*This post was originally published in 2011, and recently updated for 2013.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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….
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:
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.)
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".
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.
10. Tegu Magnetic Blocks, $50 – $300
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.)
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.
Is there anything more fun than picking out toys? Especially toys you still like to play with? I think not.