My selective list of best open-ended toys encourages exploration, creativity, visual discrimination, and problem solving skills for a wide age range.
This gift guide has been curated by what entertains my children (ages 2 and 5) and their friends, my 3 nephews (boys ages 9-15), and even myself. I call these “forever toys” – toys that will grow with your family!
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Minimalist’s guide to shopping for open-ended toys
Less is more: the benefit of few toys
For the past 2 years, I have tried to institute a “no gift” rule in our home with little success. Clutter is the ultimate distraction, scarcity encourages creativity, and oceans are filled with plastic.
Over the years, I have donated most of the toys we have received…and we still have a lot! But I strongly believe that few toys are far better than multiple mediocre toys.
As I write this post, my kids are playing in an impressive chair and blanket fort that they’ve created next to their cardboard box house! And nothing beats going outside to the park and beach!
When loved ones insist on gifts
However, the reality is that friends and family still insist that they need to gift something. My loved ones don’t follow Becoming Minimalist. I can’t seem to change their minds, so as a result, they try to ask for recommendations.
It’s a win-win: they feel happy to give. Now, we are more likely to receive useful, quality, open-ended toys while reducing the bulk of the easily-broken plastic toys we used to get!
Gift guides: educational resources for children
This post is the last of a 4-part gift guide series:
- 5 Reasons Books are the Best Gift for Multilingual Kids
- Favorite Educational Montessori Inspired Toys from Etsy
- Ultimate Gift Guide for Kids Learning Chinese!
- 10 Best Open-Ended Toys That Promote Creativity and Learning
What makes the ideal toy for kids?
My personal checklist for deciding whether to purchase toys reflects the American Academy of Pediatric (AAP) guidelines and includes the following:
[ ] Open-ended
Kids can play independently without instructions or guidance by parents. The same toy can be used in multiple ways, and the way they use it will change as they grow.
These toys are gender-neutral, timeless, and free of commercial branding.
In addition, an open-ended toy should encourage critical thinking and questions such as:
- I wonder how this looks if I put it here?
- Does this fit together or not?
- Will it roll or stay in place?
[ ] NO Batteries
The big down-side of battery-operated, cause-and-effect toys is that they often interrupt focus and limit imagination. On the other hand, toys without electricity allow your kid to make up their own sounds!
Open-ended toys also encourage kids to feel and move different parts on their own accord.
As stated by the AAP, “Electronic and digital add-ons increasingly found even in physical toys may actually hinder caregiver-child interactions. The harmful effects of screen time also are an important consideration, especially for young children.”
BONUS: no digital toys means no annoying sounds to bother mom and dad!
[ ] Environmentally-friendly
My 5-year-old daughter has seen photos and videos that show why we stand strong behind the preference for natural materials such as wood. That being said, there are a few circumstances where we do use plastic, but I will include alternative materials when available.
10 Best Open-Ended Toys That Kids Will Love For Years!
Send this list of best open-ended toys to relatives and friends who insist on getting something for your kids!
You may also find many open-ended toys conveniently listed in our Amazon Associates Storefront.
- 100 Board
- Earth tiles / Magnetic tiles
- Jumbo droppers
- Grimms rainbow stacker
- Legos /Mokulock wooden building blocks
- Plain wood blocks
- Realistic toy animals
- Rubik’s Cube
1. Open-ended learning toy: 100 Board
The hundred board from Treasures from Jennifer is one of the best hands-on educational resources. It comes with colorful wool balls for color matching and pattern formation.
Toddlers who are past the mouthing (choking-hazard) stage can improve fine-motor skills and pincer grasp by putting the balls into different holes.
Older kids can work on skip counting and other math exercises. My daughter also enjoys rolling playdough balls into the different slots. You can purchase number coins separately, which my daughter uses with our printable Hundred Chart.
Read this post about the wood hundred board for learning ideas and where to buy!
The easel is the centerpiece of our kids play-and-learn area. My daughter loves to draw on it; my son likes to scribble over everything; I use it to teach my kids Chinese; and our nanny uses it to teach Korean.
We have had our Melissa and Doug Easel for over 3 years, and the height is adjustable! My son has been able to reach it since he was standing as a baby, and my 5-year-old daughter currently uses the middle height.
The only thing I wish is that the board was magnetic, like the Hape easel or the Momsboard. I’ll link the other whiteboards that have caught my eye, and you can compare reviews to see which works best for your family!
- Melissa and Doug Easel
- Hape Easel
- Dry Erase Markers
3. Open-ended toys: Earth tiles / Magnatiles
Our relatives will be gifting the kids Earth tiles this Christmas. For those who have not heard of them before, they are wood versions of the popular Magna-tiles. I love the idea of teaching kids magnetism with natural materials and calm, neutral colors.
However, many of my friends consistently rank the colorful magnetic toys at the top of their recommended toy list.
4. Open-ended toy: Grimms rainbow
Our kids love the Grimms rainbow, and when they aren’t playing with it, it looks pretty stored away on the shelf! I previously purchased a different wood rainbow from Etsy, but the wood was rough, and the pieces did not stack well.
On the other hand, Grimms toys are almost always excellent quality. The surface has a slight texture so that the pieces can balance, but there are no rough edges.
We have been gifted various Grimms products by relatives. If I had to choose one, the rainbow stacker is the best. The natural version allows my children to focus on size discrimination, while the colorful Grimms rainbow brightens up our otherwise neutral room. There is also a pastel Grimms rainbow.
Although the more Grimms blocks that you get, the more you can build, and I think the semi-circles make the rainbow more versatile. However, beware of the Grimms addiction!!!
- Grimms extra large 12-piece rainbow stacker – traditional colors – here and here
- Grimms extra large 12-piece rainbow stacker – pastel colors – here and here
- Grimms large 12-piece rainbow stacker – natural
- Grimms semi-circles – traditional colors
- Grimms semi-circles – natural
The kids also enjoy:
5. Open-ended toys: droppers and pipettes
Droppers and pipettes are very inexpensive and your kids can get so much use out of it. Toddlers can practice simple transferring of water and will love squirting water out! Older kids will enjoy doing science experiments with droppers and pipettes!
- Learning Resources jumbo eyedroppers – set of 6 with stand
- SENHAI Silicone and Plastic Pipettes Transfer Eyedropper with Bulb Tip
6. Open-ended toys: LEGOs / Mokulock wooden building blocks
My 3 nephews are ages 9-15, and I asked my sister-in-law which toy the kids have enjoyed most over the years. Without hesitation, she said that LEGOs were the favorite toys. My husband loves to get them new LEGO sets every Christmas.
However, I am bothered about all of the plastic and think you can look for LEGOs in secondhand shops. In addition, to promoting creativity, I recommend getting open-ended creative brick boxes rather than specific building kits.
Thankfully, there is a Japanese brand that makes wooden LEGOs! Mokulock is an eco-friendly, gender-neutral option that I hope becomes more popular over time. The sample image shows how it can be useful for adults, such as wire-management!
7. Open-ended toys: plain wood blocks
My favorite of all various building materials is the humble, plain wood block! Natural colors allow for kids to focus on size and weight discrimination while building! I think this is an important long-term skill as you don’t typically see homes built with multiple colors.
That being said, we have also been gifted the Guidecraft Rainbow Window Blocks – 40 piece set which my children love. They like to pretend their buildings have windows, and these blocks are also great for teaching color mixing! My daughter also noticed that some of the triangle blocks could be combined together to make bigger triangles, squares, or rectangles depending on the orientation and shape!
These are my go-to gifts for friends’ kids of all ages. While puzzles deviate from the “open-ended” theme of this best toys gift guide, they are among the best ways to build critical thinking and problem solving skills. You can find many puzzles at the dollar store or simply cut up a picture and see if your child can put it together.
We also love Montessori puzzles, Melissa and Doug puzzles, and Ravensburger puzzles!
Purchase links for jigsaw puzzles:
- Ages 3+
- Ages 3+
- Ages 4+
- Check your local dollar store for 25-100 piece puzzles!
- Ages 5+
- Kids & adults
- Ravensburger Earth puzzle globe! – This is a unique puzzle that I have been gifting to older kids for years!
On the go, my daughter is entertained by sticker puzzle books!
Purchase links for puzzle sticker books:
- Paint by Sticker for Kids – Zoo Animals, Under the Sea, Beautiful Bugs, Dinosaurs
- Paint by Sticker for Kids + Adults – My daughter has been working on these on and off for a few months!
9. Realistic toy animals
I debated between plastic toy animals versus wood toy animals, but the detail in the plastic toys is impressive. Each animal looks so realistic – even their footprints are different in play dough!
My children have used these toy animals in so many ways on their own; they don’t need any prompting from me. To give you a scope of how versatile these toys are for learning, How We Montessori has 12 learning activities involving Schleich animals.
We have been collecting the Schleich brand, but many other parents also like the Safari LTD Toob animals. This is something that is good to look for secondhand, but here are purchase links for reference:
10. Rubik’s Cube
Last but not least, the Rubik’s cube is a timeless game and brain teaser! My husband’s friends will pick it up and try to solve the Rubik’s cube when they visit our house!
My 5-year-old daughter even picks it up when she’s bored and not sure what to do! My daughter and I also made a fun addition game with our Grimms number blocks inspired by @playful.sg’s patterning activity on Instagram!
You can buy it here on Amazon!
What are your thoughts about open-ended toys for children?
What do you think are the best toys for kids?
Are you a minimalist family who prefers experiences over presents?
I would love to hear your thoughts!
More educational products for kids
Check out our favorite Montessori inspired wood products on Etsy in this post!
Also see our Ultimate Gift Guide for Kids Learning Chinese: Cultural, Educational, & Fun Toys