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 toy shopping
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!
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, and we often receive useful, quality gifts while reducing the bulk of the easily-broken plastic toys we used to get!
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 Toys For Children 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. They can use the same toys in multiple ways, and the way they use it may change as they grow. “I wonder how this looks if I put it here? Does this fit together or not? Does it stack or roll?” An open-ended toy should encourage these critical thinking questions. In addition, the toys are gender-neutral and free of commercial branding so that they are timeless.
[ ] NO Batteries
No batteries or plug means your your kid can make up their own sounds if they want! Imagination and focus are not interrupted by cause-and-effect toys. This also means that the kids have to move the parts themselves and feel textures when they are ready. 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 annoying sounds to bother mom and dad!
[ ] Environmentally-friendly
My 5-year-old daughter has seen photos and videos explaining 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 Toys That Kids Will Love For Years!
Send this list of best toys to relatives and friends who insist on getting something for your kids!
You may also find many of the items in this post conveniently listed 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. 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 and separately, which my daughter uses with our printable Hundred Chart. I recently ordered the alphabet coins (uppercase and lowercase letters) in Montessori colors so that we can play scrabble (eg, practice spelling)!
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 the reviews to see which works best for your family!
- Melissa and Doug Easel
- Hape Easel
- Dry Erase Markers
3. 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. Grimms rainbow
Our kids love the Grimms rainbow, and when they aren’t playing with it, it looks so 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, but I had to pick one, the rainbow stacker is the best. If you’re debating about colors, the natural one is my preference, although the colorful one 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, be ware 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. Jumbo droppers
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. 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 promote 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 a 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. 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 you child can put it together. We also love Montessori puzzles, Melissa and Doug puzzles, and Ravensburger puzzles! On the go, my daughter is entertained by sticker puzzle books!
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!
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! 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 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! This way better than a fidget spinner as I see my daughter picking 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 do you think are the best toys for kids? Or 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