People often ask us, “what is the right age for this toy?” The best toys, we find, are toys for which there is a long “right age” with different skills and uses emphasized.
We love toys that grow with kids – toys that kids use at different ages and stages of their childhood. Not only is this economical (years of play from one toy!) but it also great for kids, as they engage their creativity to far deeper levels as their imaginations and life experiences grow.
We were reminded about toys and their longer-term usage today while watching our now 3-1/2 year old play with his rainbow stacking and sorting ring toy – a toy he has used consistently since turning one. First he liked to pick up and replace the rings randomly (with occasional stops in his mouth). The rings were his favorite tactile toy. At 2 he loved to place them in lines along the floor and stack them up as high as he could. Around 2-1/2 to 3, he began to recognize the pattern and puzzle and would often “solve” the puzzle. After 3, he started calling them his “moneys” (coins) and “hockies” (hocky pucks – an unexplained obsession). The money concept has gotten him into counting, which is really fun to see! Remarkably, at each stage in this progression, he has been exploring different concepts (physically, verbally and imaginatively) and developing fine motor skills.
Anyway, this got us thinking (again) about the benefits of toys that grow with children and what broad characteristics to look for in choosing toys capable of this growth and expansiveness.
Characteristics of Toys that Grow with Children:
- Open-ended and simple toys. Toys that don’t have one purpose or one solution encourages creativity, imagination and make believe. Should be able to be used for hours by oneself or with a playmate.
- Durable toys. Another aspect of a toy’s longer play life is physical durability. Wooden toys tend to last longer than their plastic equivalents. (And many of the breaks wooden toys may suffer can be fixed by a Mommy or Daddy “Toy Doctor” with a bit of glue.)
- Battery-free toys. Yeah, we’re all about battery-free! The less the toy does by itself, the more the amount of activity that is left for your child. If a toy encourages a child to watch passively, the toy will cease to interest a child sooner. Many toys powered by batteries lose their point when the battery dies (and in many cases, long before the battery dies).
- Learning Tools (counting, colors, fine motor skills, puzzles, but remember playing = learning)
Great Examples of Toys That Grow With Children:
- Unit Blocks (traditional wooden blocks). Parents too often put these away at too young an age! Trust us – if blocks are one of the toys that get Dads down on the ground, then there is a HUGE age range that loves to build and create. If you put yours away, pull them out again no matter how old your kids and watch the creativity!
- Wooden Rainbows. More often than not, parents assemble the rainbow as a traditional ROYGBIVrainbow. Kids do that too, but we see them stacked high in inverted order, used as fences for animals, as bridges for trains, etc.
- Alphabet blocks. ABC blocks are one of our favorite baby gifts, and their uniform square shape makes them one of the best stacking toys for kids starting at about 1 to 1-1/2 years. They’ll continue to use them for building later. Next kids love the pictures as they develop their language skills. Finally, kids tend to learn the alphabet in the preschool years, and we were delighted to see our kindergartner rediscover his alphabet blocks to spell words.
- Wooden Fire Truck. Our fire engines see tons of action, and the play seems to get more detailed and complex as our children grow. We used to just hear sirens, but now there is plenty of rescuing too.
- Wooden School Bus. Younger children practice fine motor skills by putting people inside and outside. The older preschoolers build bus stops and schools to use with the bus and people.
- Doll house play. People often ask us what is the right age for a doll house. Plenty of parents buy doll houses for 1-3 year old’s, and that’s a purchase that will be enjoyed for years. That said, the best age for doll house play is probably 4-9 years old, so if you bought one early, find a way to introduce it into play. Move the doll house to a different room, remove it and then reintroduce it, repaint the roof, or just add some cool accessories (slides, cars, camping, etc.) to re-attract their attention. Slightly older kids have the play vocabulary – the mindset, imagination, patience and verbal capabilities – to really enjoy and benefit from doll house play.
- Music and percussion. Our kid instruments seem to come out whenever friends are over. Marches start and merry noise is made. We like the noise; it’s kids having fun, after all! Bring out your instruments periodically and watch the development from noise making, to rhythm to music. Five years of musical play in, and we’re not at the “music” stage yet in our household, but our rhythms are progressing in that direction.
- Nature toys – nature nets and nature houses.Our kids check for frogs in our window wells like clockwork each morning. As they get older, the questions get better (and the critter care gets a bit gentler). Our nets and nature houses are great for kids of all ages. Really, we “adults” still love to explore and observe nature!
- Art! Kids definitely go through periods of greater and lesser interest in art; don’t let a temporary lack of artistic interest become a permanent one! We love watching artistic breakthroughs in kids – watching scribbling turn to representative to actually identifiable objects. Artistic capabilities flourish at different ages and stages, so keep coming back to art at different ages with different projects, mediums and approaches and witness the development! Art also need not be complicated and require a big setup and clean-up; just bring along some travel crayons wherever you go.