pieces that are half the width of the larger ones.  Beka is one of the few sets that provides both.  You want proportions, people?  This is IT.

These blocks, since (um..Grandma purchased them) has been played with nearly every day for the last four years.   They tower.  They are roads.  Train tracks.  Hospital beds.  

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They are ramps and jumps, and, more recently, complex structures with secret, hidden rooms.   These were so well-used that we actually bought a second (smaller, 30 piece ) set.   

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But these blocks are serious blocks.  They are heavy.  Like if they fell on your toe, they'd probably hurt.  (For whatever it's worth, both boys learned pretty quickly that throwing these blocks around usually resulted in some minor injury.  But we're pretty live-and-learn over here, so I'm totally OK with that little lesson.)  

ps.  Like the tree blocks?  You can totally make them.  I, of course, did not.  Monkeys on the Roof (Etsy) sells them.  

 

5. Chenille Kraft Gorilla Blocks, $150

I've held off on buying giant blocks because most are cardboard…that you fold into block shape yourself.  NOPE.  Even worse, according to Amazon reviewers, they never really fold correctly, wobble when stacked, and the sets came with too many small sizes, so you needed multiple sets to even make a really good wall, much less a castle, which I think is the whole POINT of giant blocks. Right?  Gah!

Then we wandered into Nuture, a local boutique.  They have this fabulous playroom for the kiddos.  Note the giant blocks stacked up against the wall:

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These blocks are amazing!  They are lightweight, stack a bit like legos, and let both R and P play happily together.  No easy feat.  And I'm impressed with how well they've held up – Nuture's set is several years old,and is played with (by many children) on a daily basis.  My kids would stay here for hours, if I let them.

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They are made from non-toxic, high-density foam and come in a pack of 66.  They are waterproof, so you can bring them outside in the summer.

 

6. Magna Tiles, $50 – $120

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Oh my how we love our Magna Tiles around here.  They are basically translucent plastic shapes that have magnets on the edges.  Magnets that are surprisingly strong, and support some serious structures.  

You can find smaller sets, but I highly recommend the 100 Piece Set.   

In addition to the myriad of building possibilities, because these things are translucent, you can do some cool things with light.  We love ours on the light table, but we've also built structures around flashlights and lamps, too.  The mirror adds a fun dimension.  

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I'd love to take credit for all of this creative play, but the magna tiles-on-light-table-with-mirror came from the amazing ladies over at Play At Home Mom.  A must read.  Their series on Playing With Light is not to be missed. 

 

7. Bristle Blocks, $18

These have really stood the test of time.  Not only are the easy enough for little hands to make simple structures, but they are flexible enough for my 6 year old to make battleships.  

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Blocks and Building Sets For PreSchoolers

Raines originally started using these sets when he was 3-4 years old.  However, he (and now Pax too) are still playing hard with these….

8. Jawbones

Screen Shot 2011-11-29 at 8.31.47 PMThis set of…uh…."Buildable Art Pieces", is, according to the manufacturer, "construction pieces that swivel, ratchet and snap together in countless ways".

Whatever you call it, this set rocks.  This 100 piece set retails for $20, comes in a surprisingly small plastic container, and R has been using it now for a few years to create all sorts of guns stuff.  For some reason, this product is for "ages 7 and up".  And Raines started playing with it when he was, um…3.  Initially, we would have to show him how to snap some of the pieces together, and we'd have to help him un-snap some of the tighter pieces…but he has loved it.  I mean OK – the kid isn't going to whip out a Jawbones dog per the manual anytime soon:

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But still.  He (and his neighbor buddy, age 6) have had a blast making various guns, planes, an occasional flower for me.  And this set gets thrown in the suitcase whenever we travel, and has even come along to a few restaurants.  I've actually bought a larger set to add to our collection.  We've seen more use out of this set than Legos.(!!)

Jawbones also come in a handy 215 Piece Set ($40) or this seriously cool Train and Railroad Box Set ($60) that is both open-ended yet satisfying for a train obsessed kid. (I'm so glad R is over that phase.)

 

9. Haba Technics – Large Vehicles Set (49 pcs)

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This ingenious set by Haba contains basic blocks….with rubbery orange clamps that can hold the blocks together in various shapes. You can also attach axles and wheels to these clamps to make things "go".

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Our boys are serious about making things "go".   This set is a huge hit.  Pax (three years old) still needs help getting the clamps or wheels on, but Raines has been using this set without help since he was four.

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10. Tegu Magnetic Blocks, $50 – $300

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Tegu blocks are wood blocks with magnetic ends, allowing kids to build in new and different ways than traditional blocks.  (You can also add a set of Tegu wheels.) 

All Tegu products are made in Honduras, in environmentally sustainable forests, and Tegu is committed to "bringing world class employment standards to Central America."  Furthermore, the blocks are completely safe:  no lead, no plastic, and non-toxic, water-based lacquer finishes.  You can read more about Tegu's mission here.  I love a company with such high ethical standards.

However, you do pay for it.  Tegu blocks are expensive.  The Original 52 Piece Set retails for roughly $140, a package of 4 wooden Tegu wheels are another $16.   Personally, I think the Tegu Classroom Kit is the best buy, though it is an investment at $300.  This set comes with 130 pieces and 16 wheels.   (NOTE:  Tegu is offering $75 off the classroom set until Dec 16th with code CLASSROOM75.)

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And after watching the kiddos play with their Tegus….more are definitely better.  It's one of those amazing toys that engage them for so long that their buildings get bigger and more complicated and then they're like, "Mom, can we leave this out for tomorrow too?"

The one thing I'd caution is that kids do need time to grow into Tegu sets.  Laws of magnetism apply, so kids have to figure that out as they build.  It's part of what makes this toy so intriguing for older kids…but can frustrate the younger ones.  Pax (three) is easily frustrated with Tegu blocks, Raines (six) spends hours testing the limits of Tegus, and our neighbor Mairia (nine) builds some seriously cool, complex structures.

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Is there anything more fun than picking out toys?  Especially toys you still like to play with? I think not.

xo,

S

 

21 Comments
  • Lisa
    November 30, 2011

    What about the Melissa and Doug blocks? Are they the same size as this set?
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00008W72D/ref=ox_sc_act_title_1?ie=UTF8&m=ATVPDKIKX0DER
    Those are the blocks Santa was planning on bringing to our house.

  • shazia
    November 30, 2011

    We love Haba blocks over here.. but those Beka bloks… now I have to convince hubby that they would be soooo awesome! :)

  • Meredith
    November 30, 2011

    Thank you so much for the wonderful gift ideas for my sons (ages 3 and 1). The Magna Tiles look amazing! One question for you…what light table do you recommend?

  • Em
    November 30, 2011

    R and I could create the best towers with the unit blocks! Nanny recommended:)

  • S
    November 30, 2011

    UGH – I forgot one! R literally pulled these out this morning and I realized my omission! These bristle-like blocks he loves. The set isn’t huge, but he often combines them with other types of play. They’re $16 at Target: http://www.target.com/p/B-Bristle-Block-Stackadoos/-/A-13527760
    Lisa – The Melissa and Doug unit blocks are also great. The reason we didn’t go with them is because they are missing some of the larger pieces that the Beka set has. This picture shows every block in the set – you can see that there is only 2 large boards. http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/B00008W72D/ref=cm_ciu_pdp_images_2?ie=UTF8&index=2
    The Beka set has both the large boards, plus large sticks (which equal half of the large board) plus large planks (half of the large board sliced lengthwise). Wow this is hard to explain. Hmmm….look at the very top pic in this post. The large boards are acting as the first floor of the tower. The large sticks are holding up the very top floor, and the large planks are the top floor. You can see that both the sticks and the planks are just the large boards sliced in half in two different ways. Does this make sense? LOL
    Meredith – I got our light table at Constructive Playthings. Normally they are $190, but I got mine for about $80 on super-sale. Wait! They are currently on sale for $114, not bad: http://www.constructiveplaythings.com/cgi-bin/s.sh/2.0/product.htm?pf_id=XX-1899
    Em – you two reign supreme. :) You would DIE over the stuff he’s building now. It just started, like, last week. Suddenly he went from towers to these complex buildings. So freakin fun.

  • Megan
    November 30, 2011

    You have the best blog…such a highlight to wake up to every morning. Seriously. Thank you, thank you for posting about your attempt to buy American made blocks. This has been one of the toughest mom-battles for me. Everything baby, especially the things meant to go in their mouths like sippy cups, bottles, pacifiers, etc. (not that everything doesn’t end up there) are all made in China and it’s terrifying me. Please continue posting anything you find about good, quality baby items you find that are made in America (or elsewhere is fine, just not scary lead-filled junk from China)!

  • Shannon
    November 30, 2011

    I saw these alphabet blocks on another blog today and they are SO awesome! Love the colors and odd/unique pictures.
    http://www.perpetualkid.com/xyz-alphabet-blocks.aspx
    And my brother-in-law has had his eye on these Mad Scientist Blocks for my son since I got pregnant:
    http://www.thinkgeek.com/geek-kids/1-3-years/b78f/?srp=5

  • S
    November 30, 2011

    Shannon – You had me at “A is for Afro”. And I love anything from ThinkGeek. :) Thanks for sharing!!
    Megan – What a nice compliment! Thank you! We will continue to focus on healthy toys for our little ones.

  • Juggling Chic
    November 30, 2011

    I love the magna tiles with the light table!

  • Vera
    November 30, 2011

    Yes! To everything you said! My girls love the HABA Little Amsterdam blocks – they love making elaborate cities in the center of our train table (which our 22 month old BOY then runs over with a train ha!)

  • aly
    November 30, 2011

    I loved this post and realy hope to see more like it in the future! We are also trying to stay away from all the plastic toys that light up and make noise. My son is almost 11 months old and loves drums, maracas, a tamborine…pretty much anything he can create sound with. We have a set of small wooden blocks but he isn’t really into them yet. It’s kind of funny — when I was a kid, my parents had a very strict “No toys that make noise allowed!!” policy. Now, it seems like every time we see my parents, my son comes home with something plastic and battery operated. Ha!

  • Beth
    November 30, 2011

    These are such great ideas! My boys are 5 and 7 and still love their blocks for building all sorts of creations (and so does my hubby – must be the architect in him).
    We have also found Kapla blocks now that the crazy cakes are older. They are amazing – and keep all three of my guys entertained.
    Kapla: http://www.kapla.com/accueil_en.html

  • Anitra
    November 30, 2011

    We have the Melissa & Doug unit blocks, which are pretty good, BUT – they are unfinished, and some of the edges can be a little rough. Also, they are not the same size as the smaller Melissa & Doug set, which was SOOO annoying when Grandpa got the small set for our daughter at 1 year and then the large set at 2 years… we ended up giving away the smaller set because it made it more frustrating to try to build with both sets.
    Thinking about MagnaTiles, but we’ll probably wait until kid #2 stops putting EVERYTHING in his mouth.
    Also, can’t wait until both kids are old enough to appreciate Legos – I still have all of mine from when I was a kid!

  • Amanda
    December 1, 2011

    Shana, yet again I am reminded of why I LOVE your blog! When you do posts like this I always find myself saying “YES!” – to the avoidance of licensed characters, the staying away from plastic battery operated stuff – especially in a small space. It is so encouraging to know that someone out there shares my values. Thank you also for reminding me of the educational value of blocks, how they can evolve with a child & the link to the Early Childhood News article. My oldest will be 2 this month & I’m ashamed to say we have hidden some of our block sets from him in exasperation (i.e. he dumps all 200 pieces out EVERY DAY but doesn’t necessarily play with them). I see the light – you are an inspiration. Bravo, sister friend!

  • Cathy
    December 1, 2011

    S, I’m so glad you found Nurture … it’s such a great little shop. Have you been to Character Development in Narberth yet? It’s a wonderful toy and book store. You would love it. That have a really nice magnetic wooden block set by Tegu. It’s on my wish list for my 2 yr old daughter.

  • Lindsey
    December 8, 2011

    How old would you say before the kid can enjoy the Magna Tiles? My son just turned 1 and his dad wants to get him the beka blocks, but at this age I’m afraid they will fall on him and cause more crying than fun.
    Love the blog! Long time reader, first time poster. And are you in or near Havertown? I swear some of the photos you take look like they are right around the corner from a good friend.

  • S
    December 8, 2011

    Lindsey – Well…Pax (who just turned one) sorta plays with the Magna tiles. He sticks them in his mouth, holds them up to the light and goes gaga over them on the light table. But then starts to pound and throw, so it’s a bit short-lived. Actual building with magna tiles takes some time.
    However, the Beka blocks he loves. He stacks the smaller pieces, and we help him roll balls down ramps made from the larger ones. He’s too little to really make a tower that can fall and do damage…although he’s clonked himself on the head a few times. But they learn quickly. :) R started using his Bekas at age one as well.
    And yeah – we’re in Ardmore…which is right next to Havertown? I think? LOL
    Anitra – Old-school legos are the BEST! I hate the direction Lego is going in now. Ugh.
    Amanda – I always love reading your comments. :) Thank you for this.
    Cathy – No! I haven’t! But oh, MAN I love good toy/book stores. Thanks for the recommendation – can’t wait to check it out!!

  • Jui
    December 12, 2011

    Hey S,
    I’ve reading your blog regularly for the last few months because I think you have the best style advice ever for moms. Seriously, my wardrobe has undergone a sea change since I got hooked onto your blog.
    But I have to say that this post about blocks is awesome. I actually have a website that recommends toys for babies. As of now, we have focused on the 0-12 month set but we’re definitely expanding to older ages soon. And I’m definitely going to recommend your article!
    Thanks!

  • Anna
    December 23, 2011

    This is a great list – we also love magna tiles. but i haven’t put them on the light table, even though we actually have a light table.
    hmm, winter break project methinks!

  • Julie
    January 31, 2012

    Hi,
    I’m looking to add to my son’s collection of blocks and I remembered this post from months ago. He really needs some much larger blocks now that he’s turned three. Is the set shown in the very first picture here (R building a giant tower!!) the beka blocks you talk about in this post? If not, could you let me know? Thanks!

  • Shana
    February 1, 2012

    Julie – they are the Beka blocks!!  They're fantastically big.  You'll love 'em!
    Sent from my iPhone

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