10 Best Open-Ended Toys That Promote Creativity and Learning

Best Open Ended Toys For Kids of All Ages
Playroom / homeschool room – detailed tour in this post

My selective list of best open-ended toys encourages communication, 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 4 and 7) and their friends, my 3 nephews (boys ages 11-17), and even myself. I first wrote this post 3 years ago, and the recommendations have stayed constant over the years.

Therefore, I call these “forever toys” – toys that will grow with your toddlers, preschools, and elementary school-aged children!

10 BEST OPEN-ENDED TOYS FOR KIDS, BOYS AND GIRLS

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Minimalist’s guide to shopping for open-ended toys

Less is more: the benefit of few toys

For the past 3 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 decluttered and donated most of our toys…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!

Favorite open-ended toys for all ages

When loved ones insist on gifts

However, the reality is that friends and family still insist that they need to gift something.

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 while we are more likely to receive useful, quality, open-ended toys.

We now get fewer easily-broken plastic toys that would end up in the trash anyway!

Boy and girl playing with open-ended toys

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 children have seen photos and videos of the consequences of plastic which motivate our preference for natural materials like 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 can also find many open-ended toys conveniently listed in our Amazon Associates Storefront.

  1. Easel
  2. Play silks
  3. Plain wood blocks
  4. Magnetic tiles and blocks
  5. Grimms rainbow stacker
  6. Building bricks (Lego, Eco-Brick)
  7. Realistic toy animals
  8. Mini vehicles
  9. Wood peg dolls
  10. Jumbo droppers
  11. Runner up: 100 Board

1. Easel

The easel is the centerpiece of our kids play-and-learn area. We have had our Melissa and Doug Easel for over 6 years!

My daughter loves to write on the easel; my son likes to doodle all over! I use it to teach my kids Chinese; and our former nanny used it to teach Korean.

Due to the adjustable height, my son has been able to reach it since he was standing as a baby. Now it’s currently at the highest position, just the right height for of my children.

I’ll link other whiteboards that have caught my eye, so you can compare reviews to see which works best for your family!

Where to buy:

Memory journal with letters to children: free, meaningful holiday or birthday gift

2. Play silks / Play scarves

My kids have played with play silks almost every day since they were babies!

These were first used to play peek-a-book. Now they use it to create forts or little blankets for their stuffed animals.

We also use play silks as an eco-friendly way to wrap presents.

Where to buy:

Natural wood blocks and Schleich official animals - best toys for kids

3. Open-ended toys: plain wood blocks

The staple of all open-ended toys is the humble, plain wood block! Natural colors let kids to focus on size and weight discrimination while building. Window blocks give my kids’ pretend buildings “windows”, and these blocks are also great for teaching color mixing!

My kids have noticed that triangle blocks can be combined together to make bigger triangles, squares, or rectangles depending on the orientation and shape.

Where to buy:

Magnetic tiles stained glass cross for Easter - open ended toys

4. Magnetic toys: Earth tiles, Magnatiles, Tegu blocks

Many friends consistently rank the colorful magnetic tiles at the top of their recommended toy list. Earth tiles are wood versions of the popular Magna-tiles. I love the idea of teaching kids magnetism with natural materials and calm, neutral colors.

We currently have the original Magna-tiles, and my kids love exploring the color mixing and light in addition to building! I’ve included a few other options below if you want to compare prices.

Where to buy:

Grimms rainbow stacker and pom poms

5. Open-ended toy: Grimms rainbow

Ahh the iconic Grimms rainbow! We have been gifted various Grimms products by relatives. If I had to choose one, the rainbow stacker is the best. My kids love it, and it looks pretty even when they aren’t playing with it.

I previously purchased a cheaper 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.

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.

However, beware of the Grimms addiction!!! The more Grimms blocks you get, the more you can build, and I think the semi-circles make the rainbow more versatile.

Where to buy:

6. Open-ended toys: LEGOs and Eco-Bricks

When I asked my sister-in-law which toy her 3 sons (ages 11-17 years) have enjoyed most over the years, she immediately replied “LEGOs”. We used to gift our nephews a new set every Christmas, and they only recently outgrew them. To promote creativity, I recommend getting open-ended creative brick boxes rather than specific building kits.

However, I am bothered about all of the plastic and believe LEGOs are worth looking for from secondhand shops. If you’re looking for an eco-friendly alternative, Eco-Brick offers an eco-friendly, gender-neutral, wood Lego blocks. Note that another brand, Mokulock, is incompatible with LEGOS.

Where to buy:

Schleich animals - best realistic toys for kids

7. Realistic toy animals

I once debated between plastic toy animals versus wood toy animals, but the details of the plastic toys are impressive. Each animal looks so realistic. Even their footprints are different in play dough!

Both of my kids love their toy animals so much and play with them everyday. We’ve also used them to learn geography, such as with our felt world map, animal atlas books, and animals of the world printables.

Although we’ve been collecting the Schleich brand, many parents have told me Safari LTD Toob animals are great, too. If you’re worried about plastic, you can try to find them secondhand in thrift shops!

Where to buy:

Playing with mini toy vehicles - fun realistic cars for kids

8. Mini toy vehicles

Both of my children have enjoyed playing with mini cars almost as much as their mini animals! Whenever my son gets a new toy car, he can gaze lovingly at the tiny details for such a long time! We like the details of the hot wheels brand, but the downside is all of the plastic. Previously, we had a wood Melissa and Doug vehicle set that the kids loved but we’ve since donated due to a huge influx of Hot Wheels and a couple large Fagus trucks from the grandparents.

My nephews loved their cars until age 7 or 8, and my husband says he remembers collecting them throughout elementary school.

Where to buy:

Learning Chinese grammar and how to form sentences
DIY Cardboard language playground with peg dolls

9. Wood peg dolls

I have to admit, when we first got wood peg dolls, I immediately regretted them. They sat on the shelf untouched, until one day my daughter gave them all names and the rest is history!

Now my son loves them just as much as big sister! My son’s used them for color matching, and they both use the dolls for imaginative play, such as with our cardboard playground!

Because diversity is important in our children’s toys, we have both light and dark wood peg dolls.

Where to buy:

Learning Resources Jumbo droppers pipettes for kids

10. Open-ended toys: droppers and pipettes

Droppers and pipettes are very inexpensive and both of my kids kids have gotten so much use from them! Toddlers can practice simple transferring of water and will love squirting water out. Older kids can enjoy doing science experiments with droppers and pipettes!

Where to buy:

Note: I’ve seen friends repurpose baby suction bulbs as pipettes for play. Our home often already has a lot of great “toys” on hand!

Montessori Hundred Board - Math toy count to 100

Runner-up: 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!

What are your favorite open-ended toys for children?

What are your kids favorite toys? What seems to capture their attention the longest? And which toys haven’t worked for your kids? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Ultimate Chinese Gift Guide for Kids: Cultural, Educational, & Fun Toys

More holiday shopping guides for kids

If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, check out our educational gift guides!

Happy playful learning, friends!

9 Comments

  1. These are great ideas! Thank you! I especially love the rainbow.

    Also, perhaps a strange question, but can you tell me what that flooring is? I’ve been on a quest to find it and I’d really appreciate your help if you know.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Sorry for the late reply. The floors are engineered wood, but I can’t remember the details. The slightly distressed look hides minor dents and scratches well, but the dark color is unforgiving for dust!

  2. Great ideas, we do have almost all of these and love them. We also love our mobilo here. My two boys (6yo and 3yo) play with it constantly and rarely pick up anything else. My daughter (1yo) carts the pieces everywhere and loves when her brothers build her something to play with too. It’s so incredibly open ended and is something we will keep collecting as our kids grow as I’m sure the possibilities will grow with them. Even I enjoy building with mobilo!

  3. All of these toys seem really great for kids. Once my wife and I have our first, we’ll be looking to get some. Don’t know which ones yet, but probably at least one from this list.

  4. Hi, I have red a few of your posts which are all so inspiring! Are you able to write more about the early stages of your parenting and language learning, activities and toys you would recommend for under 3? My baby is now 14 months and I’d love to know where to start! Thank you

    1. Hi Olivia! Thanks so much for reaching out! Yes, here are some posts that I wrote and hope they can help:
      1. Raising a Bilingual Baby: 5 Things Parents Should Do
      2. How I’m Learning Chinese as a Busy Parent: Speaking, Reading, Writing

      As for toys, honestly my kids loved tupperware and the Swiffer a lot as young toddlers 🙂 I don’t think they need much at that age. Otherwise blocks can go a long way – my 7 year old still plays with them plus magnetic tiles. Let me know if I can help with anything else!

  5. My kids love to play with legos. My son is constantly building the sets and then changing them up however he sees fit. My daughter loves to play dress up but is starting to get into the legos too! Building things and playing pretend seem to keep my kids attention the longest. So far I haven’t had much luck with board games, but they are still pretty young for that.

  6. Love this list and totally agree! Less clutter, less toys in the land-fill, more creative play! I would add play couches to this list as well as another fantastic option.

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