Somewhere on the spectrum between techno-dazzle (iPad apps for toddlers, anyone?) and fuzzy-wuzzy bears there’s a sweet spot: toys that inspire kids to have fun, stretch their creativity and learn while they play. With a little effort – and some guidance from savvy toy shop owners – any attentive shopper can hit the mark.
Toys that encourage the most beneficial play may not be the biggest spotlight-grabbers. Their attractions are often more subtle and require a shopper to search past the dancing dolls massed out in aisle one.
“Toys today, especially toys in the mass market, you push a button and it does something – it lights up or it sings or it turns around and does all kinds of things. But they’re not toys that allow a child to be imaginative and creative,” says Jennic Law, owner of KangarooBoo toy store, West Des Moines, Iowa. “The child is playing and having a good time, but the toy is doing most of the actions or thinking for him or her.”
Law says classic problem-solving toys like puzzles and blocks are much better for children. She likes boldly colored Green Toys Blocks ($25, 6 months and up), which are made from recycled plastic milk containers and come in many shapes.
Wendy Lippman, owner of Tlaquepaque Toy Town in Sedona, Ariz., seeks out toys that spur open-ended play. “I like toys where kids are encouraged to use their imagination,” she says. Lippman recommends toys that can serve as the focus for role-playing, where kids can act as cashiers or shoppers with a toy cash register, for example. Such toys also set up scenarios to educate children, she says.
Science-related toys are no longer aimed at little Leonardos and can be packed with fun, says Jim Davis, owner of Kid’s Center toy store in Tucson, Ariz. Toys with magnets easily combine science learning with fun. The popular Discovery Set of magnetic blocks from Tegu ($70, age 3 and up) snap together and hang in balance, a perfect gift to spark the imagination of young children.
Science kits from Thames & Kosmos are perennial award-winners. The Remote-Control Machines set ($70, age 8 and up) lets kids build 10 different motorized vehicles (including bulldozer, crane, Formula One racer, three-blade dozer, robotic arm) and then guide them with a remote control unit. After following the instructions to construct the standard vehicles, kids can invent their own.
Try re-imagining books as toys. “There’s a jillion different topics for books,” Davis says. “You just need to know a little bit about the child and then pick out the appropriate story book.” “Press Here” is the title and also the instruction for the new book by Hervé Tullet that launches young readers on a charming adventure. Watch them blow, tilt, shake, rub and tap colorful dots printed on the page to make them multiply, grow and rearrange themselves (Chronicle, $15, ages 4-8).
KangarooBoo’s Law advises avoiding electronic educational and leisure toys for age 5 and under. “If [children] are able to sit down and solve a problem or a puzzle or build something, it makes the foundation for them as a person,” she says. She also says toys that involve physical play help children develop fine motor skills, gross motor skills, patience and other mental capacities. Fastrack, a new board game by Blue Orange, pits opponents who twang elastic cords to send wooden disks shooting across the board and through a narrow slot. The first to get all 10 to the other side wins ($20, age 5 and up).
To get kids up off the couch and develop their physical well-being, Davis suggests new classic toys for outdoors, such as jump ropes and sports balls, and new throw toys, including Rhino Toys’ SkyO, a flexible flying ring that’s easy to catch and throw ($8, age 3 and up). The Z-Curve Bow from Zing Toys launches foam arrows a satisfyingly long way ($20, age 8 and up).
Whatever route you take to finding the best toy for a special boy or girl, Davis says, stop, think and proceed with inspiration. “You really need to know the child and try to engage the child in the purchase you make.”
Top Picks of Toy Store Gurus
Spot It by Blue Orange ($11, ages 6 and up)
Kids can spot matching images on the play cards with up to 7 others or have fun on their own. “There are five different ways to play the game, so it has great value.” Jim Davis, Kid’s Center
Green Toys Flatbed Truck and Race Car ($33, age 1 and up)
This 11-inch blue truck hauls a sleek red hot rod on its back, and has a flatbed that tilts up to allow the car to roll off.
Eni Puzzle by Eni Puzzles ($12, age 5 and up)
“Call it the round jigsaw puzzle or cylinder Rubik’s cube. It pushes problem-solving and brain-teasing to a new level.”
Convoi by Haba ($45, 18 months)
“Kids can pull it, stack it, sort it, and all the while they’re learning color recognition, counting and patterns.”